The Measure of a Mountain by Bruce Barcott

The Measure of a Mountain by Bruce Barcott

Author:Bruce Barcott
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Sasquatch Books
Published: 2011-04-07T16:00:00+00:00


I began going high.

On quiet mornings I slipped out of the city before it awoke and drove to Paradise, snapped on a pair of gaiters, and walked through the mist to the high climbing camp called Camp Muir. I went alone and with others. It takes less than an hour to reach treeline from the parking lot, and from there it’s a straight slog up the Muir Snowfield, a two-mile ridge whose undulate tongue runs down the mountain like a carnival slide. Most days I’d crest the last snowrise at one in the afternoon with my shirt floating in sweat. Muir is 10,000 feet high, 4,600 vertical feet from Paradise. Reaching it is like climbing a staircase of 10,000 steps.

Strange things happen up there. One week in June I found the snowfield carpeted with dead insects. Just as entomologist John Edwards had predicted, the snow displayed a massacre of caddisflies, stoneflies, stinkbugs, aphids, mosquitoes, green plant bugs, houseflies, and beetles, all newly hatched and blown up by the wind. A week later I followed the same path and found the crows, ravens, finches, and jays bloated into sloth and the snowfield picked clean.

As spring grew into summer, pollen and dirt soiled the white drifts. Wind funneled up the Nisqually Glacier and crashed into a wall of ice, dropping its load onto the Muir Snowfield and staining it like smoke. If you stand at Panorama Point on a clear day, you might see a cloud create itself from nothing. Moist, warm air from Puget Sound breezes over the glacier, condenses into water vapor, and blows into the Columbia River basin as fully formed cotton. On the snowfield you walk right through it.

High clouds have always fascinated me. My favorite part of a plane ride is the moment when the aircraft cuts into a cloud and everything goes dishwater. As a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I assumed this happened on all flights everywhere. If you press your nose against the window you can disorient your mind; your eyes are wide open searching for a focal point, but there’s nothing to fix on. It’s as if you’ve stumbled into a dimension where logic, time, and space have been scrambled. Going high on a mountain gives you a chance to climb through the window.

On a good day Camp Muir is as charming as an Arctic weather station: three huts, an A-frame, a two-seat crapper, and a shed. On a bad day it hides under so much snow you could walk right past and never know it was there. People have. The stone blockhouse on your right is a public shelter, cold as a packinghouse, sleeps twenty-five first come first served. A solar toilet sits upwind from the shelter and issues such an acrid reek that some climbers would rather sculpt snow thrones and pack their clinkers out in blue plastic Park Service bags. It’s a vast improvement on its predecessors, however. One outhouse used to perch over the Cowlitz Glacier and deliver blasts of freezing air right up the vestibule.


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