We could see it from 50 feet away as we descended off the summit cone of Camp Robber Peak. There, just beyond the last boulders of the ridge bloomed a small mound of Moss Campion. Despite the overcast, the purple mound shone on the brown shingle slope, unprotected by any boulder and not even half-hidden below or behind a dimple of dirt or a few small stones. No other plant grew anywhere in sight. All alone it bloomed on that smooth, exposed slope.
Such starting sights of thriving plant life occur rarely above 5,000 feet in Alaska. On a sunny day this high landscape, made up of mountains composed of rock, dirt snow, and ice, appears bright and big, but not beautiful as much as austere, a grand and hard landscape of big mountains and big glaciers, of loose rocks and ledges, of crevasses and cliffs, of avalanches and rock slides, and of snow and rain and battering winds overhead. In this hard land lived goats and sheep, an occasional vole, and a rare bird or two—and sporadic blotches of lichen and clumps of Moss Campion.
Leah and I had come up into this world but for to stand on the top of Camp Robber Peak. We began far below, in the green lowlands at the beginning of Crow Pass Trail. The first miles of hiking took us up through a landscape of alders and meadows, of blooming flowers and fleeing marmots, of chirping birds and circling hawks.
A mile after crossing over Crow Pass and starting down Raven Creek valley, we turned off the main trail onto a narrower trail. After climbing up and around a corner a quarter mile above we entered the Clear Glacier valley.
But we could not yet see Clear Glacier. That big chunk of ice still lay out of sight up and around the end of the valley. We still had a mile or more of climbing through the green world below before we would even catch our first glimpses of that glacier.
Within a quarter mile the low brush and grasses of the valley floor began to mix with more strands of rocks and boulders. Within another few hundred yards, after turning a corner coming in sight of the snout of the glacier 500 feet above, the brush gave way to more rocks. As we crossed the upper end of the valley, hopping numerous glacier-fed streams as we went, the brush gave way to rocks, sometimes big slabs of ice-scraped and shaped bedrock.
Then after crossing one luckily lingering snowfield over the final and largest stream we started up the 100-foot wide gully leading to Steamroller Pass. Rolling over into the cirque at the top of the gully, we passed only one patch of tundra—a 100-foot-square area fed by springs in its midst.
Climbing into the cirque above this tundra we left what the last of the green world below and entered the world of snow and rock. First we wound our way up wide troughs of snow dropping down through the high rock piles in the base of the cirque. Eventually we climbed above the shaded snow below and began final climb up the rock headwall to the wide pass above.
Upon reaching the pass and looking over the fluted far side, we saw, some 4 miles away, beyond the sheer-walled gorge of the pass, the green expanse of the upper Bird Creek drainage.
From the pass we swung left and crossed a wide bowl toward the humpbacked summit of Camp Robber Peak. After a high and airy traverse over the humpback we stood on the summit.
From there we looked out over an unrolling chaos of glaciers, peaks, and ridges extending away from us to the hazy horizon in all directions. Some of the nearby peaks, like Crow Peak and Magpie Peak, rising just across the upper end of Clear Glacier to our immediate south, rose in ragged detail into the sky. Other peaks, like the Front Range, visible some 15 miles due west beyond the Ship Creek drainage, lost all detail with distance. Still others, like the great 7,000-footers rising on the far side of the Eagle River 10 miles to the north, maintained their imposing presence through their sheer massive size of piled rock and hanging snows. Only to the southwest did the mountains give way to water, the gray, cold waters of Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet stretching into the indistinct distance.
The sense of self diminishes to near nothing when confronted with such a chaos of size and power unfolding on all sides for such great distances. We did not speak much in the presence of such powers.
Then it came time to descend. After taking some care descending the steep and rocky summit cone, we reached the saddle below and began crossing to the far side. Then the Moss Campion, blooming just below the far end of the saddle, caught the eye. So bent on our destination, we passed just below it on our way up earlier.
Now, looking down and across the saddle, it made its presence obvious. On such a dull and cloudy afternoon its purple color shone like a small bright island on the brown shingle slope. A few moments later we stood above it.
It seemed wondrous finding such a small, solitary plant on such a high, windy-scoured ridge. Its very existence gave mute testament to the persistence of life—the will to simply survive. The exceptional (meaning different, not better) creature wants more than to merely survive. Such creatures usually have more intelligence, which means they seem to require more stimulation—stimulation such as dolphins find in playing with a piece of drifting plastic, dogs find in chasing balls, and humans find in watching TV.
But all creatures do desire to survive and often show astounding persistence in doing so. The Emperor Penguin in the Antarctic winter, the water snakes at the bottom of black oceans, the chamois on the sheer slopes of the Alps, and a cactus in the Sonoma Desert all show this persistence—as did this little purple clump of Moss Campion on a ridge of Camp Robber Peak. It just needed (wanted?) a little sun and a little water to persist as it does. One might even admire having so few needs and yet so great a will.
Some four hours later as the time approached midnight Leah and I arrived back at the car. We had had a day worth remembering, but not just because of the length of the day, the long climb, and the views from the summit, but also because of a small purple plant surviving as best it can, as it only knows how, high on a bare ridge.