scending this high volcanic remnant had been slow and laborious. But
along the way I had run into a large herd of mountain goats, had watched
two eagles soaring high above me and at last had been greeted with
dramatic summit views spanning from the rugged mountain interior all the
way out to the islands of the Sound. It was all turning out to be well
worth the effort.
The sunset was fading rapidly now, pulling down with it a trailing swath of diffracted light, dimming to a faint glow, and then finally to darkness. I stowed my camera and laid my sleeping bag out in the just barely large enough space at my feet. Moisture rose up from the valleys adding to the late-fall chill as the waxing moon cast its gentle light upon a soft, silvery landscape. The windless night was coming clear and cold and I sat down snuggly wrapped in my down jacket to enjoy the emerging view out into the galaxy. My patience was rewarded with a brilliant stream of pointillist light, familiar constellations and a few shooting meteors. But these would not be my only engagement this night.
A shadow swooped across my vision. What was that? I looked across, up, around, looking for it. Swoop! From another direction, it caught me by surprise again. I shot my head around to try to follow it, but it was too fast. Way too big for a bat, I thought. Another swoop and finally I could see it shooting back up into the sky, hovering slightly, circling tightly around and coming back in for another pass. Its large, utterly silent wings and blocky shape revealed it as an owl, which surprised me. I had never before seen an owl this far above tree line, much less circling a rocky summit spire. But then I thought of all the nocturnal rodents I’d seen in rocky alpine settings over the years.
The rock I was seated on formed the highest point of the summit and from my vantage I could watch the owl fly all around the mountain, losing it and regaining it through the darkness. Sometimes it would fly slower, almost hovering, perhaps ten feet above my head. Other times it would shoot closely around me in perfect silence. What a thrill! The owl struck me more as curious than aggressive. It wasn’t diving at me so much as simply flying around me, sometimes very near, sometimes further away. I decided that I would take it as a greeting and in a quiet voice offered my own compliments and friendly intentions. In time I became much better at following its flight as my eyes adjusted. A huge grin took over my face as countless minutes passed with the owl showing no desire to leave. I would voice a comment, pose a question, ask after the family, and the owl would come to reply. Time blurred as I watched its aerial maneuvers with rapt attention. Again and again it returned, and finally I began to gently laugh. What a magical encounter. Small talk in the middle of the night with extraordinary creatures is a recommended aberration.
How we choose to experience the environments we inhabit and what we find there is ultimately a matter for personal discovery. Our diversity ensures that we will always be finding new perspectives and new expressions for the role that mountain wilderness plays in our lives. We learn these things gradually, over the course of a lifetime, and soon enough discover how important time is to our understanding.
The mountain routes we dream up and those we follow, from the hiker intent upon a new backpacking destination, to the explorer coaxing a way through remote, trail-less regions, to the climber dancing up the delicate face of a grand, alpine wall; all offer the prospect of deep satisfaction in their completion. But adventure is always much broader than the goals we set for ourselves, the miles we have traveled, or the grade of the route climbed. It comes wrapped in a world of light, sound and sensation. It is unimaginably complex and utterly simple. All of which at our own level, we can understand.
It is the sweet airborne scent drawing you into the wildflower meadow, the luscious taste of plump berries covered in morning dew; the massive moss draped trunks that lead your eyes high into the canopy, the choral sound of water crashing along in endless cascades. It is the elegance of the direct line unfolding, the choreography of small flocks of birds shifting and darting through the air, the sensual feel of erosion carved stone, the excitement of seeing a bear. It is the delight of sunshine after rain, the blue gemstone depths in ancient glacial ice, the enchanting fragrance of the dry east-side forest, the breathtaking on-top-of-the-world view from the summit.
Our journeys are composed of innumerable moments that offer a rich harvest for our senses and a lasting affect on our minds. Whatever the temporal nature of the experience, when it is good, we recognize it. It is something ingrained within the spirit of our attitudes toward our beloved mountains. These places that draw us, the sensations we reach for, and the moments we remember share a common quality. It is beauty.
There’s a resilient hopefulness that comes with the practice of patiently pursuing beauty. What we may find is as individual as our own lives. What we share becomes the benefit of our community.
he early morning air was cold as I reached to unzip the door of my tent. Outside, a dim, indirect light reflected a dull, nebulous blue from high in the sky, gently coaxing a duotone of alpine topography from the darkness. As I stood up and stretched my body awake I felt the lick of a brisk wind and the surge of moderate gusts as they flowed across the mountain top. I turned and smiled as I saw that the deep cloud inversion of yesterday had persisted through the night. The mountain was floating upon a sea of clouds and I was happily riding its crest. I grabbed my camera and shouldered my tripod for the short climb to the true summit. This would be a morning to remember.
The white, billowy sea was moving and I could see it slowly lapping up and down sections of the rocky shore it touched. It turned around the corners of descending ridgelines and pillared upward in small thrusts of defiance only to be dissipated back down again. It was a flowing, shifting sea, but moved in a dreamy slow motion.
A deepening orange was building low on the eastern horizon as the first rays of sunlight curved around the earth to touch that distant sky. The glow cast itself delicately, from great distance, and radiated faintly upon the light, granitic rock below me. Slowly, the contours of phantom mountains began to reassert themselves, as light began to take shape high above them. The wind persisted, and a striking array of mid-level clouds emerged from the dimness, revealing the fantastically sculpted shapes of silken, flowing lenticulars. Far above these, wide sheets of crystalline ice formed a faint screen high in the sky that came alive as the sun stream approached, reflecting the first faint blush of dawn.
Color in the sky intensified quickly and dramatically as the edge of the earth shadow began its descent and stretched much farther to the west through the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Though still a very soft light, it grew in brightness and began to cast shadows beneath the lower clouds, revealing the contrasting intricacies of each layered, vaporous form.
To the north, alpine ridges held their heads above the sea like a good dog swimming, or laid back, like recumbent totems swimming on their backs, their ears muffled below the clouds, gazing up into the beautiful sky. To the southwest, an uninterrupted expanse of pristine whiteness spread below me out to the horizon. Between these, emerging from a ghostly shroud, the enormous form of Mount Baker rose boldly into the sky. A stacked headdress of wind-streamed vapor hovered above it and a deep blue swath of receding twilight sky formed its background. Descending into this blueness, the radiant light of dawn bathed ethereal heights in a sheet of lavender magenta, casting an enchanted spell over the landscape.
I was incredulous as I looked upon it, letting out small gasps of disbelief that grew quickly into exultant hoots of pure joy. The scene was surreal and seemed impossibly perfect. It proclaimed an almost otherworldly nature; fantastic and utterly beautiful. Standing upon the summit, leaning into the steady wind, I raised my hands to my head and then out toward the great Cloud Sea. “This is it,” I thought. This is why.
Because it’s here.
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