(from Summit Vol. 33, No. 5)
"Nature! We are by thee encircled and included." Goethe
Drizzle. Never quite storming. yet never clearing. The clouds hung motionless, a uniform gray mass the color of apathy, holding the mountains in a passionless embrace. After four days waiting out the weather in a cook shack I was coming down with a bad case of the blahs. Each passing hour saw my climbing goals slipping further away into the mist. We came to Canada's Columbia Icefield for mountaineering, not chess and reading!
The days of forced inactivity built up until I had to escape. I needed to get out by myself, if only for a few hours in the rain, or succumb to the malingering stupor threatening to extinguish my spirit.
I got up and pulled on a waterproof Gore-tex jacket. With a light pack containing camera, tripod and extra clothes, I was soon past the last tent and pumping steadily up the hillside behind camp. It was good to be back out in the mountains. My whole being came alive as I shook off the last vestige of lethargy and let my well-trained body set a quick rhythmic pace. For the first half hour I relished the internal sensations as hot blood coursed through muscles, and cool rain-washed air flowed through my lungs.
As I gained altitude the trees became smaller and more twisted. Huddled close to the ground like hunchbacked dwarfs, they sought protection from the harsh alpine elements. Presently, the last stunted bush-like firs were left below as I continued into the rolling green alpine tundra above.
Approaching the cloud layer I began to look around with fresh inspiration. With body flowing, and mind relaxed, I broke free of my climber's inhibitions which had projected an aura of failure and depression on the bad weather. From below the clouds had appeared monotonous and dead, but upon closer inspection I could make out soft, indistinct forms swirling in a ponderous ballet with the sharp unyielding peaks. Twisting, dipping, rolling in massive pirouettes they danced to the tune of the wind. Mesmerized, I sat on my pack to watch as glaciers and huge rocky escarpments emerged from the mist, only to be swallowed again when the blustering choreographer sent a new chorus line of cumulus across the stage.
The trance broke when a gust of wind and rain brought me back to earth. It was time to move and warm up. Slipping on my pack, I headed further onto the plateau. From a distance the rocky hillside affected a barren and austere demeanor, but closer inspection revealed a myriad of hearty life forms adapted to this special place. All thoughts of avalanches, ice axes, ropes and pitons disappeared as I tramped through a wonderland of miniature beauty. Tilted slabs of limestone and shale were covered with fantastic patterns of colorful lichen, and everywhere were tiny flowers. Scattered individually or in small groups, these colorful blooms unveiled their intimate charms only when viewed on hands and knees.
Time lost all meaning. I wandered for hours with camera and tripod, lost in the intricate forms and patterns so "right" in their natural logic. A rock or group of flowers would catch my eye and I would slowly circle, mind empty, waiting for the right image to release a neural shutter. With a minimum of fuss I would then focus, shoot, and move on.
Late in the afternoon I was coming over a small rocky ridge when I thought I glimpsed movement out of the comer of my eye. A quick glance at the opposite hillside revealed a slope covered with strange rounded white rocks. Then I realized it was the rocks that were moving! Before I could gasp in amazement I drew in a breath of surprise. The hillside was covered with a herd of forty odd mountain sheep, their brownish-gray coats blending almost perfectly with the terrain. It was their off-white rumps I had first mistaken as rocks.
I stood transfixed, afraid to move and scare them off. It was the largest group of wild animals I had ever seen. In comparison, the occasional roadside sheep seemed like something from Disneyland.
As they grazed up and across the hill I cautiously moved forward, gaining confidence when they seemed indifferent to my presence. When I got within twenty feet the closest ones looked up from their munching and trotted off to catch the group.
Changing tactics, I jogged wide around them and sat directly in their path with camera ready. I was amazed, and rather frightened at first, when they waltzed right up, tilted their heads and gazed at me with strange yellow eyes.
I soon found myself right in the middle of the herd, snapping away in the rain. I repeated this circling maneuver many times until I found that a slow, crouching, goat-like gait allowed me to move among them framing up the pictures I wanted. Calm, silent, and peaceful, their "vibes" began to flow through me, imparting a deep emotional understanding, and respect for these self-sufficient animals thriving in such a pristine and harsh environment. If my camera hadn't kept me connected to civilization I might have started crawling on hands and knees, nibbling at lichens myself.
It finally came to an end when we hit more rocky ground and they moved along quickly without grazing. I had followed them all the way up and across the plateau and now found myself at the foot of misty scree-covered hills. Standing in a light rain I watched them fade into the hillside until their bobbing white rumps were all I could make out.
I didn't call out a farewell. It would have broken the spell. I just stood in the dying light and watched.
Turning, I slowly started down, overflowing with vibrant emotion. The day's images washed over me again and again, until, bubbling with uncontrollable joy and laughter, I was running down the hillside with leaps and bounds of pure animal energy.
All too soon I was back in camp. A huge smile and luminous eyes gave me away, but I couldn't translate my experience into words. I just stammered, "Sheep, a whole herd! And . . . and . . ."
Rene Dumal put it well in his classic book Mt. Analog: "You cannot stay on the summit forever, you have to come down again . . . so why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. There is an art of finding one's direction in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know."