The Big Snowy
by Bruce Patterson, September 16, 2010
My lover’s most memorable experience in Switzerland was also my own. Laboring under backpacks up perfectly engineered switchbacks cut into an ancient, forested scree slope, we broke above tree line. Above us stretched a huge sloping jumble of boulders broken and shattered during their fall and tumble from the heights of a towering, fractured granite cliff with streaks of greenery filling its boulder-strewn crevices. Under the cliff we spotted a stone cabin with a tall, peaked roof flying a Swiss flag. Wondering who could possibly live way up here, we knew we’d soon find out because, after one more long switchback, the trail led to its front door.
In the US nearly all alpine trails end at the toes of talus slopes, although most of the popular peaks have traces leading to their summits that you can follow if you know what to look for. But in Switzerland, with all of the building materials lying at hand, they cut trails everywhere. If they can’t cut trails, they burrow tunnels. Since they run train tracks anywhere they want, straight up or down, over or under, cutting trails through talus weren’t nothing to them. So instead of having to “scramble” up the slope by leaping from boulder to rock and rock to boulder (careful, now), we got a stroll up a yellow brick road. Boulders had been blasted out of our way, or split like firewood to make way, and pieces had been chiseled into blocks and laced into retaining walls and tiny bridges over cascading rivulets. While the switchback wobbled some to left and right, it maintained its grade the whole way.
The building turned out to be a mountaineer’s cabin. In about six different languages a sign on its door read something like, “Welcome. Grab a cot and make a fire. Don’t waste firewood or leave a mess. Water’s out back.” After taking a peek inside and deciding we’d carry on toward the summit, we circled around to the rear of the building, drawn by the sound of slashing water. A pipe drilled into the base of the cliff was pouring icy cold melt water into a round, fluted cistern carved out of rock and, since it was set dead level, the overflow was making glittering sheets before disappearing into a pipe set beneath cobbles.
From the village in the bottom of the V-shaped canyon we heard church bells tolling and, almost simultaneously, more church bells joined in from unseen places up and down stream. From patches of meadow hanging like towels high up on the canyonside across the way, we heard cow bells faintly clanking and, here and there down below, we saw Cinderella chateaus cut out of the forest greenery or perched atop grey granite outcrops, their driveways curling like cat’s tails.
After freezing in awe of the moment, we finally looked at each other, shook our heads incredulously and burst into laughter. We were in a Technicolor postcard, by golly, and it was all too beautiful. A child of the soiled and shabby Jim Crow South, she wasn’t buying it because she knew there was too much human misery for a Shangri La to exist anywhere. I was hip and a part of me wished we were sitting atop some nameless California rock pile overlooking hundreds of square miles and seeing nothing manmade except the road we’d driven in on. Switzerland was spectacularly gorgeous, absolutely, but too far from home.
“Fast forward” 40 years. (Now there’s a phrase that perfectly expresses the mass manufactured delusion that time is a machine designed to keep us humans on schedule). I’m behind the wheel of our car, my wife is sitting shotgun, my two grown boys are in the backseat and we are driving up a perfectly engineered switchback cut into a ridge shaped like a flinty finger pointing at the sky. All that holds the mountain above and below the road is rock and the roots of towering pine, cedar and fir trees, and the ground is so steep that only those growing right beneath the road show their crowns and block the view. Looking southward though the flickering tree trunks, beyond the canyon we are climbing out of, we see the mountain ranges we have leapfrogged to get this far, a deep, zigzag crease separating their toes and, hidden way down in the hole in front of more rows of mountains, the rough location of our motel rooms in Packwood, Washington. Set where the creeks and creeklets cascading out of the mountains join, slow, drop their sediments and widen into the lower Cowlitz River, Packwood is the highest of the river bottom towns that dot the waterway to where it joins the Columbia 150 miles downstream.
Moseying up the grade at about 25mph, we catch a glimpse of the pyramidal, snowcapped the Mt. Adams volcano on the southern horizon. But the view of nearby St. Helens, Hood and Jefferson is blocked by a jagged descending ridge standing at least 2,000 vertical feet above us. Rimmed with stone pinnacles, saw-toothed headwalls, rock falls, avalanche chutes, snowfields and emerald green meadows inaccessible to all but mountain goats and serious mountaineers, the ridgetop is a sky island; a place onto itself. Could there be a tiny Shangri La hidden up there among the marmots and picas, wildflowers and butterflies? And when will we again catch sight of hulking Mt. Rainer, the glacier-robed volcanic massif still towering a vertical mile and a half above us? At road’s end, will we finally get to lay eyes on the rock-rimmed crater at its summit?
“This could be in Switzerland,” I said.
“Really,” my eldest son seconded. A few years back he’d passed through the Alps and, while soaking in the scenery out of the car window, he’d been thinking the same thing. Just babies in geologic time and fashioned by two-mile-high rivers of ice, these mountains were every bit as steep and rugged as the Alps and, before the road was punched in, as untracked as you’d find anywhere. Just as the heights of the Alps were mostly untracked until after the mid-19th Century when climbing gear came into vogue. Far too rugged for a horse, donkey or mule, before the road was built whoever had gotten up this far had come on foot.
The road switches back at the crest of the ridge, the view opens, there’s a large parking lot and we stop to take in the panorama. We are east of the volcano at a place called Sunrise Point. Northward 100 miles we see the North Cascades, its peaks making a skyline in the shape of a cockscomb. Eastward, hidden behind rows of smooth mountains lying like sleeping snakes, stretches the vast “scablands” scoured and gouged by a series of ice age floods as monstrous and devastating as any the earth has ever seen (so far as geologists know at this time). They are the famously “empty” upland “coulees” draining into the Mighty Columbia. (Yup. It’s mighty). Southward is the same razorback ridge/arête/lateral moraine we’d looked up to at the start of our climb, and it’s still above us and will remain so at road’s end.
Aw, road’s end. There’s a national park settlement up there: a huge paved parking lot, little lodge, store, visitor center, trailheads, ranger station, picnic area, public bathrooms and trash cans that, like the marmots, only springs to life during the short summer months. Getting out of the car feels real good, especially since our wondrous journey has ended precisely where we wanted to be. Standing nearly 8,000 feet above us we see the volcano’s summit, the rim of the crater marking the skyline like the end of a little fingernail except ruler straight and dead level. Yet the volcano is so massive — taking up the sky like a half-risen full moon framing a tiny bush on a faraway skyline — that it seems close enough to touch. No way does it appear so high up or far away that a physically fit person couldn’t reach its summit in a day if he or she had the courage, strength, talent and ambition.
The ocean, deserts and flatland plains are legendary for how they can warp distance and time. More than one person has been driven stark-raving-mad while lost at sea, or in sand dunes, or in grasslands so vast they dwindle into an infinite sky. But no landscape produces more spatial illusions per acre, or more powerfully urges a person to rub one’s eyes and think before setting one’s feet, than the alpine.
After picnicking at timberline under storm-stunted, furry hemlock trees, my wife decides to take a nap and the boys and I take a hike to an overlook across from a massive glacier offering a “straight shot” assent to the tippy-top. From the mouths of two train tunnel ice caves under the glacier’s curled toes, silent and milky, pours the highest up of the Cowlitz River’s headwaters.
A couple of young fellahs are coming up the trail and one of them announces how they’d just seen a bear right down there while his partner nods in the wide-eyed, no-shit affirmative.
“Good,” I say. My boys get a little excited, and so do I. It’s been some years since we’ve come upon a bear.