They say what goes up, must come down. I pondered that notion both in terms of physics (which I have no business in pondering) and philosophically, as the wind tickled the surface of hidden lake and I eyed the frozen peaks. We all were quietly steeling ourselves for the scramble up, inwardly wishing we could ever imbibe in the solitude of the North Cascades. What goes down, must come up?
The downside of hiking into a basin 1000 feet below your shelter, is that you have to go back up at some point. In numbers it sounds less impressive but we had to travel up 0.18 feet vertically for every foot horizontally, but this was no feeble climb. The elevation gain itself wasn’t the issue really, it was that we were doing it with no trail, over boulders and up cliffs. Strapping on packs, taking final longing gazes at this clear blue lake, we turned to face the slippery wall of granite.
I wasn’t morosely facing the exertion, I just felt this was far too quick of a departure. There were plants to identify, ones that I discovered when I was home, were endemic to the North Cascades. (The problem with last minute trips is that I never prepare enough to know everything, y’know, because when I have time, I do know everything). Maybe there were ptarmigan somewhere in this basin. With so many places for natural history to secret away within an endless jumble of boulders, I was anxious that I was missing too much. My 28 years of loving nature hasn’t taught me zen in the face of exploratory learning opportunities. I resisted the urge to frantically peer beneath every rock, to photograph ever inch of the way.
Despite respecting the risks one takes in backcountry travel, like inelegant clambering over loose rocks that weigh as much as your car, I generally never find myself overwhelmed or out of my element in wild places. The whole process seems pretty simple if informed choices are made and nothing bad happens (never impossible). That said, I am mindful at all times. We picked our way up, didn’t aim to tilt the loose rocks, didn’t jump too often, stopped to survey our progress. That’s the beauty of moving on foot, the control is in you alone. I find the simplicity elevates my confidence; one foot in front of the other.
Three people use a lot of water and we refilled on a particularly beautiful bench halfway up. The route finding had been pretty fun, heading a totally different way up, with no white-knuckle slithers down algae-slicked cliffs. I got distracted from water purification by the miniature landscape of a pika’s little world where we sat.
Here an animal lived it’s whole life, bouncing into view, calling, watching us, and then disappearing behind rocks to repeat the process over. It was strange, almost muppet-like. This was its element, its evolutionary inheritance, but as temperatures warm, the alpine will be invaded by hoards of trees and winters won’t be the same the pika. The small stream might divert elsewhere or not flow enough, losing the oxygen to support the miniscule ecosystem of this flat, and maybe not grow the right plants to harvest and last the winter. For the pika lasts the winter by secreting away the hay of alpine perennials. I had no specific vision of what might change, but I knew that if a pika knew the wealth of place as people did, it would cherish it’s mini valley. There is no doubt in my mind that they do in their own inherent way; old middens were everywhere beneath the giant granite. We would share this spot for a moment, but soon forget and re-commence our plaguing consumption that spreads well beyond our immediate world.
Most of the snow left was pink with algae cast gray by melted grime. While interesting looking, one doesn’t immediately recognize that the organism growing on spent snow is persisting on ice cold water, the alluvial collection of nutrients, and a ephemeral sun. It was a marvel enough that between the ominous storm clouds and quick seasons that anything could live there. Does it make sense that we find the small scale life more difficult to appreciate and comprehend, when the existence of multicellular organisms is in some ways much more complex? Were we ruining colonies of photosynthetic organisms, ending inheritance lines with our feet as we skidded across a snow field to a cairn marking the end of our sojourn away from humanity?
Tired but satisfied, we trundled back up and found new companions at the lookout. You never know who these people might be, so it was a relief to find three bright-eyed siblings enthusiastically surveying the roof of the world. Their solidarity was immediately apparent when the elder sister told me my feet stank half jokingly. She was well aware that our perch had little to do with hygienics. Besides, small spaces are not for fragrant peakbaggers paired to sensitive noses.
Our new companions were of a different breed, but were easy to enjoy the mountains with. Noel and I couldn’t contain our urge to again snare the churning light in the passing depths of clouds. Watching the siblings take a picture on the penultimate slab on the peak, Sam and Noel were finally lured there for a group photo we’ll never forget. I escaped momentarily to attempt to photograph pika in the evening light, but instead merely watched the wind and listened to their constant squeaking as they ghosted about. Giving up, I returned to bounce around the peak for the rest of the night, laughing and free from worry.
A sunset and a brief moment of clear starry skies was a final treat on our trip. The next morning we woke again to torrential rain and our companions saddled up immediately to leave. We ate breakfast, trying to wait out a storm that wouldn’t stop. We packed our considerably lighter bags and began our slosh down the mountain. We didn’t talk too much, the creeks were noisy and swollen and we were lost in contemplation, swimming in our own moisture mingling with rain. The drenching didn’t matter, and somehow, I got away with dry feet.