The Finest Hour
"The finest hour that I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day
It’s when the darkness rolls away." - Kate Wolf, Across the Great Divide
Through the dark forest we hike, headlamps bobbing, as we wind our way up the mountain side. With my vision focused solely in the narrow space illuminating the trail before me, my other senses are heightened and define the world in which I move. I hear the crunch of granite beneath foot, the clink of pole tips on a rock and the gurgling of a mountain stream. I smell the musty undergrowth of a waning summer after a night’s rain, and the pungent odor of mountain goats bedded down nearby. I feel the downdrafts of cool air descending from the high peaks, and the warmth arising from my body as we climb the steep switchbacks. But every now and then, between the giant pines looming above, I catch a glimpse of the night sky and stars glittering in the inky blackness.
After a thousand feet of climbing we reach a bench atop the headwall and stop to catch our breath. We turn off our headlamps and stand, let our eyes adjust to the darkness and then cast them upward. The moonless sky is dense with its radiant celestial bodies - sparkling stars, gleaming planets and crystal-clear constellations. And through them all the Milky Way streaks like frothy waves in a sea of ebony. We gaze at the heavens in wonder until we are reminded that time is of the essence.
Headlamps back on, we continue hiking in the quiet darkness, across the tundra into a high alpine basin. For a short while the ascent is gradual and then becomes steeper as it zigzags through boulders and around scree fields. Our breathing becomes heavier. Another half an hour and we are feeling our way through the twilight, up a rock ramp, which delivers us to a saddle at the base of the final climb before the summit. As we stop to put away our poles, the eastern horizon starts to glow orange, crimson and purple behind the sawteeth of distant mountains. The brightest stars and planets still vaguely wink above but most are lost to the diffused light of the impending break of day. We turn off our headlamps for the night is ending.
On the summit ridge, the mountain above opens to us, bathed with the soft glow of dawn. We scramble quickly out of the shadows, enjoying hand over foot climbing on solid granite until we are there. From the summit we can see miles and miles in every direction, the expanse and grandeur of the views infinite. To the west a rosy glow surrounds the Earth’s purple umbra arched over distant and hazy mountain ranges. We turn and sit to watch the brightening sky to the east.
Slowly gold fades to flaxen blonde, then little by little to an insipid yellow and then, all of a sudden, the horizon is on fire and the sun presents itself, a dazzling orb, blinding bright, spinning us in its glorious gilded rays. Standing strong on a mountain summit, in the gleam of the sun, cast in its golden patina, I think, if there is a moment, just one, where one is touched by the glory of life, this is it.
All around the mountains are a kaleidoscope of every shade of pink and purple and blue and gold imaginable. We wheel around first to the west, then back to the east and west again, taking in, no - devouring, the splendour of the mountains at sunrise.
I do not want to leave, but the sun is rising fast now, stealing down the mountain sides, flooding valleys with light and banishing shadows from the earth.
I do not want to leave, but we have more summits to climb. So we begin our descent, tingling from the warmth of the sun, invigorated and so vitally alive. The finest hour may be over, but the mountains are awake and so am I.
Note: This is the third installment from the backpacking trip in the Weminuche Wilderness. Over a period of two days we camped in Chicago Basin, rising early in the morning and summiting the four 14ers which surrounded our camp. These are: Windom Peak (14,082 feet), Sunlight Peak (14,059'), South Mount Eolus (14,083') and North Mount Eolus (14,039'). The pictures above were all taken from the summit of North Mount Eolus with the exception of the last which was on Sunlight Peak. My partner in climb was Holly. Christy stayed with Keira, our four-legged friend, back at camp where they fought a running battle with invading mountain goats.
Despite being warned about how crowded this area was we experienced total solitude on every one of our summits and saw only two other groups on the more technical aspects of the peaks. Perhaps this was because of our desire to experience the Finest Hour.
My first report from the multi-day backpacking trip is Adventures in the Weminuche. The second is Where Rivers Change Direction. Thank you for joining me on my travels through the mountains. I hope you find them as inspiring as I do.