Journey to a land with ancient strength
By Elias Christian
We wake with a sleepy, yet near-forgotten, excitement quivering in the pits of our stomachs. The sun peers out over the western mountains, pale and tentative. The sky is foreboding and winter-dark. The mountains, brown the night before, are covered with a peppering of snow. It is the day of the glacier hike. As we rouse ourselves, so does the half-hidden excitement. It is approximately a four-hour round-trip, after traveling past the ghost town of Kennecott – a place where the miners worked for the shining copper – and up to the guiding center. The morning blurs swiftly by: the breakfast is hurried and the clammy September air numbs my knuckles. Then the van is off, bumping down the narrow, winding road to the faded, and ghostly, glory of the mine.
When we arrive, we quickly scramble out of the van, stretch, and begin to talk excitedly. I press my chilled fingers to the warm palm of my hand. MP3 recorders and rectangular video camcorders sit, waiting. It is bitter up here, accompanied with a sharp breeze. Following the suit of my fellows, I shoulder my pack. We meet the guides, David and Betsy (their shop empty of visitors: the tourist season is almost over.) “OK. Do you guys want to fit some crampons?” This means there will be a session of awkward fitting of those spiked shoes that undoubtedly will be uncomfortable… no matter what size. For some reason, our voices are hushed, oppressed by the apprehension. And then the hike.
The way begins as a road, and slowly transforms into a trail, marching over volcanic rocks, cold springs, and muddy puddles, moving through the sentinel trees; twisting across the rooted trail, down to a mountain of shale. There the Great Whiteness looms up before us, and we can hear it, clanking and clicking as if it is alive. The glacier is a dome of rippling ice, pulsing out from it is the sense of age – an ancient strength. Our gear rustles. The whispers have died in awe.
A harsher wind blows off the glacier, stinging our cheeks. Dangling from my fingers are my crampons and sagging from my shoulders is my pack. With my own loose hand, I rub my red cheeks. There is something in this awesome power that seems to still humanity and accentuate the sound of the wind, the smell of the world.
I think it was the bigness of it. Just the incredible thereness of the glacier. Overlooking it, we sit on boulders at the foot of the shale mountain, where we pause and fit the crampons on again. Soon after we went, experimenting with the way the crampons dug into the ice and that was, for a while, the only sound, but for the blowing of the wind. It’s like a great scoop of ice cream, spooned out into the mountains. The crevasses run through it, slits falling down into the wet darkness. We small people with our small things, walking in this vast arena of ancient ice. The skeletons of leaves are fossilized in the ice, and soon they will be nothing. But the ice is not just pure white: it is a blue –a cold, blueness.
One side is a paradise, sun and azure sky peaking over the green-white mountains. The other is stormy and angry, completely unique, decorated with ragged cloud - like fingers. The ice is lined with dirt, pushing from the swallowed earth. The glacier is riddled with tunnels and pathways. The guides move us carefully over this great, white country, glistening and caught as if in motion.
Atop a high bank of ice we break for lunch: a hastily made meal of sandwiches. The wind begins to blow harder, till it bears down on us hard and furious, whipping around our jackets and pulling at every loose article of clothing and every loose paper bag. When we stand it carries us (a friend) or knocks and batters, nudging us as towards slopes and crevasses (a treacherous enemy.)
It is a beautiful and terrible wind, so powerful and so very cold. We laugh, but we hug our knees close, shivering. And then we make our descent, down a new route. Wonders of the glacier are uncovered to use: a massive sculpture, carven and crafted, by the water and the movement.
When we reach the base, rising immediately up to the mountain of shale, across the ridge, and to Kennecott, we in silence unstrap our crampons –exhilarated and breathless, as we return from the barren land.