Rays of Morning
The thermometer read -7 degrees.
Panic. I was suffocating – literally and figuratively. In the few moments I’d been climbing up and over the massif of snow piled at the edge of the “parking lot” my breathing increased and the buff covering cheeks, nose, mouth and chin was already encased into a thin coating of ice. No matter how much effort put forth at 10,800-feet, I could get no air.
Tearing and gnawing at my face with over-mitts I repeatedly failed at grasping an edge of the face shield. Throwing my poles to the ground and ripping off one mitt, I slide a finger between my cheek and the frozen cloth and deliberately yank the protection down to my neck. Gasping for a few breaths allows the confining panic to subside. Picking up my poles I quickly fall into a steady rhythm of one foot, one pole, one breath for the three-mile, 1,000-foot climb. In the darkness dots of stars freckle the vast emptiness and shadows produce a natural drama invoked by the moon and needleless trees standing in feet of muffled snow.
The “trail” is really a dirt road drivable a few months of the year. It winds and curves back on itself as it rises past mini meadows, steep bowls and carved ravines. The air so dry and cold that my poles make noises sounding like chattering critters hidden in the protection of the dying trees. In the darkness, no tracks could be seen and in the light only few meanderings detected.
With no headlamp spotting a route to be followed the other senses adjust and easily lead the way. Shadows disclose edges of roadway, windblown drifts and the precipice bulk of a cornice on the uppermost slope.
One by one the shooting stars pass, solo stars dim and the sky alters in the east from the deepest midnight blue to a shade less dim. Every minute reveals the smallest, nearly invisible change in the light over a highland range seemingly close enough to touch yet a day’s hike away. Craggy edges penetrate the light from the dark. Thick snowfields blanket mountain tops, cirques and chutes. A pale pink frolics with a pale blue clashing for domination with neither winning because black skirmishes with yellow as shimmers of mile-long rays cross the crisp ridge. Watching, branches with intricate rime ice sparkle like flashes of a camera, cold freezes the tiniest of hair in your nose, eye lashes frost and snot suspends from a liquid stream-like rivulet into an icy chute from nose cavity to upper lip.
The landscape wakes. The rays of morning transcend the darkness that really never sleeps. Within moments ice droplets puddle, crystals in mounds compress in density and a misty fog conspires to reduce the view.
Shouldering packs. Tightening straps on our boots. Pulling on yet one more layer. We descend considerably quicker than the exciting in the moment ascent. This, on the first morning of the New Year.