Sunday, September 19, 2010

Alpine moments, magical thinking

Step after climbing step, we moved up a narrow rocky path towards Herman’s Saddle, high above us. The short growing season at this elevation, which is snow covered for most of the year, explained the show of subalpine flowers in September: heather, fleabane, monkey-flower, asters. There we were last week, following a trail suggested by the park ranger towards a promised view of snowy Mt. Baker. Lynne and I had started the morning driving east from Bellingham through the coastal fog.  It dissipated the closer we got to Mt. Baker, until we were gifted with an intense blue sky, one of the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest. Three of us were now heading up, counting Winnie, our shy rescue turned perfect trail dog whose solar collecting black coat was causing her to pant and hunt for shade as we rose above the tree line. We had already crossed many sparkling streams of water tumbling down to the lake in the retreating valley below, often hearing the stream before we could see it. I doused Winnie with this icy water to cool her off. She stood quietly and let me do it.

Lynne and I have spent many memorable days hiking mountains together, in the Canadian Rockies, the Appalachian Mountains, the Olympics, the Cascades, around Mt. McKinley in Alaska, the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Montana. We even hiked up to 15,000 feet on Carihuairazo in Ecuador. Our longest and most spectacular day hike was a 2378 feet elevation gain up to Sentinel Pass above Moraine Lake in Canada, a challenging and spectacular hike that we have held to be our greatest achievement.

But we were ten, twenty, thirty years younger. Today we still treasure the pristine landscapes, the clear air, the chance to see wildlife, the quiet, the solitude, the physical challenge, but we take it at a slower pace. We take three hours to descend 300 feet from the Visitor Center and then climb up this 2 ½ mile trail, gaining 1100 feet in elevation from the valley bottom to the saddle. We stopped frequently, peering up the mountain to see if we were there yet, chatting with hikers passing us on their way down, filling our filtered water bottle with cool stream water, peeling off layers of clothes and assessing the state of our feet, knees, thigh muscles. We listen to the eagle’s high pitched cry as it flies around the valley. We see some tiny figures coming back down on the trail above us. The top of the mountain looks close until we get closer, when it keeps receding, just beyond this one switchback, across one more boulder field, one more unexpected uphill stretch, getting steeper as we approach the top.

Lynne is the one who had set the goal; I was happy to take up the challenge. Winnie gets to be off leash as we go further into wilderness, and never asks “How much further?” Lynne carries the daypack with our lunch and our extra clothing. I am dangling the binoculars off one shoulder and carrying water and her leash in the other. We alternate taking pictures. We chat with two men who are heading down. “25 minutes,” he said, “since we left the top.” It takes us another hour to get there. On the way we express appreciation for hiking with each other, comfortable to go at our own gentle pace, neither of us competitive or impatient.

At the top, the view of elusive Mt. Baker rewards us as promised, raising its white crown above drifting clouds, dwarfing Table Mountain to our left and one of the Chain Lakes below. Winnie also had a reward: a field of snow to romp in, roll in, be a puppy again in, and finally, to lie in to cool off. Finding a boulder as a seat and leaning against each other, Lynne and I trade off taking pictures for munching our pb&j sandwiches and taking in the majesty of a mountain up close. A few other people, mostly in twos, crest the trail and stop for the view and lunch also. Too soon, it seems, we are also contemplating the distance back to our car.

It's called “magical thinking”: “climbing back down will be easier than going up”, “gravity is on our side”, and “it won’t seem as long”. Those theories are quickly discarded when the reality of bracing ourselves step by slippery step down the rocky path sets in. The rocks seem sharper, the path seems more uneven, and the picturesque Visitor’s Center seems further away than we remembered as we head back. Two younger women approach us from behind, intriguing me with a story about clearing out an older brother’s belongings after he died. We exchange cheerful hellos as they pass, still chatting and quickly disappearing down the mountain. We check the time. Only thirty minutes have passed since we were at the top. I notice that the front of my toes are becoming tender as they get smashed by the full weight of my body with each downward step. My thigh muscles feel weaker each time I brace myself against the pull of gravity, stepping down from a tall rock to the path below. We remind each other to be careful, to focus on our feet, a warning that is usually prompted when one of us has been distracted by the spectacular views around us, and ends up catching ourselves from falling. We hear the chirp of a hoary marmot, or is it a pika? We meet a man from Utah wearing Vibram Five-Finger shoes and leading a boisterous Labradoodle on his way up, and then again, as he passes us on the way down. Several people with fishing poles pass us going up.

We are alone again when we finally reach the cliffs above the lake. Ahead of us is about 20 feet where the path is chipped out of a steep rock face. The footing is narrow and there’s nothing much to hold on to and nothing much to keep us from sliding down into the lake, 50 feet below. Lynne is in front with Winnie, now back on her leash, and turns to give me a hand. “I don’t remember this part at all,” I said. My legs feel weaker than one would want them to be crossing this rock face. She has hesitated also, angling for the best place for her feet, not finding a good place to hold on to. I hold her hand as she begins across, then she turns to hold mine. I lean my body lightly into the rock with one hand supporting it, and the other holding on to her. We help each other as we creep across this hazard, and then there we are, back on a wider path and almost home. I have this feeling of joy, at our accomplishment, at the wilderness, at our connection with each other, at the fun of hiking with an equally matched aging crone, at our 33 years together. Happy Anniversary, Lynne.


  1. So lovely! Thank you for the celebration of nature and your beautiful relationship. And happy anniverary! Love, Lynn

  2. I know about that "Magical Thinking". Maria and I while visiting her sister in Alaska this summer decided one afternoon to go up Mount Marathon.....

    The runners make it in about 1 hour so we should be able to do in 2 hours or so. So we thought. Its 4,000 feet. We had not broke the tree line when I decided my bad knee would not be happy at the descent.

    BTW, wondered where you and Lynn ran off too.


  3. I can't type. Should be Marisa and I