Wilderness lifeline 

The starry nights out that bring light within

From the trailhead parking lot I could still see the mountaintop well enough, but at six o'clock in the evening, daylight was fading fast.

I grabbed my old Boy Scout-issue external frame pack, the one that had served me well the previous summer, when I'd worked in the Pintlers as a wilderness guard. In the top panel I put my Svea 123 stove and a Sigg bottle of white gas, insulating them from the cold with a wool sweater and a down vest. In the lower compartment went peanut butter sandwiches, gorp and Top Ramen. I rolled my three-season sleeping bag inside a thin foam pad and snugged the cylinder to the top of the pack with two bungee cords. Matches, knife, compass—check. But no map.

I can follow a trail up a mountain, I thought, impatiently, when I realized I was mapless. Too many months spent indoors in the city, too long a drive to the trailhead. Hell yes, I was impatient. This was March, and backpacking season was much too far away. Cabin fever—double check.

Driven by a fierce imperative to be out, I had not even taken a moment to let someone know where I was going. The mountain, the trail and the terrain were all unfamiliar. My clothes and gear were not designed for winter camping, and I did not have a tent. But I deliberately did not think about this. Nights out. The words were a sensory command pulsing in my blood.

I laced up my hiking boots, grabbed my wooden staff and heaved the pack onto my shoulders. Into the harness. It felt good. I adjusted my headlamp, locked the van and set out for the summit of New Hampshire's Mount Cabot, four miles ahead—and 4,000 vertical feet above.

The sky turned indigo and the first stars came out. I could see only a few paces ahead down the icy path. The packed snow was slick where the trail was steep, and grew rockier and more challenging as the night wore on.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Fear did flash through me as it grew later and colder. The trail began to seem endless. But I refused to think through what I was doing. Why was I hiking alone in the dead of night in ten feet of snow? I would never do something like this today, nearly three decades later.

All I knew then, in my twenties, was that I needed the sky for a blanket, the constellations for my guides, and I could not wait for summer. I dismissed my fear of dying and used the adrenaline to pump my frozen legs forward.

Risking my life, I now suspect, was exactly my purpose. I was testing my limits and my limbs, staring down my mortality, and in the process, defining myself. The wilderness was my proving ground.

At 1 a.m., I reached a clearing under a vast, star-spangled blackness. Without the protection of the forest canopy, my body heat rapidly vaporized into the ether. I was exhausted, but I was exhilarated, too. I celebrated the freezing beauty of the starry sky, even as I shivered.

Now, in my fifties, I marvel not that my younger self courted danger, but that this drive is gone. What happened to the aching desperation for nights out? Where is the imperative to walk the ridgeline of risk?

Last winter my husband, Oliver, and I celebrated our fourteenth anniversary by skiing a long stretch of the Continental Divide south of Chief Joseph Pass. When we met, Oliver was the kind of skier who launched himself off cornices and traveled multiple days in the backcountry to enjoy corn or powder under his telemark skis. Yet he wasn't foolhardy: he understood snow science, dug avalanche pits, wore a transceiver. The first day we skied together in the high peaks of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oliver whistled opera arias as avalanches fell around us. Our fate together was sealed.

On this day we headed south from Missoula in a blizzard. In an open meadow filled with deep, powdery drifts, we danced through our turns, made fresh tracks, then had a picnic in a whitebark pine grove. All around us, flakes gathered into ever-higher berms, swirling white against the black-green pines, under the hush of an opaque sky. We could not tell how near or distant anything was. I felt deeply peaceful.

"We could build a snow cave right there," Oliver said, pointing to a gully in the drifts. He sounded wistful; in our younger years we might have spent the night out snugly buried in winter. But we had no plans to dig a cave or pitch a tent. We had a hot tub and a fireplace, flannel sheets and a log cabin waiting for us.

"Do you want to sleep out?" I asked.

"As little as possible," he replied.

To admit this aloud was a moment of reckoning. The old urgency for nights out was gone for us both. We kicked and glided back to the car well before light failed us.

The mountains are no longer our proving ground, for we know ourselves now, and have nothing left to prove. We no longer seek to stare into the face of our mortality—it is near enough, thanks; no need to extend an invitation.

At this time of our lives, to simply be in the stillness and look at the trees, listen to the silence, feel the wetness of the flakes on our faces, enjoy the embrace of winter—this is enough. We seek communion, not a contest. We keep our limbs limber, breathe the good air and strengthen the bond between us. All those nights of our youth spent under an open sky live on inside us, a wellspring we can dip into whenever we wish. We need only look within.

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