In the 8/10/08 NYT there was an article about the recent tragedy on K2 titled: “Does Climbing Matter Anymore”? Tragedy it certainly would have been if just one had perished let alone eleven, but only a couch potato would ask that question. It is actually more of a koan and the answer is the Louis Armstrong response to the ‘what is jazz’ question: “if you have to ask, you’ll never know”.
Commercial endeavors (a big and growing) aside, adventurers know what they’re getting into and do so with purpose and resolve. No matter if it’s the Himalaya or an unnamed wood, they understand that there is grave existential peril in a comfy slouch.
For some reason, the piece brought to mind a trip taken many years ago…
We were headed, by narrow gauge rail, toward the Chicago Basin at the head of Needle Creek in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Our car was several back from the engine, but even so, its spewing plume made me feel like an erstwhile citizen of Herculaneum. I could not understand how my wife and kids were not bothered and instead hopped from side to side describing the scenery with ebullience.
The angular bits of coal dust soon floating across my cornea triggered not exactly a pain response, nor diverting anticipatory thoughts of the wilderness that we had barely entered, but instead memories of recent car troubles, problems at the office back home, and dinner the last night in Aspen. Why had we left?
El Rio de Las Animas Perditas, the river along which the rails mostly traveled, was far below yet beckoned hypnotically. I sank into my seat resignedly to obsess and await what might lay before.
Just as I entered the state between wakefulness and sleep, the train stopped at the ghost town of Needleton which lies approximately midway between the railroad’s eponymous northern and southern terminuses; Silverton and Durango. We jumped out, hustled back to the boxcar to retrieve our backpacks, and watched the train depart and disappear.
The steep ten mile hike up along Needle Creek was in a word, brutal, but at least my thought pattern began to make sense. I was again in the wilderness with my family. Did we have the right stuff? Would we be safe? Would we have fun?
Well not right off. First, cartographic aphasia led to several wrong turns, a trip to the top of a pile of rubble some distance from the day’s goal, and hours lost. Then the water pump/purifier performed poorly and during attempted remediation an o-ring popped into the stream. Finally, it rained intermittently during the hike up and through the night. One of our tents leaked and all five of us spent the first night huddled together in the other – a few with pre-oedemic headaches.
Nonetheless next morning the pervasive beauty began at least to inflect my cortical cramping. We set out to hike yet higher and reached a pair of lakes at about 12,000 feet. There were of course no trees, little vegetation, and the water virtually sterile due to its hibernal solidity.
The surface upon which our vibram almost squeaked had been polished smooth by the icy meniscus’ expansive ancestors and was ensconced high up in and surrounded by the castellated rim of the cirque. The air was still, though laden with the smell of brimstone and the sounds of the neophyte creek. Sally and I watched our three children silently stepping from rock to rock as if in performance of some Shinto rite.
It is amazing – the grandeur of the infinite – that with which one becomes suffused in an area so devoid of life’s layers. Wondering about how that sort of stark emptiness could be so fulfilling, so sort of spiritually tumescent, I recalled a proposition of physics which as written by one Alan Wallace has it that: “there is more energy in a cubic yard of empty space than in all the matter of the known universe”. It must be that energy which has led native peoples around the globe to impute magic and divinity to such purlieus.
After further exploration and a bit of rest we decided to move our camp down valley from whence to find a seldom visited lake about which we’d somehow heard. Why it held allure I’ll never be certain. There was no trail marked on the map and our guidebook described its approach as steep, indistinct, discontinuous, and treacherous.
Indeed, though we were amazed at the myriad flora, fauna, and signs of men long gone that we had missed on the way in, we could not even determine which drainage would lead up to the darn place.
Frustrated my group became as we covered the same steep mile several times in search of both some sort of indication of previous trail bifurcation as well as simply a way to cross the now adolescent torrent. Our only encouragement was an animated description of hidden beauty by some wild eyed sacerdote.
Our persistence was soon rewarded when another stranger offered assistance. This one, a local fishing guide, showed us where to cross and described in general (the nature of the mountainside did not lend itself to detail) the way to the lake which was several thousand feet up and over a subtle ridge replete with turrets, hidden streams, and it was true – no real trail.
“Purty well hid” he said looking upwardly as he twirled his mustache. “Awful purty though; awful purty.” In parting, he blew a wad of tobacco juice across the trail in front of us.
The next morning we started up through the trees as directed. They were dripping wet and seemed more like a forest of kelp. After an hour or so of bushwhacking and log hopping, vestiges of the old miner’s trail did appear. It was discontinuous – segments averaged about 100 yards in length – but we soon found ourselves able to follow it quite well by naturally filling in the blanks and being aware of the degree of arc and slope of a stretch, interpolating, and allowing reawakened internal guidance to lead us to the next short section.
Occasionally, the way disappeared completely for quite some distance having been wiped out by landslide or avalanche and overgrown. We would then build a little cairn at the breakpoint as we dropped into each new bit of destruction we had to cross to reach more virgin wood.
More serious were the hazards created a bit past the more or less halfway point as the ridge’s rocky ossature began to protrude. Mossy cliff edges were hard to identify due to the soft lighting and surrounding mist. Fortunately, their position had been fixed in our minds while scanning the terrain the previous afternoon.
As we rose, clouds obscured our view of the valley below and Mt. Eolus and subsidiary peaks to the north. Once though, during a brief respite and snack, a hole appeared through which we watched massive disembodied blocks of orange granite seem to float in space.
By the middle of the afternoon, light could be seen through the trees above. Negotiation of a broken dark cliff band led to the top of the ridge, but not yet quite to our destination. An old path led first to a absolutely still shallow tarn by which we sat briefly to watch trout dart back and forth with their dorsal fins protruding above the surface. The glistening triangles were interesting counterpoint to the similar shapes on the far horizon.
Our lake rested in a peneplain one hundred yards to the south and was larger than we had expected; several acres or so. Behind and around it sloped a meadow resplendent in yellow and green which itself was collared by a rolling monadnock. Its highest point looked like a turtle’s head beginning to emerge from the folds of its neck.
As we approached, the clouds parted allowing the sun to set our wet garb steaming and reveal the lake’s luminescence as well as transmute the meadow into its almost iridescent apprentice. It is in such a place, upon such a surface that Tibetan Lamas trek to read the names of the future.
We looked in and saw ourselves. Needed sunglasses. The kids scurried around the edge for about half an hour while Sally and I watched and wrung out. They first clambered around bone bleached piles of tailings and then continued around the lake, in birth order, toward a position opposite us.
Their animations were uncharacteristically subdued and we speculated about the nature of their conversation. I will forever hear the soft tones of their voices lilting across the invisible surface barely discernible from the sound of the gently falling water nearer to us.
The clouds eventually drew back together reminding us that we were ill prepared for a night at 12,000 feet and serving effective notice that one must not long tarry in such a place lest the right of return be forsaken.
Our descent was pure, clean, and mostly silent. We had little trouble finding our way even though, if anything, the air grew more murky. The cairns led us across the desolation zones and in between those we discovered keloid scars left by miners on the uphill sides of trees for unenlightened colleagues.
Needleton was thriving the next afternoon with others in wait of a ride back to Durango. Abigail flagged down the beast as it approached puffing and belching.
We threw our gear into the boxcar and slowly climbed on board without a look back. Pilgrims.