A Mountain of Memories
In an article for the Sierra Club Bulletin in February of 1932, legendary photographer and California native Ansel Adams wrote about the feeling of being surrounded by the majesty of the High Sierra mountain range.
“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied,” he wrote. “It speaks in silence to the very core of your being. There are some that care not to listen but the disciples are drawn to the high altars with magnetic certainty, knowing that a great Presence hovers over the ranges.”
I felt that same primal attraction – that massive, nearly smothering silence of the mountains first as a teenager hiking the entire length of the John Muir trail with my dad and again two weeks ago when my wife and I made our attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Whitney. Even hiking several hours in complete, predawn darkness, we could not help but feel the cliffs of vertical stone around us, over us, ahead of us with every step. That’s just one of the fantastic, almost other-worldly memories she and I have talked about with each other countless times since our return to Southern California and the “real world.”
Another of our never-will-forget memories is of that same heavy silence being broken suddenly with the first rays of the sun coming up over the Owens Valley, thousands of feet below us. As if in response to a carefully rehearsed script, when the first golden glow of light lowered down to touch the tops of the Lodgepole and Red Firs clinging to the steep granite hillsides, a lone cry of a hawk screeched from somewhere high above. Almost immediately, its solitary call was answered by a chirping and cawing chorus of birdsong from every direction – echoing off the nearby granite cliffs. The swirling, soaring symphony of sound was so purposeful and practiced we instinctively knew that the Stellar’s Jays, White-headed Woodpeckers, Vaux’s Swifts and other birds were welcoming the warmth of the morning sun with their appreciative voices.
Somehow we had been fortunate enough to be in just the right spot on the mountainside – at just the right time – to witness this particular miracle of the mountains. We stood momentarily silent and still listening to the morning musical as it continued for several minutes and then … it was over. As quickly as it had started, some unseen conductor brought the high altitude concert to a certain, silent stop. In the distance, a river tumbled over a rocky precipice. But there was no other sound. Wow. What a privilege to have experienced that moment.
Flash forward several hours and thousands of feet in elevation as we climbed the notorious “99 Switchbacks” section of the trail. We watched with growing unease as a few puffs of whispy white clouds quickly grew more impressive. And dark. And ominous. Looking back the way we’d come, I scanned the trail far below us, looking for any other hikers coming up towards the summit and didn’t see a single one. Growing numbers of hikers were coming back down, however, having turned back due to wind and ice that had already turned a narrow, orifice-puckering trail into a treacherous and risky route.
And so, somewhere above 13,000 feet and with snow beginning to fall, we turned back. We did not talk to a single hiker who made the summit that day. We did meet several who had gone even further than we had and still turned back. I can only imagine their sense of defeat. Then again, the rational adult in me knows that it’s better to be disappointed than dead. But the romantic, weather-be-damned adventurer side of me is still back on the massive mountain, gulping the thin air and wondering if we should turn back or climb even higher into the black clouds. We were so close. So. Danged. Close.
I’ll see you ’round town.