"The great mountains, wherein sublimity so much excells our daily things, that in their presence experience dissolves, and we seem to enter a kind of eternity."
It was a day of metamorphosis, a mystical stormy mountain day, glowing with soft diffuse light. A quiet day, murmuring with the sound of clear smooth water flowing, and the gentle "swish-thump" of wet snow sliding from tree boughs. A day to be alone in the mountains, with camera and tripod, senses opening to the cool, clean sights, sounds, and smells of the coming winter.
The first storm of the season always leaves me excited and filled with a sense of awe. The transformation of the dry Wasatch peaks into "real" snow covered mountains never fails to awaken the dormant skier and ice climber within me. These first days of storm are not much good for outdoor activity; there isn't enough snow to ski, it's not cold enough for ice to form, and the rocks are too wet to climb on. Most of my mountaineering friends will spend the day sharpening skis or ice axes. Others might turn on the stereo and read the latest issue of Climbing, while sipping a hot mug of tea.
After a week cooped up in buildings, I must go to the mountains. The white foothills and low snow ladden clouds call to me with a somber song of gray rainy wind and blowing leaves. It is a day to dress sung, to let snowflakes melt on my cheeks; to feel, see and move, rather than talk or think . . . and so I go alone.
Slowly driving up the canyon, camera ready, I peer out the windows, first one way and then the other. My aesthetic "sixth sense" is in full gear, searching for symmetry, purity of line, and the special indefinable something that will make for a good photograph.
After a few shots on the way I finally park and get out of the car with camera and tripod in hand, a small day pack on my back, and a growing sense of enthusiasm. Scrambling down to the creek I carefully watch my footing on the wet and occasionally snowy rocks lest I slip and damage the camera. I take a number of photographs, but one in particular is memorable: the creek flows smoothly between two rocks, falling down into a small, clear pool which is framed by a mossy bank and a tangle of exposed tree roots. Wet and darkly glistening, their gnarly, yet graceful, patterns remind me of an old working man's hands, patient, wise and strong. They grip the earth with a firm endurance. I take a long time to frame this shot, moving around, raising and lowering the tripod, adjusting the individual legs to achieve a level view, until I am finally sure of it all. Attaching the shutter release cable to avoid unnecessary camera movement I take the four-second exposure.
Gathering up my equipment I feel a bit more subdued and mellow. Some thicker clouds are moving in, giving the light a monotone leaden feel, so I put my camera away and walk over to a seldom used, open-air picnic shelter to sit down and eat an apple. It begins to snow.
Sitting there munching away I look out at the boulders and trees, now wishing that I had a friend along whom I could photograph climbing on the rocks to add some interest and variety to all the "nature" shots I have taken. Then it hits me, why not photograph myself! I can compose the picture visualizing myself in place climbing, adjust the tripod, set the self timer, then run and climb part way up the boulder. Fired up by this new idea I gulp down the last unchewed bites of apple and repack my pack.
The snow is letting up as I frame the first self portrait. Imagining my body in the picture is a novel exercise in creativity. I must step outside of myself and consider everything from the perspective of the camera. With everything set I realize that I will have to move quickly in order to run up and make the difficult moves on wet rock before the shutter is released.
Due to the low light, my shutter speed will be two seconds. Here is another challenge; I must not only run up and make the moves within sixty seconds, but also hold a difficult position while the photo is taken. When everything is set I get into a sprinting position in front of the tripod, reach back and pretend to release the self timer, then turn and run to the rock. Fingers grip familiar rough granite edges and pull up, but I have forgotten the subtle footholds and my wet boots slide off. I jump down knowing that if this had been a "take" it would have been a nice shot of a rock and an indistinguishable blur.
Confronting the boulder with more respect I draw on all my technique and experience to deal with a complex puzzle in which I integrate rock, flesh, and nerves, forming a kinesthetic hypothesis. Wet rock and shoes demand more finger effort to hold up slipping feet. Adjusting the moves try after try I finally get a workable sequence of side pulls for the hands. Increasing body angulation away from the rock presses my boots onto the tiny footholds more securely. This is great! An old and familiar practice climb has taken on a new dimension, providing a very enjoyable mental and physical problem.
The afternoon is pervaded with this sense of discovering new possibilities in an old and familiar area. Hours slip by as I frame up picture after picture then reherse the climbing moves again and again until I know I can do it for the camera. My energy level is high, sustained by the excitement of doing something new and unusual.
With fingers finally stiffening with cold and exhaustion, I realize that in an extended frenzy of activity I have not only gotten some good photos, but also quite a climbing work out. How good I won't know until tomorrow when sore muscles demand a rest day.
Walking back to the car I realize I have not explored any of the photographic possibilities farther up the canyon, and the daylight is going fast. With storm clouds in constant flux, changing patterns of light and shadow produce and destroy new photo opportunities. I near the end of my third roll of film as the light fades and a nippy chill creeps into the air. It's a good thing I came prepared with film for the whole weekend. I have never shot so many pictures in one day, but even if some mishap ruins them all it will have been worth every penny and minute spent.
It has been a day of transformation; dry, rocky mountains transformed by a dusting of snow into frosted, mythical peaks looming up through writhing mists. But a more important internal transformation has taken place. The mountains have once more provided a quiet refuge from my work-a-day 6th grade teacher's world of thirty demanding children, and all their complexities. The hustle and bustle of correcting math problems, arbitrating fights, punishing, rewarding, guiding and manipulating a group of eleven year olds seems pale and mundane compared to the awesome reality of an icy ridge appearing out of a cauldron of boiling clouds. A ridge of rock and snow can be seen and felt, honestly confronted with mind and body, so unlike the elusive and undefined human spirit and intellect contained in those young bodies I greet each morning. And yet it is just this contrast that I find ultimately rewarding. Each activity gains significance in relation to the other. After a week spent dealing with people and their problems, a weekend in the mountains is like a sip of icy melt water in a parched dry mouth, cleansing and rejuvenating.
Driving down the darkening canyon heading home for a hot meal and shower I am filled with a quiet sense of joy and contentment. Spending time and energy I have acquired a rich load of psychic strength which will help carry me through the challenges of the coming week down in the city. When I reach back to draw on this store of energy I will not try to recapture details of this solitary and stormy day. What I will retain is a generalized glowing image: mist and snow, blowing leaves and wet glistening rocks - a quiet murmuring of crystalline water flowing over smooth stones.