Joseph Bullington --
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Article Image Alt Text

Enterprise photo by Johnathan Hettinger

Iron Man, left, and Dominic look west down a valley toward a lake in the Crazy Mountains on September 1.

Icrawled out of the tent and kept crawling til I reached the creek — a cold, clear trickle that cut a narrow trench of exposed granite through the carpet of wildflowers and grouse wortleberries. I sat and lifted handfuls of water and washed my face and drank and then filled my bottle. Water that moments before had melted from the snowfield on which hours before I’d busted up my ankle and glimpsed death.

I sat there for a long time — hard to say how long since I hadn’t looked at a clock since entering the mountains — and stared up at that steep, treacherous face of snow. And I gave thanks. My ankle couldn’t hold my weight and it would be a long walk out — but I wasn’t dead, not even badly injured. I felt that the mountains had been gentle with me. And then I thought, No, the mountains don’t care about me, about us, one way or the other — and that’s why I love them.

I don’t know which is true. Never have. Maybe both can be true at the same time. Anyway, I thanked them — for showing me the Edge and for not hurting me worse when I brazenly stepped off it.

That, after all, is why I came.

The walk in

I had been planning the trip for weeks — actually, for years, since my dad first took my younger brother and me up there on one of his “death marches,” as we liked to call them at the time. I had seen the gold-colored stillness of evening spread over one of those abovetreeline meadows that blooms lush and absurd between rock and snow, full of flowers and wild onions. The kind of moment that comes only sometimes and stops everything — even time, maybe — and the world shimmers in its strangeness.

Memories and fantasies like that kept me going through many sickly nights bussing tables and washing dishes in fancy Chicago restaurants. Those nights, I moved through the crowds of fashionable people like a ghost, present enough not to drop the stack of cocktail glasses but with my heart and mind in the Crazies. As I worked, I made elaborate mental lists of the walks I would take (many), what I would pack in my backpack (as little as possible), and what gun I would carry (dad’s old Remington 16 gauge, with slugs and birdshot).

When I got back home from Chicago, I too soon took another job — this one — and watched my summer dreams give way to 40-hour work weeks. I got out in the mountains for a night here and there, but it was never enough, and summer slipped away.

I’ve never cared much for adventures with timeframes — I’m not even sure you can have a proper adventure if you have to be at a specific place and time on the other end of it — but I figured the Labor Day weekend might be my last chance.

So, that Friday afternoon, two friends and I and a cow dog named Iron Man pulled up at a trailhead into the Crazy Mountains with plans to cross the island range from the plains on the west to the plains on the east. Ahead: three nights in there, about 20 miles of walking on trail and off, and about 3,000 feet of elevation to gain and give back.

About a quarter mile in, I realized I had forgotten my tobacco in the car. I dropped my pack and ran back down the trail to fetch it — an act that Dominic called “ridiculous” and “heroic.” I smoke, and for all the money I spend and dirty looks I get for it, I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss the best smoke of all — the one rolled with sap on the fingers, at high altitude after a long walk, and lit with an ember from the campfire.

We had gotten a late start and began to lose daylight about a mile shy of the lake. I prefer not to camp beside lakes anyway, mostly because everyone else seems to prefer to camp by them.

We made camp in a clearing near the creek, abundant with dry wood. I’d camped in the same spot a week before and had looked up from cooking dinner to see a large black bear watching me from among the berry bushes on the scree slope above, 150 yards away. I’d seen the bear the next evening, too, and had watched him for a long time as he worked his way slowly along the slope, grazing on berries. Some other people were coming down the trail at least a quarter mile away when they spotted the distant bear and began to yell: “Bear! Hey, bear!” The bear looked up at them to see what the fuss was about, then turned back to eating berries. I imagined him shaking his head in exasperation.

No sign of the bear this night. We built a big fire and cooked a big dinner — a pound of ground beef, green peppers and mushrooms, tortillas heated on a rock — using up the heavy food before the big climb tomorrow.

The crossing

The trail climbed steeply to the lake and when we got there we were hot and hungry. Iron Man, Johnathan and I went for a swim — though it’s probably more accurate to say we went for a quick, gasping thrash in the recently melted snow — then laid out on a pile of lakeside boulders, naked skin against warm granite and cold wind. We ate jerky and cheese and crackers and dried apples and then all dozed for a while in the sun, sleepily contemplating our surroundings and our route through them.

The lake sits in a glacial bowl, towered over on three sides by walls of rock and slopes of scree. The rim of the bowl is a thin but steep ridge that arcs from west to east and climaxes in a pair of sharp, black, horn-like peaks. That ridge is bisected by a north-south running ridge, out of sight from the lake. Together, at that point, they form the backbone of the range: They separate the creek and trail systems of the westside from those of the eastside, form the obstacle to be crossed. The lake marks the end of the trail. From here we were on our own.

Time to get going. We shouldered our packs and picked our way up a steep chute of broken granite. I stopped to rest where a spring sheened over a slab of rock. I lay and lapped the water off the stone and grazed on grouse wortleberries like a bear, without hands, stripping them from their shrubs with lips and teeth — the best way I’ve found to eat the tiny huckleberries, and the leaves ain’t bad, either.

As we moved higher, the landscape grew harsher by the minute. Soon, a lone thistle, a bit of moss, a spider web in the rocks, the warning chirp of a marmot were the only signs of life.

The going was slow and strenuous, requiring feet and hands both, somewhere between a hike and a climb — a scramble. We reached a large snowfield cupped in a crater below the ridge and considered our route for the final ascent. We chose another scree slope, steep but more mellow than the alternatives.

Twenty minutes later we emerged onto wide open, tundra-y saddle, buffeted by wind and hooting with joy. Ahead and below we could see the vast and lush paradise meadows — as I not very subtlety or creatively call them — where we hoped to camp that night. We looked a last time back west, down the glacial valley up which we had come. Then we turned our backs and headed east and down.

We glissaded — though, technically, I think the term implies use of an ice axe, which we did not have — a few hundred feet down a valley snowfield and tromped the rocky stream bed at the bottom til we hit the drop off. Through a notch in the rock, another snowfield spilled steeply down into a gnarly boulder field on the edge of the meadows.

We scouted other options, found nothing promising. From our vantage it seemed that a band of cliffs separated us from the meadows below. We were losing light and made a decision to proceed down the snow chute.

In single file, Dominic in the lead and Johnathan and Iron Man in the rear, we worked our way down the crevice where the snowfield met the rock, wedging ourselves between the cliff to our left and the wall of snow to our right.

Where the snowfield widened, it separated from the rock and left a hole and an 8 foot drop-off. No way down that way. But on the right, there was a smaller hole in the snow wall, just big enough for a person to squeeze through, that led down a ladder of rock to the rocky floor beneath the glacier. Dominic crammed himself through the hole, reached the bottom, then kicked footholds into the snowbank on the other side and climbed to the next ledge of rock and snow. With some paracord and a caribiner I swung our packs to him across the gulf, and then Johnathan and I followed down into the bowels of the glacier.

Dominic decided to shed his pack and slide it down the snowfield — but instead of slide it flipped end over end like a bad car wreck, tomahawking and picking up speed the whole way until it crashed into the rocks with a loud smash. That should have been a warning, as should the misgivings of the intrepid Iron Man. He was still near the top of the chute, paralyzed between his terror and his love for Dominic. He and I went back for the dog and forced him, with much whimpering and paws to the face, down through the hole and carried him up the other side.

And now, it seemed, we really were stuck. Dominic and I climbed up onto the surface of the snow sheet to see about the possibility of vlissading the rest of the way — it was steep up top but seemed to mellow out lower down.

I dug footholds and sat down — and promptly felt one foothold give. The other gave quickly under the increased weight.

“Guess I’m going,” I said as I slid away.

Whether the slope did indeed “mellow out” down below is not clear to me. What is clear is that, despite the furious efforts of my hands and feet to gain some traction, I continued to gain speed for some 20 seconds, as images of blood-stained snow and newspaper headlines dashed through my mind.

I plowed feet-first into the rocks. Hard. Fierce pain jolted through my whole body. When I recovered enough to look down, I expected to see blood, perhaps my tibia sticking through my skin.

But there was no blood, no jagged bone. The pain was receding down my right leg to concentrate in the ankle. I crawled onto a small boulder and Iron Man, who pursued me down unharmed, thanks to his claws I think, nestled himself beside me. I yelled to my friends that I was hurt but not to hurry. They were just within earshot and, afraid they may have misheard, I said it again: “Don’t hurry!” I found out later that what they heard, tragi-comically, was: “Hurry! Help!”

They began to work their way along the crevice — the path that had seemed impassable before but now, apparently, looked pretty good by comparison.

Then Johnathan took a bad step and he too came careening down the slope, head first. He is going to die, I thought. But he managed to get his feet pointed downhill. I caught snapshots of his grimly determined face as time slowed and I tried to figure what to do. I hopped between the rocks on my good leg and, at the last moment, I threw my backpack between his feet and the rocks. He hit hard but jumped up right away, unhurt.

Dominic, for his part, performed some beautiful high-pressure rock climbing, avoiding the snow by traversing the steep rock face. With his rifle slung on his back he looked like a redneck spiderman.

Together again at the bottom, we made for the nearest clearing to make camp. It was the most beautiful camping place I have ever seen — a meadow of ample, soft ground and dry wood, watched over by an ancient whitebark pine, and with a little stream running along the edge.

Three other campers, who had watched our chaotic descent in horrified awe and come to check on us, complimented the place as nicer than the one they had searched out for their own camp.

“We just fell into it,” I said.

The hobble out

That night Dominic and Johnathan set up the tent as I sat by the fire and iced my ankle with snow. We ate tofu ramen with wild onions and bluebell leaves, which have a faint — or not so faint, according to my brother — taste of oysters.

Frost on my books and the cook bag reminded me that August is over. I headed for the tent, shivering to be away from the fire, and put on all my clothes. I zipped up my sleeping bag and lay there shaking with cold and unsupressable images of my trip down the snow field.

But in the morning the early sun was hot on the tent and the meadow burned with wildflowers: Indian paintbrushes as red as blood, bluebells blushily hanging their heads, lupine ranging in color from sky blue to royal purple — all flowers gone from the valleys since mid-July. Strange collision of seasons up here — spring falling head-on into autumn, a short and lovely song, the last note hanging in the air….

That day we laid up and rested. I found a strong, cured stick of spruce that had bent with the wind into the shape of a cane. I hobbled with it around the meadows that descended like steps along the creek, lying in them one by one for hours at a time.

Back on a trail and descending, the walk out the next day was surprisingly easy. Maybe that’s because Dominic and Johnathan carried most of the weight of my of pack. Or maybe it was because of our vivid imaginings of heading to Neptune’s for the sacred coming-out-ofthe-mountains meal.

Either way, it felt like the right way to come down out of the Crazies — different than you went in. I just hoped to heal soon enough to get back up there in time to see the first snow fall on the paradise meadows.