-Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
In his book, The Necessity of Empty Places, Paul Gruchow describes alpine flowers: the way they bloom all at once creating a “blaze of color for six weeks or so of the growing season.” Gruchow writes, “Alpine plants do not have the luxury of blooming in succession…everything hugs the thin Earth for protection from the drying, chilling wind.” In early September, when I ascended to Upper Lyman and Cloudy Pass, lupine, yarrow, gentian, Indian paintbrush, and Western pasque flowers brushed the mountains red, white, pink, blue, and violet. Now, less than two weeks later, bright red leaves replace green ground cover and only a couple gentian and pasque flowers remain scattered in the high altitude meadows.
The names of peaks and the names of plants are still new to me here in the North Cascades and I hesitate to say words like “gentian” and “lupine” because they are terms I know from only guidebooks. I haven’t had anyone help me through the nuances of Railroad Creek Valley the way I walked kids through the temperate rain-forest where I worked last year, explaining each tree and shrub by slowly saying the name, telling stories, and sharing identifying characteristics. A couple days ago, at coffee break, I asked the people at my table if they knew what "the puffy plants that grow high up in the mountain are?" When this question (understandably) confused everyone I added, “They look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.” After several minutes of bumbling, I described the plant enough for Janice, the village gardener, to identify the “Dr. Seuss plant” as the Western pasque flower, a member of the buttercup family that blooms soon after the snow melt, budding into a tiny white pedaled flower. Janice told me that when the pasque flower seeds in a puff of feather-like hairs. I pictured the downy billows I had seen scattered in mountain meadows, floating on their stems like something out of a cartoon: pasque flowers.
I learned recently the leaves turn red in mountains is a result of the terrain: the scrappy soil, sunny afternoons, and cold nights. In rich lowland soil, the leaves turn yellow. Summer light decreases, leaves stop producing chlorophyll, and carotene and xanthophyll (the leaf's other pigments) kick in, painting the foliage yellow or orange. Unlike carotene and xanthophyll, anthocyanin, the pigment that turns leaves red, has to be produced and requires additional energy. Trees only produce anthocyanin in landscapes where the stress of mere survival would otherwise cause them to drop their leaves too soon. Like the burst of wildflowers I witnessed in August and September, the red that has started to cross the mountain is a symbol of survival in an ecosystem that makes nothing easy.
Yesterday I went to Spider Gap, a slope above Lyman Lake where you can scramble the scree and snowfields and see into the next valley. It was a twenty-five mile day that I had to pace, in both time and energy, so that I had enough stamina to scramble up the gap after the ten mile trek to Upper Lyman Lake and enough daylight for the hike back after the descent from Spider Gap. I hiked fast to Hart Lake and the switchbacks at Lyman, then slowed. I filled my water bottle at a river near Lyman, where I knew the current moved fast enough to make the water safe for drinking. I sat in the meadows by the lake, scanning the changing horizon for autumn orange and red. I lay on my belly to photograph the leaves and tromped off trail for better views of Lyman Lake from the trail that snaked above it. I lingered near Lyman and Upper Lyman Lake, because (1) to me, nothing is prettier than the Lyman Lakes, turquoise pools pocketed by mountain peaks, and (2) I wanted to let my body rest before I had to scramble up the gap.
Spider Gap is no mountain summit. I don't possess the technical skills to climb any of the peaks that surround Holden Village. However, I had to bushwhack between the Lake and the gap. I looked for cairns, stacked stones left by other hikers marking the safest way. I pressed my palms against the scree when the climb got steep, I toed the snow to test iciness. I listened for the sound of ice cracking and scanned the cliffs above me for cougars or rock-slides. When I heard stones skitter on the other side of the slope, I froze, scanning the horizon before I continued my trek.
In upper elevations color becomes clearer. The thinner atmosphere refracts less light and the decreased dust and moisture captures less color pigment. The sky looks bluer and the yellow and oranges in the stone seem more intense. As I climbed, my senses prickled with a heightened awareness of touch and sight and sound.
It took me about an hour to ascend from Upper Lyman Lake to Spider Gap. I moved slow and safe. I climbed scree, crossed a flat snowfield then ascended a slope of shallow snow. As I moved toward the top, Upper Lyman started to look like a river, weaving between rock and glacier. The snow shadowed the rock below. I could see the way the mountain peaks contained the valley, walling Railroad Creek in Cascade cliffs, and the way Lyman Glacier fed the lushness: the mountain meadows and turquoise lakes. From Spider Gap I saw a sign warning of fire danger in the next valley and the way the rock sloped down into snowfields that descended into Spider Meadows. I saw both Lyman Lakes and Cloudy Peak. I scurried from overlook to overlook before settling in the middle of the gap and wedging myself against the rock to eat granola and chocolate and drink from my water bottle.
According to Paul Gruchow, until the late eighteenth century no one visited mountains on purpose. Travelers who had to cross the Alps wore blindfolds and philosophers believed that before the flood and the fall, the earth had only flat smooth surfaces, filled with soil, rich enough to farm. It’s a luxury to love a landscape where "everything hugs the thin Earth for protection," where existence involves struggle, where even the trees turn different colors in their strain to survive.
This summer in Michigan, my brother tried to teach me to rock climb. I knew I had a decent strength to weight ratio. I knew knots. I’d belayed hundreds of kids and taught rock climbing classes at the YMCA where I worked, but the first time Keith belayed me at the rocks at Grand Ledge, I barely ascended the easiest route. I bruised my knees and banged my shins and held onto the rock so tight that my arms shook till my muscles pumped out. One day, a man named Dave stood behind my belaying brother to watch me climb. Dave watched with crossed arms, nodded, and told me in an even voice, “You have to work with the rock, not against it.” Then he scrambled up beside me, pulling his body in toward the stone, feeling the creases in the rock with his fingers. “You’re fighting the stone,” he told me and I imagined what climbing might look and feel like if instead of trying to muscle my way up rock I could move more like the ledge itself: gracefully sloping upward in a series of sharp steps and smooth reaches.
It's a different way of thinking: working with the rock. As a short girl who spent her childhood in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula trying to keep up with stronger more coordinated boys, I learned to rely on speed and scrappy tenacity. I've had to get stitches half a dozen times and had two concussions. Purple scars shadow my legs, elbows, and hips. I broke my collarbone playing football during seventh grade cross country practice. I fractured my shins running too many miles on a cement track during high school. I know how to barrel forward but I'm still learning how to live in a place where toughness requires sensitivity and fierceness means accommodation. I'm learning to listen to the crumble of rocks and to feel my way through snowfields. I'm learning to move slow enough to see the cairns from other hikers. Sometimes I wonder how my time in the mountains will help me when I go to Ledges with Keith next summer in Michigan. Will crawling through scree help my hands feel comfortable lingering on dusty rock long enough to find the good holds at Ledges? Will scrambling on snow aid my feet in trusting the small holds I need to lean into in order to work with the rock? Will I eventually make my ascents with the smoothness of the lanky climbers I love to watch once I' m out of the harness, barefoot on the banks of Grand River?
After descending from Spider Gap, I rested on a boulder beside Upper Lyman Lake. I scooped my legs into my chest and wrapped my arms around my knees. I thought about taking off my shoes, rolling up my pants, and wading into the glacier-cold water. But instead I sat. I looked up the the cliffs and down at the pebbled bottom of the lake. I felt the wind brush my sweaty skin. I don't know when the trails I've walked each weekend will be buried in snow, no longer navigable. I tried to memorize the way sun beamed off the lake, making the ripples in the water gleam. I tried to memorize the shape of Lyman Glacier on the peaks. I focused on breathing and didn't think about the hike back.