Just BEING In the Mountains

I’m in the mountains, on a relaxed day-hike.  Most of my group is climbing a steep, technical peak that is almost all glacier, but I wanted something mellower, without the stress and choices of real mountaineering.  My friend Cassandra was in a similar mood, and she’s joined me for a day of open ridgeline, easy walking with nothing to block the sky.  An hour ago we reached a gentle summit, and now we’re descending toward our tents at a restful pace.

The ground is an infinity of rocks, worn remnants of lava crossed with other, smoother species of stone.  I weave downward over the debris, eyes and legs and feet linked in a kind of dance.  My gaze is always a meter ahead, finding the next flat surface and leaping on, trusting my feet to land where my sight had flickered a moment before.   After so many years in the mountains, it’s almost an instinct to walk on rocks.  There’s a liquid agility in my body, a flow that has ankles bending and arms balancing, shoulders dipping and thrusting in tune with the ground.  But it still takes a certain focus, a certain being there, in the moment—and it’s demanding in a pleasant way, hard enough to give a sense of accomplishment and easy enough that it isn’t a real struggle.

In a few minutes we reach a lake, a sparkling little jewel barely bigger than a tarn.  It’s maybe 100 meters by 60, clear, with a subtle hint of blue further from shore.  Two arms of land encircle the water in a hug, and on each arm a snowfield bleeds in the sun, donating its blood to the lake one droplet at a time.  One patch of snow extends all the way into the water, hardening into a strip of slush that is not quite ice.  Swells caresses the slush in rolls that are not quite waves, stirred by a breeze that is not quite wind. 

Along the shoreline, most of the rocks are black and pocketed, as if termites have been gnawing for centuries.  It takes a moment finding somewhere smooth enough to sit, but when I do, I’m pleasantly surprised at the heat on my butt.  The rocks must have been freezing this morning, but after hours in the sun, they’re almost warm.  Cassandra joins a meter to the left, and for a few minutes we speak of the unity of the scene, the way wind and sky and lake merge into one setting. 

We talk a little more, and then…we’re silent. Without needing words, we’ve decided to let the world speak.  I can’t say what sound the waves make as their edges curl along the shore, flowing among the rocks.  It’s almost a chuckle, but there’s an emotion that’s different than mirth.  Many, many minutes later, the word comes.  The waves are ploinking.  It’s not a word, officially, but then, nothing starts out as a word.  Words are just patterns of sound, and, well…these waves are ploinking.  Ploink-ploink, ploink-ploink-ploink, ploink-ploink…

My mind wanders to the glaciers on the other side of the valley.  I imagine ice oozing out of the mountains, invading the lowlands in a slow tide and rising over the centuries until it covers the continent.  Glaciers have drowned this area dozens of times in the last two million years, advancing when long cyclical wobbles in the Earth’s orbit weakened the sunlight over the northern hemisphere. Without humans, the ice would grow again over the next 10,000 years.  The valley below would fill until the mountains would seem hundreds of meters shorter, their lower features hidden by smooth sheets of snow.

But with carbon spewing into the atmosphere, it’s hard to say what the future will hold.  The ice-sheets returned from other warm spells, but those inter-glacial summers never melted the continental packs of Greenland and Antarctica.  Their glaciers survived, keeping the whole planet cooler and easing the way for ice to return.  Now, even the fortress of winter in Antarctica might melt—and if does, I don’t know if weaker sunlight in 10,000 years will be enough to rebuild it.  Maybe someone else knows.   Maybe no one knows.

A gust forces me back to the present.  My muscles tense against the chill, a reaction faster and more effective than conscious choice.  A tremor tingles from my core to the tips of my fingers, a hint of the shivering that will come if I don’t start to move.  And yet…the chill goes away when I shift my focus from my body.  On the lake, the wind has sharpened the waves.  Little riffles ride on top of the swells, sometimes breaking into crests of foam.  The ploinking is shorter and harsher, echoing among the rocks with a hint of a slap.  And then the wind relents, back into a gentle breeze.

A few clouds drift in the sky, dense at the center and stringy at the edges.  A little wraith of whiteness splits from its mother and begins to wander, fitful and lost.  The cloud-baby weakens, growing fainter and fainter against the blue.  And then it fades completely, like a ghost surrendering into the peace of death. How have I never noticed that clouds do this?  It would have taken only a few minutes to watch a tiny cloud dissolve.  But in all my years outside, I’ve never seen it. 

Well…I’ve probably seen it hundreds of times, in the sense that my eyes took in the pattern of photons and sent the image to my brain.  And my brain was lost in the chaos of my own life, and it never listened to what my senses were saying.  What else have I missed by being distracted?  What else in nature have I always seen and never noticed?  I sit for a long time, just letting the world be.  

Gradually, my shivering resumes.  Soon it’s too strong to tune out by focusing on the sky.  I observe the shivering itself, and for a while it stops being unpleasant.  But it’s a losing battle: I have a body still, and it’s getting cold.  I take a last look over the lake.  The wind is pushing a new stiffness into the waves.  Water glints in thousand little flashes, liquid lights that drift over the surface and vanish before reappearing in half a meter, reborn when the roll of the waves re-catches the angle of the sun. 

I tell Cassandra that I’m cold.  I’m not bored—I could sit here for 12 hours—but I need to move and make heat.  And yet…I’m not sad, walking away.  In the rocks I find patterns I’ve never seen.  And I realize there’s a story in every sand-grain lodged within a different color of stone, a tale of heat and pressure and time reaching into a past deeper than we can imagine.  There’s a triumph in every patch of lichen, a journey of survival and endurance etched in kaleidoscopic swirls of yellow and grey.  I’m lucky, to be seeing this—and for the rest of the walk, I’m happy for no reason.  Sometimes we don’t need a summit, or a glacier, or even a goal.  Sometimes it’s enough to sit outside and just…be.