Ultimately, as a species, we don’t belong in the high alpine. We visit them and occasional cultures embrace the peaks or wend above the treeline, but all our bones are easily dashed against the callous steeples. You climb for spiritual experiences and most descend unharmed.
Sam is a good sport when it comes to two good friends who are fiendish photographers. He lounged about wisely overseeing while Noel and I squawked over the orgasmical light vibrating across glaciers and rock. While it was truly spectacular, I had to remind myself to simply sit and observe as Sam did. The fear of missing out is strong beneath ephemeral storms clouds. Clear sky was enveloped by a wall of steel gray, at first spiting, then pummeling with heavy drops. We called it quits and retreated to shelter.
I believe I heard the shout first, because I stood up from our card game and looked out the window. There was Nicole, the girl who left the lookout hours ago. She was strangely far out on the edge of the peak, as if she’d climbed up the shear cliff. We went outside to meet her and stood in the wind while she told her story.
We were all just as confused as Nicole, who was soaked to the bone and vaguely incoherent, as she told us what happened. From what we could tell, she’d descended far from any trail, heading the complete opposite direction of the trailhead. It sound as if she had started to climb down a cliff. Her car keys were gone, she fell and lost them, and her cell phone was dead because she’d been taking pictures. Soaked, with no rain gear and no food, we insisted she come inside.
Her parents expected her at eight o’clock, which was fast approaching. It seemed obvious that she wouldn’t be heading down in the dark, but we didn’t have cell phones or any other way to communicate that she was alright. We shared our meal with her, lent her dry clothes, and made her use the extra blankets in the lookout to warm up. Sure, we felt bad for her, but this was a significant damper on the evening and we decided to turn in rather soon after her arrival.
The next morning I’d planned on waking for sunrise but when the alarm hit we appeared to be adrift in a cloud. Nothing was visible, not even the peak we were perched on, and rain smacked the hollow shelter. Sam and I got our obligate coffee and soon breakfast was cooked on the leeward side of the lookout. Nicole stayed in bed the entire time, lounging around post breakfast as if she wasn’t a missing person. Magically her cell phone worked again and she texted her Dad before it died. As the day cleared and I expected her to get on her way or ask us to lead her back, but she simply sat around, even after I explained that there was certainly a search party out for her. Having waited out the storm, it was approaching 11 A.M before Sam, Noel, and I were ready to leave for the lake below and guide Nicole to the main trail.
With mountains always in the distance, I think many people in the Northwest become familiar with their beauty but forget they aren’t a benign playground. I’m a firm believer that we should take the wilderness seriously. We did all that we could to help Nicole, but when the situation turned from dangerous to a babysitting annoyance, I started to get irritated.
Yes, Nicole was near hypothermic by the time she found us, evidenced by her shivering and lack of decision making. She was probably scared that her parents would be mad and unsure about spending the night with a bunch of men. That doesn’t get her off the hook. Quite possibly that sounds cruel, but she could have died out there and didn’t seem to appreciate that fact. This was all going through my head as we started down and I was not looking forward to shepherding her. Thankfully a ranger was on his way up to find Nicole, lifting us of responsibility. We could return to mountain solitude, the point of the trip.
Letting go of my gripes, we picked our way down from the saddle below the peak and descended to the lake itself. Little did I know this wasn’t the end of my annoyances. We’d have our trip soured by a imposing ranger at the Marblemount station, bent on sussing out our malfeasance.
“Sounded like it was quite the party up there.”
Questions need to be asked when a young girl spends the night with three men, but the series of insinuations we endured made me furious. We’d been nothing but gentlemen, even stepping out into the rain while she changed clothes. We enjoyed our beer, but that shit’s heavy and we’d brought just enough for ourselves, not an underage girl. There was no “thank you for helping her.” I felt like I was accused of being a predatory frat boy. This was poor payment for benevolent actions (despite my callous grumblings above). However, I suppose you don’t do good things for rewards, but because they are the right thing to do. The only grudge I’ll hold is against the head ranger at the Marblemount station. You suck dude.
Back to the mountains.
Pika, the alpine cousin of rabbits, held my attention the entire trip. They were one of the few vertebrates and seemed to be everywhere in the granite fields. Their cartoonish “eeee” was a constant companion in the lonely soundscape down the valley. No birds called. Stopping to breath, the only other noises were the trickle of water, the wind gently past our ears, and our heaving.
Soon there was no obvious trail, nor cairns marking the simplest route. We were left to our own devices and there was sparse evidence of people. Despite having traveled a distance from the city, I was struck by how close it really was. This bowl in one way had little to do with us and existed, largely in-situ; people couldn’t get there to actively deface it. Yet, as steeled to life as the alpine is, it’s fragile, and I knew the landscape of ice and rock was not immune. We’d driven to the trail-head after all.
A series of benches gave us the continued false sense of being just on the verge of the lake-shore. At one point I led us down a sliver of unprotected rock, thinking it the easiest route. Turning to look back up, we realized we’d just shimmied down a cliff. Even a short fall here would have been disastrous.
200 feet below us sat the water. Beautiful, blue, and teeming with trout but still 200 feet down. Calf-deep in heather, grasping thin trunks of mountain hemlocks, we peered down, trying to see a way. I was almost ready to give up before we found a slippery route to the shore.
Restricted by our desire to stay dry, we spread out on a small group of boulders lining the bowl. To one side, a cliff teeming with holdout wildflowers growing in the midst of a waterfall. To the other rock struck vertically into the lake. No matter, we would have found different views elsewhere, but the essential experience would have been this same. For those precious hours, we shared this lake with no other people.
Perched on rocks, a waterfall to our backs, we felt accomplished and ready to fish. Of course there was the issue that we are all abominable fishermen. There were dozens of trout in the lake, but by the time our flailing casts had sliced the water a handful of times, I’m fairly certain they’d all vacated our cove.
We kept casting, aimless and happy despite failures. Giving into our deficiencies, we stopped and quietly enjoyed the sublimity of the floating lake, which seemed to waft out into the Sahale glacier miles away.
This was what we’d come for.
Brendan , your photos are wonderful you capture wild for us. A letter to the ranger and the head of his organization to complain about his treatment of you and your friends ,who saved a persons life,is in order.