Of the times I have been in the mountains, there is one moment that sticks out in my memory more than all the others.
I stood atop a large boulder, alone on the ridge of a mountain. It took some scrambling to get to the spot, surrounded as I was by similarly large boulders, some with fairly cavernous gaps in between them. This was my first time over twelve thousand feet. On the final part of the ascent I was surprised to find my breathing labored, but still strong, which encouraged me to push even harder, springing from rock to rock, scrambling up the bigger ones, anticipation and excitement building as I saw the ridge getting closer.
Dropping below me to the east, from the direction I ascended, lay a valley of slightly smaller rocks, some peaking out from the snow left over from winter. In the other direction the boulders vanished into a steep drop-off which looks out onto a lake-studded valley collecting the melted snow of spring, with Mount Crocker, Baldwin, and Red-Slate mountain towering over them on the other side of the valley.
From my perch on the Nevahbe Ridge, in all directions I saw many magnificent mountain peaks, shear cliffs, large rock faces. My intended destination was still further up the ridge. Though less than a mile away, it would involve at least thirty minutes of scrambling and hopping between boulders, gaining another thousand feet of ascent to reach the summit of Mt Morgan. Returning to this spot would require almost as much time, and my companion was a little ways behind me (I left him toiling on a section of steep boulders while I made a push for the ridge). Leaving him alone for an extra hour while I went for the summit didn’t sit well with my conscience, and at our estimated return pace I doubted we would make it back before sunset as it was. So I make the hard decision to return back, having not achieved the summit.
I started back, retracing the steps I left on the snow-covered boulders. But as I went I found my footprints were being gradually filled with snow, and soon I lost the way I had come. I never doubted my ability to find the way back, since the topography was fairly obvious and open, but I wasn’t quite sure which little valley I had come up (the valley where I had left my friend). I looked around me, trying to survey the area carefully, looking for familiar signs. Standing there in that moment, I began to feel overcome by the wildness of the place. Animal footprints were the only I had seen (save my own) ever since we left the little lake below. I felt very alone, and very in awe of the desolate beauty of the place. I began leaping and running somewhat recklessly, trying to keep panic at bay, my legs plunging below snow to sometimes find a firm boulder, and sometimes ankle-twisting gaps. I was both excited to be there, and also somewhat afraid. Though I know there are so many more wild places on the earth, this one was a little beyond my comfort zone. I loved it and feared it. But with that fear came a little courage.
I eventually found my companion, and we made our way back to the car, where we rejoined our other friend who had turned back earlier to try to catch us some fish for dinner. Going back to well-maintained trails, then to pavement and cars was strange, having felt what I just did a few hours ago on that ridge. Do my friends have any idea what I just felt? Do they know what they missed out on?
Now, almost two years later, why do I still remember this so vividly? What about being alone on that ridge has such a hold on my imagination and feelings, even when I didn’t make it to the top? If I had made it to the top, would I still remember it so fondly?
I want to go back there, but if I did, would it still give me such a feeling? Wildness, total and utter solitude, awe, beauty, exposure, a grandeur and majesty so much bigger and more awesome than my puny self: exaltation mixed with fear.
This is where I want to be, in places where I am called upon to summon the little bravery I have, immersed in the magnificent discomfort of untamed beauty.
The mountain is big, very big, and we are small, very, very small.