Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Looking Down

For some reason climbing a mountain is not something I ever aspired to do. Perhaps it's the fact that I get winded climbing the stairs to my third-floor bedroom but I just never had that on my list of things I thought I would do. This weekend I climbed a mountain. The doggone thing was 8,500 feet tall, too and I was up there on top of it. First of all, you can tell that the air is thinner at that altitude. That's not something I ever aspired to do either, get to a place that is high enough you can tell that the air is thin. I would read about such places and think to myself, "I am never going there."

So what is it like on the top of a mountain? Well, how to describe something I never meant to do in the first place seems like trying to describe music in sign language. To say it is bigger than I thought is a gross understatement. I remember having the same reaction standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon staring off into a mile deep crack in the ground, the Colorado River a mere ribbon far below. All my life I had seen pictures of the Grand Canyon. In some ways it looked like the picture. Only bigger. Much, much bigger. Perhaps I was smaller than I thought I would be had I been in the picture.

Looking down on Swamp Lake

Hiking in the Wallowas gave the same impression. I felt like I was a lot smaller than I had imagined myself to be. The mountains around me were enormous, but somehow that word is not quite right because to me it seems softer than those mountains. "Enormous" can describe an overweight man, a plate of spaghetti or a pile of raked leaves. The glacier-formed mountains on which I sat had nothing of the softness that word implies. They were stark, bare, their very bones pushing through the trees in variegated granite everywhere. In places the rocks, stained by iron ore seemed almost pink; in most places they were the eye-shattering gray-almost-white of a glaring rain-threatened sky. And on the top they were bare, bereft of all but the most hardy bent scrubby trees, twisted into fantastic shapes by years of wind and storm and clinging to bare rock with tenuous toes of roots.

The trail wound in unhurried loops through alpine meadows, past rushing streams, through choppy patches of trees and scrub until, finally arriving at the top of the ridge, it curved lazily around the rim of the cirque-valley, displaying grandiose panoramas in every direction much in the attitude of a wealthy hostess apathetically exhibiting her extravagant jewelry to admiring house guests.

To someone who struggles to clearly read the green street sign at the end of the block, views into thousand-foot canyons were somewhat lacking in detail, contrasts washing into one another with frustrating abandon, but the sensation of standing on the mountain top lost none of its impact on me. The wind itself, inhibited in lower elevations by tree and hill and house was almost alive up there, an unrestrained beast, not so much strong as simply present, a force there on the mountain with us, as much a part of the landscape as the rocks and trees. The sense of space, similar to standing on the balcony at the Spokane Opera House took my breath, as though I could take one step into nothingness. The ridge was not sharp but flat, a little land unto itself, peppered with hills and hummocks topped with trees and sometimes dropping sharply into the distant valleys below.

There were no smells. On the top of a mountain smells simply don't exist. The wind whisks them away or they never come up there in the first place, preferring instead to collect in gregarious community down in more protected places, dispersed into nothingness by the time they rose as high as I was.

Susan and I pose for a picture at the summit.

We lunched up there, on top of the mountain whose name I do not know. Possibly with a little research I could find it, that upthrusting bit of jagged granite on which I stood, but I actually don't care. Naming a mountain is a little like naming a cat, it simply doesn't stick; it's a tag for the convenience of those who use it but it does not affect the mountain or the cat to be called that. So I felt here. Nothing could affect that giant silent mound of solid stone. Like I said we ate lunch up there in a barren outcropping of rocks where we dropped our packs with grunts and sighs of relief. We sprawled in the thin sunlight, laying against overturned packs, munching pitas spread with peanut butter and drizzled with honey. We took long draughts from our water bottles, savoring the taste of mountain spring water, carefully purified. And we looked and looked at those mountains. We looked across to the tops of the next row of peaks, then the next, the Blue Mountains, layer upon layer of folded land disappearing into the hazy West. We looked down, down into the bowl-shaped valley where the blue of Swamp Lake shone at the bottom, a carelessly dropped talisman on the gray and green of the valley floor. We circled the top of that valley for nearly a mile before we began the treacherous descent toward the lake.

To Be Continued...


  1. Wow, what a picture. Is that where you sat and stared??? I know it wasn't the easiest trip for you but out poured some GREAT writing, very descriptive and well done my friend. I cannot say that I have climbed a physical mountain, someday I hope that I might if given the opportunity. You certainly have wet my appetite for it!! :) I can't wait to ready our "to be continued".

  2. Yes, that is the view from the top of the mountain I am describing. Below is Swamp Lake where we stayed the second night.

    I hope you get to do something like this someday. It was really an amazing experience.