Wednesday, September 08, 2010

This big, big world

Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever fall in love again. I'm not talking in terms of human relationships, although this thought occasionally crosses my mind as well. But, no, I am speaking of Alaska. The Great Land. The place I loved. The place I left, three months ago, without regret.

How could I leave Alaska without regret? This thought still occasionally drifts through my mind. I reason that I live in a world adrift, where a sense of impermanence prevents attachments from growing too deep. Now I am in Montana, finding new places to explore, seeing old places in the changing light that comes with the passage of time, and finding an affection for my new home that almost feels like love.

This is how I came to plan a weekend trip in Glacier National Park with my friend, Danni. The trip was my idea — Glacier seemed like a pretty place to spend a Labor Day weekend. In invited my friend Dave in Missoula to join me, and then Danni invited her friend Brad, who had an idea for "getting away from the crowds."

The way I came to know all of these people individually is an interesting commentary on modern life. Dave is a recent social work graduate in Missoula who has been my blog friend almost as long as I’ve had a blog, somewhere in the range of four years, but we’d never met face to face until I moved here in June. Danni is a lawyer and roller-derby chick in Kalispell who is a mutual friend of my 2010 TransRockies partner Keith, who I only met because Keith’s wife, Leslie, extended an generous invitation to me — then a stranger — to stay with them in Banff before the 2009 Tour Divide. Brad is a sign designer and Hammer Nutrition employee in Whitefish, who along with Danni helped organize the Swan Crest 100 trail race, where I volunteered, and that’s how I met Brad. There was a time in recent history when the chance of the four of us meeting would have been unlikely at best, but on Saturday we found our paths intersecting on a remote mountain ridge in the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park.

Brad's plan was an off-trail ridge walk between Two Medicine Lake and Marias Pass, which is outside the park. Dave looked at a map and said, "I'll be really interested to see how this all works." The two points were at least 18 miles apart in a straight line, and blocked by a veritable wall of big mountains, some of which Dave said appeared from the highway to be actual walls. "It's probably going to be a little hairball," he warned Danni and me, because both of us suffer from varying degrees of vertigo, and Danni hasn't had much big alpine experience. "This will be my first hike off-trail," she announced. I put my faith in Brad's assurance that the route was "mostly" non-technical, then scrutinized the map and brought my GPS, bivy sack, fire starter, lights and a ton of extra food should I need to plan a drainage escape into East Glacier.

The day dawned auspiciously, which means it was raining and filled with pre-sunrise darkness, but we were stoked anyway. The clouds had mostly cleared by the time we reached the Two Medicine trailhead, only to be replaced by a cold and vicious wind. Even at the small lake, 35-mph gusts drove roaring whitecaps across the water. “That wind’s going to be cranking above treeline,” Brad observed nonchalantly. “Bring a jacket.”

We hit the trail and started chatting away, blissfully lost in conversation the way four people who met through the vast web of social networking can be — sharing an array of esoteric interests and commonalities that linked us in the first place. The elevation gain passed without effort or notice, and soon we were walking the lichen-coated tundra and talus of the high country.

At 8,000 feet we crested the Continental Divide. We moved swiftly along the spine that divides the golden prairies of Eastern Montana from the crumbling granite walls of the northern Rockies. The wind raged from the west, often blowing so hard that it knocked me into a teeter and I had to brace myself against my poles before I could start walking again. Dave and I estimated it was gusting to at least 60 mph and drove a windchill low enough to sometimes necessitate a down coat and gloves — not the kind of environmental conditions that boost one’s confidence in their already below-average sense of balance.

We approached a needle-shaped, 8,800-foot peak called Mount Henry. "We don't really have to go up that, do we?" Danni whispered to me nervously. There was no way to sideslope around it without severe exposure. The way up looked like a class-four scramble at best, with a far-away but uneasy notion that we might be entering the realm of low class five without ropes. "Let's wait and see what Brad does," I replied, expecting that Danni's and my combined lack of experience and exposure fear would probably lead to the girls retreating to Two Medicine while the boys finished up the hike alone.

Brad did indeed find a fairly simple chimney — probably class four because the potential to kill oneself was there, but full of comfortable handholds and small ledges. Danni was at her limit of acceptable fear but powered through as Brad helped guide her up the chimney.

When Danni reached a good half-way perch, she stopped, so I started up. Suddenly she screamed, "Watch out." I heard the sickening sounds of knocking and scraping as a very large boulder tumbled toward me. I instinctively ducked my head, pressed myself against the wall and threw my arms over my neck in a blocking position. A watermelon-sized chunk of old granite brushed inexplicably gently over my shoulders and plummeted beneath me. I looked up, confused, only to see Brad braced directly behind me. He held up his right hand, which was covered in blood. Brad had stuck his arm out and halted the momentum of the rock, and for all practical purposes had saved me from a skull fracture or worse. I didn't quite understand what had happened at first, and in the rush of adrenaline, I forgot to thank him. I'm not sure I've ever been in a position where someone may have actually physically saved my life. I still haven't processed it fully, but I did later tell Brad that I owe him a beer.

With that adventure behind us, Danni and I took a mutual celebratory self-portrait to mark our survival of what we hoped would be the most difficult obstacle of the traverse. Mount Henry is behind us, blocked by my thankfully non-fractured head.

We stopped for lunch in front of the foreboding silhouette of Mount Henry.

As we dropped down the tundra toward our next talus climb, I looked at my GPS and my jaw dropped. "There's no way we've already climbed 7,000 feet today," I said to Dave. "No way." He just shrugged. "I believe it," he said. We looked at the next massive mountain in front of us. "How much higher do you think it is?" he asked. "I don't know," I said. "Maybe 1,500 feet." "I was going to say 1,400," Dave said. "It adds up."

Mount Ellsworth turned out to only be 800 feet higher, but the talus was so loose and steep that we probably climbed 1,500 feet getting there. Danni was unnerved by the loose footing on a 60-degree slope. "It's not like snow," I said. "If you slide backward, you'll stop ... eventually." We made our way up into small cliff band where loose talus over hard rock made the climbing extremely sketchy. But there was nowhere to fall, so I felt fine. Danni and I were starting to see where our irrational fears divide — I feel uneasy with big exposure, but she has a harder time with difficult terrain.

The exposure started to open up as we walked along the spine of Bearhead Mountain, where a veritable wall dropped 2,000 feet into the drainage to our left. Initial route-finding kept us near the top of the ridge and uncomfortably close to that dizzying exposure. I started to lose my nerve. At first, it sank in slow and cold, numbing my fingers and darkening my vision. Then came the nausea, and an urge to either vomit or cry — I couldn't decide which. By the time we started dropping down the cliff bands to the right, where the exposure wasn't nearly as bad, I was quivering, just trying to hold it together for holding it together's sake. Dave looked back and said, "Are you OK?" "I'm scared, but I'm OK," I mumbled. After that, I hummed "Going Going Gone" by the Stars to get my mind off the mountain ... "There's nowhere to move on ... there's nowhere to move on."

We finally crawled off the cliff bands and shuffled down the steep scree. My dizziness began to fade, and I started taking larger steps, loping down the loose gravel with an exhilarating feeling of suspended gravity, as though I were walking on the moon. We connected with a goat trail as a clouds streamed by over our heads. I began to digest the massive quantities of adrenaline I had generated, and practically skipped along the narrow passage.

"You look much better now," Dave commented. "Back there, you had this look on your face like you were about to swallow a tarantula on Fear Factor." "You know," I said, "that's exactly what vertigo is like. Something really isn't all that likely to hurt you, and in your mind you know that so you can make yourself do it, but that doesn't stop the gut reaction that causes all kinds of trepidation."

The afternoon grew late. We still had to scoot around Red Crow Mountain and descend Firebrand Pass. As we approached our final contact with a ridge, I faced the freight train of wind to take one last longing gaze of the huge views we had spent the day with. "This is a big place," I said to Dave. "This is a really big place."

Walking down Firebrand, I thought more about what that largeness meant to me. We ended the day with 11,800 feet of climbing and 12,060 feet of descent. We traveled somewhere in the range of 25 miles, to elevations as high as 9,000 feet. We straddled the watershed divide that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific, many times. We saw the rolling prairie stretch beyond the horizon, and we saw the jagged mountains ripple endlessly to the West. Alaska is amazing and beautiful, but it certainly isn't the only big place in the world. Not even close.

I often fall in love with places, and think about them wistfully in much the way I would an old friend. I'm going to add this ridge in the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park to this list, not only because it is big and awe-inspiring, but because of my new friends.