Alarm, zippers, crunch.
Did that happen or did i dream it. Two or three am does not feel like morning, more like a spooky and confused hour, the creeping realization and anxiety of knowing that it’s time to get out of the bag, the soft and warm sanctuary, to hack at the snow with my ice axe until it gives me back my stakes, and then smash everything back in the pack. The whole world is at first a red-lit tunnel from my headlamp, and then those of my hiking partners, and then the stars. As dawn creeps over the peaks, there will also be the ghostly dark rock clothed in miles and miles of pale nothingness, and the wind, and that is all. My mind and soul feel very small and itchy when i’m sleep deprived, and this smallness is baffled by the scale of what’s around me.
My feet are not so much cold as absent, their sensation just a memory, and they’ll stay that way until i get in the bag again this afternoon. We don’t talk much, except about which route to follow, saving our energy for the climb and our awareness for all the small things. Like is my axe leash looped well enough around my wrist, and should i shed a layer now that i’m trudging and sweating, and can i make myself eat another protein bar. The frozen-overnight crust of newer snow is thin, and gives way to a concerning layer of rotted plunging slush underneath. I feel like i’m traveling off the planet, but somehow on foot. I am stepping, over and over again, and mindful of every possible small mistake, into a world both more consequential and yet less real than the one I know.
To look at these mountains from the rodeo and reservation towns of the Owens Valley is to see only an idea of what’s here; in a normal summer, this discrepancy, between the both chugging and disheveled economics of the valley floor and the soaring narnia above them is what draws crowds, makes its way onto postage stamps, and plants dreams in teenage imaginations of someday walking from Mexico to Canada. It’s very easy to get enthralled with its otherdimensionality. But then there’s also this, sometimes: a literally breathtaking and deadly expanse that arrives every few years on a whim, as if the apocalypse is this alpine world’s passing hobby. Do the bears that spend their lives up here see this strange year the same, as a piece of time or a difference of memory, or is this something worse for them, the undoing of patterns that let them live, the unraveling of what they need. How much do I think I need, and how much do i really, to keep going. Do the marmots think the same, temporally, of the lush and loving rainbows of floral life that will erupt out of this blindingly white expanse once it melts, can they hear the same siren of belonging calling the soul home from where it dangles on the edge of every frozen cliff, shivering.
There’s some of me that never wants to, whatever it is, at all. Would like to preemptively opt out of whatever you might be thinking of suggesting, because some of it will definitely suck, and there’s already always way too much anguish and uncertainty and futility floating around in the mechanics of existing for me to have the audacity to participate in anything. Most people I know seem like they have some version of this going on; it’s a pretty natural response to having been raised in a massive and layered scam masquerading as a culture. Which is why shuffling my feet through ice in the predawn scaries up a nearly vertical slope, dragging my alien discomfort and dread with me until it mercifully hushes because it realizes how outmatched it is by the circumstances is like, really a kind of gift. Of perspective. And not in the oooh i’m so small and finite way or the wow look what i can do look at all this untapped tenacity, but instead of just the freedom from whatever in me thinks it needs things, but really only wants them bad, to wash itself away.
MacOs’ weird fixation with California landmarks lets me pick an image of the Whitney ridgeline taken from somewhere near Lone Pine or the Alabama hills. I can even make my Safari background echo this same image to form a cascading row of the spires leading up to it like the jagged teeth of a granite jaw howling at the rose light of dawn. Magic doesn’t need a long time to cast a spell, but it does need the right pieces in place, jigsawed together and snarling, implacably oblivious to what it can erase. Every time I look at these mountains from the valley floor, I try to wrap my head around the fact that i’m looking at the literal crust of the earth flinging itself upward from its own depths, cosmically slow and unyielding, that what we witness when look this way is an impersonal drama happening on such a scale that its tiniest folds and rifts appear to us as monoliths, metaphors, deities. Shiva the destroyer opens her arms*. Given enough snow, there is absolutely nothing the earth can’t flush away and begin again.
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