Thursday, August 10, 2017

Love, friendship and mountain magic

This will be my last substantial post, and probably my last post of any kind.



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I'm a mountain man through and through. It's in my blood. I'm also a solitary man, a loner type since childhood who craves that solitude. When I think about the happiest days of my life, and there have been many, in addition to many more obvious examples I think of glorious days spent wandering alone in the high alpine country. Alpine meadows, wildflowers, airy ridges leading up into the sky, waterfalls and bubbling streams, sparkling lakes, snow-capped peaks, marmots whistling, the magical way the sun lights the landscape as it gets low in the sky---immersed in this transcendent beauty I feel a calm, a peace, and a sense of pure joy. If you want to put it in conventional religious terminology, you could say that these are the times I feel closest to God.

Often I've wanted to write in my blog about these experiences, but have always refrained. Especially now, with the end drawing near, I'm afraid I would be misunderstood. I fear some people who love me would even have a negative reaction: Why is Steve writing about time alone in the mountains instead of about Wendy and his family? So I won't write about it. It's a very big, very important part of who I am, but it will have to remain hidden.

Besides, why not combine the best of all worlds? Among those happiest days are many spent in the mountains with people I love, especially my beloved wife Wendy and my amazing best friend Jay. Even here, however, I feel the need to explain how I think and feel about those experiences. I could write in this blog ``I love Wendy very much'' a hundred times, and it would be true, forever. But there are many other powerful, symbolic ways to express that love. Among these I would count a particularly magical day that Wendy and I spent together in the Enchantment Lakes. To me, this shared experience, immersed together in that transcendent beauty, is a manifestation of our love. Telling you about the experience is my way of telling you about that love. The same goes for my friendship with Jay. It probably seems strange, but you already know that I'm an odd duck. As I often say to my classes, just pretend I'm making sense.

WENDY: The Enchantment Lakes

A lot of people don't realize that Wendy was a strong hiker, back in the day. In the seventies we did many marvelous high country backpacks in the Cascades and Olympics. Tuck and Robin Lakes, for example, and Necklace Valley. These two I think were about eight miles in with 3000+ feet of elevation gain. For the uninitiated, I'll emphasize that the elevation gain is by far the most important of those two statistics. Three thousand feet and up makes for a stiff climb, especially with heavy packs.

In Necklace Valley we camped at one of the lakes and day-hiked up toward La Bohn Gap. Along the way are several beautiful little lakes nestled in the most unlikely positions on the steep hillside. It was a hot day and we decided to cool off by skinny-dipping in a lake that had a large iceberg floating in it. The dip lasted about thirty seconds, or roughly the time it took for our legs to go completely numb. Sure did cool us off though.

Most spectacular of all were our three trips into the legendary Enchantment Lakes. The Enchantments are on the east side of the Cascade Crest, and are accessible by two trails that start near the fake Bavarian town of Leavenworth. The traditional route is the Snow Lakes Trail, which is about ten miles with 5400 feet of elevation gain. At about the halfway point is Nada Lake, a good stopping point if you want to break the arduous hike into two days. On the way to Nada you pass the impressive Snow Creek Wall, an 800-foot cliff popular with rock-climbers. A mile or two past Nada are the two Snow Lakes. Hiking around them is rather tedious, because the trail follows the contour of the lake, with many ins and outs and ups and downs. On my first trip into the Enchantments, in late May, the lakes were still frozen solid and we saved time by walking directly across on snowshoes. At the far end of the lakes comes the steepest part of the hike, straight up and up and up until at last one emerges into the magical paradise so appropriately named the Enchantment Lakes. I'll come back to describe this paradise in a moment; the main point I want to make now is that Wendy has done this twice, carrying a heavy pack. It is a formidable undertaking. Try it if you don't believe me.

The alternate route, via Colchuck Lake and Aasgard Pass, has become quite popular because it's a couple of miles shorter and the elevation gain is ``only'' 4400 feet. However, I neglected to mention the other obvious key statistic earlier, namely the ratio of elevation gained to distance travelled. The first 2200 feet of gain to Colchuck Lake is spread out over almost five miles. Not bad at all. The second 2200 feet from Colchuck to Aasgard Pass is gained over about three fourths of a mile. That's a grade of well over fifty percent, which is horrendous. It's steep enough that wandering off the main ``trail''---a rough track through the rocks, not some cozy set of switchbacks---can put you into dangerous terrain. If there is snow the route is very dangerous, and several hikers have died (including one just this year). Well, Wendy has done Aasgard Pass too, in miserable conditions with limited visibility and a cold, wet wind blowing. She was one tough hiker! I just wanted to get that on the record once and for all. By the way, our perseverance was rewarded: the next day dawned clear and blue and spectacularly beautiful.

One day in particular stands out as one of the most beautiful, magical days Wendy and I have ever spent together. It was supposed to be a short trip into the Enchantments with a friend of Wendy's from work. We took his car to the trailhead, hiked to Nada lake and set up camp for the night. We awoke to a light, steady snowfall. It kept snowing all morning, and at noon the three of us debated what we should do. The friend wanted to abandon the trip and head back to the car. My main concern was that steep section of trail above Snow Lakes. Going up it in the snow could be bad; coming down would be worse. Presumably the snow was heavier higher up, and we could even get snowed in up there. The other option was to wait it out at Nada for a while and see if it let up. But the friend really wanted to leave, and he had the car. So with heavy hearts, Wendy and I packed up our tent and started sadly down the trail. And just didn't seem right to us to turn tail so quickly. It took only a quarter of a mile to make our decision: We weren't giving up, even if it meant hitchhiking back to Seattle. We bid adieu to the friend, returned to the lake and set up camp again. The rest of the day was spent lounging in the tent and going for short walks along the lake in the light snowfall. That night we drifted off to sleep dreaming of blue skies.

Our dream came true. What a glorious feeling it is to poke your head out of the tent in the morning and see those brilliant clear skies! The higher ridges and peaks were covered in fresh snow, while only a dusting remained on the lower areas. We decided to day-hike in from Nada. Up to Snow Lakes, around the lakes, up the steep section---what a treat to do it with just daypacks---and finally arriving at the lowest of the Enchantment Lakes, Lake Vivian.

Lake Vivian is situated immediately below the south face of Prusik Peak, which is composed of the unusual, brilliant white granite found throughout the Enchantments. A long finger---or better, sword---of this granite, known as Excalibur Rock, juts out into the crystal clear waters of Vivian. You can walk out to the end and sit for a long time, listening to a light breeze rippling the water and losing yourself in the total calm.

Prusik Peak is a small mountain, with the south face measuring perhaps 900 feet from base to summit. In fact part of the charm of the Enchantments resides in the fact that it is a miniature alpine environment, in which one half expects to see leprechauns peering out from behind the boulders. The lakes are small too. A handful of the twenty or so lakes are of modest size; others are tiny. Typical names include Rune Lake, Talisman, Leprechaun, Naiad and Pixie. The Enchantments are at 7000 feet and above, at the extreme upper edge of timberline, so the trees scattered about are also small. But many of them are larch trees whose needles turn to gold in fall, lending a new, ethereal beauty to this already magical realm. Wendy and I were too early for the gold, but the fresh snow everywhere gave us a new, enchanting perspective.

We stopped to rest at Lake Vivian, reminiscing about how we camped here on our first trip to the Enchantments. What a beautiful world to wake up in! Now, looking out over Excalibur and the lake's clear waters, we felt proud and just darn good about not retreating. We were a team, we did it together, and now we were reaping our reward.

To get to the next lake we walked right along the delightful stream connecting the two. There are mini-rapids, mini-falls dropping off white granite ledges, mini-troughs carved into the rock by one branch of the stream. There are brief level sections where the stream burbles along through mini-meadows of green tundra. Everything is on a small scale. I swear I saw a leprechaun peering at me impishly from a little stand of larch trees. Two streams join together to make a stronger whole. Just like our two hearts.

Higher up we wandered blissfully from lake to lake, sometimes along the shoreline and sometimes looking down from above.

We would pause to just sit next to each other, taking in the silence, and the timeless beauty that surrounded us. It would always bring to mind the most well-known verse of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"

Now I confess that we had neither a book of verse, nor a jug of wine, nor a loaf of bread, and as far as I recall Wendy never sang anything (although she has a beautiful voice). But the sentiment expressed resonates deep within me. Adapting it to Wendy and I in the Enchantments, I would say ``--and Thou, sitting beside me in the Wilderness--Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!'' Our love for each other and the transcendent beauty of the Enchantments have merged into one.

The sun was beginning to get low in the sky, and reluctantly we circle back toward Lake Vivian. Along the way we stop at Gnome Tarn, from which one gets the most dramatic perspective of Prusik Peak (you've probably seen this view; it's frequently featured in photo collections, calendars, etc.).

To my way of thinking---or feeling, rather---that incredible, magical day spent together is in itself a joyous expression of love. No words need to be added. But I add them anyway, frequently. I love you, Wendy. You are an angel.


JAY: The Cirque of the Towers

The Wind River Mountains are located in western Wyoming, well to the southeast of the Grand Tetons. The most popular destination for climbers is the Cirque of the Towers, an impressive group of rock peaks encircling Lonesome Lake. For years I'd wanted to go there, and one day in the spring of 1986 put to myself the question: why don't you just get off your lazy butt and do it? With Wendy's blessing, I started planning a trip for early August, with the obvious first step being to pick up the phone and call Jay. Always ready for adventure, he was on board immediately.

I met Jay in Spokane and we set off immediately on the long drive to Pinedale, Wyoming. From there a long dirt road (thirty miles? I don't recall) heads east to the Big Sandy trailhead. It was a sunny day, and we were quite surprised to encounter a long muddy section of road. Moreover, this was not ordinary mud. It was nasty. It was deep. It was evil. We were sliding all over the place. Paradoxically, the mud was as sticky as it was slippery, and accumulated on the tires to a thickness of two or three inches.

I was driving on tires made of mud. Eventually we slid off the road and became hopelessly stuck. We were a long way from Pinedale, and hadn't seen another car all day. But we'd hardly had time to say ``what do we do now?'' when a pickup truck happened by, equipped with a winch no less. Two young lads, God bless'em, winched us out of the quagmire and sent us on our way. At this point we were past the worst of the mud, and arrived at Big Sandy Trailhead without further incident. From there we packed in to our basecamp at Lonesome Lake, elevation 10,000 feet. 

We didn't see a single mountain, however. You couldn't even tell any mountains were there; a thick layer of clouds covered everything, almost down to the lake. The next morning, nothing had changed. Now between the two of us, Jay is the eternal optimist, while I am known to slip into a gloomy Eeyore pessimism, especially when it comes to weather. By noon I was beginning to despair. After all the effort we put into getting here, was it possible we would never even see the mountains, let alone climb anything? Thankfully, the optimist view prevailed. In mid-afternoon the clouds began to slowly lift, and by evening the Towers were revealed in all their splendor.

It's true that we lost a day, but that hardly mattered as the following day was utterly amazing, fantastic, perfect. We set off to climb the South Buttress of Pingora, an attractive easy route with only a few pitches of roped climbing. After crossing a nearby stream, just below a beautiful little waterfall, we were stopped in our tracks by a completely unexpected sight: wildflowers. They were everywhere, and the most amazing part was the incredible variety. I've never seen anything like it. There were dozens of different kinds, most of which we'd never seen before: white, pink, red, yellow, orange, lavender, dark purple, every color imaginable. Here there would be a patch of flowers that combined several brilliant colors. Then around the corner, growing in the shade of a large boulder, would be a solitary white flower that looked like it belonged in a tropical rain forest. We soon exhausted our repertoire of superlatives and were reduced to awestruck repetition of ``Wow! Wow! WOW!!''

High on the South Buttress, we arrived at a broad sandy ledge with a granite headwall, perhaps half a rope-length in height, rising above it. It was a beautiful white granite, reminiscent of the Enchantments and not at all typical of the Wind Rivers. Even better, it was split by two parallel thin cracks, only twenty or thirty feet apart and to a climber's eye, irresistible. It would be possible to go around the headwall on easier ground, but why would we? Our only dilemma was which crack to take, but this was easily resolved: we would do both. We would take the left crack first and on up to the summit. Then we'd rappel the route, and when we got to the sandy ledge, stop to do the right crack.

As expected, climbing the headwall was an absolute delight. It was just hard enough to make for interesting climbing, but easy enough allow smooth, fluid moves, totally in control and filling us up with that profound satisfaction that climbing brings. It's in our genes. From the summit the view was spectacular. I went on and on about our marvelous day: The view! The mountains! The rock! The climbing! The flowers! Then Jay cut in indignantly with ``and the great companion!'' Oh yeah, right. But I thought that was a given. We'd been close friends for fourteen years. We were perfect companions that day; to mention it seemed superfluous. Nevertheless Jay gave me a hard time for the rest of the day, whenever I neglected to add ``great companion'' to my list of the days wonders.

On the descent we climbed that right-hand crack as planned, and it was just as fun as the left one. Then down through the spectacular flower gardens, across the stream with the little waterfall---I really loved that waterfall---and back to camp.

Late that evening, as the last light was fading, we were standing outside the tent, leaning against a large boulder and contemplating the impressive silhouette of Wolf's Head Ridge (a climb we would do on a return trip two years later). Wolf's Head
is an easy climb technically, but exhilarating, to say the least, as it follows a knife-edge ridge with a sheer drop of a thousand feet on either side. Just then we noticed two flickering points of light about halfway down the face of the ridge. Headlamps. Someone got caught by nightfall and was attempting to rappel straight down the face in the dark. I hoped they would just stop and spend the night, which would be uncomfortable and chilly but certainly do-able as temperatures were surprisingly mild, given the altitude. But I confess that our first thought was ``wow, glad that's not us''.

We talked about our marvelous day together, then lapsed into that comfortable silence that is so easy between good friends. Our joyous, perfect day was in itself a powerful affirmation of our enduring friendship. No words were needed.


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