Friday, January 22, 2021

Two Faces of Spring

“Tis a month before the month of May,
And the Spring comes slowly up this way.” (“Cristabel” by S. T. Coleridge)

Climbing the lower trail

Turn north and the headwind ripped at the clothes and numbed the face. Turn south and the sun blinded the eyes. Merely by turning 180 degrees one felt the temperature rose from 15 to over 40 degrees. So does April make apparent its two faces. When the sun shines, glaring off the snow, heating the air, and reddening the face, the month smiles benignly. But when the north wind blows, cutting through the air, and freezing the eyelashes, the month frowns most frowardly. It can switch from one to the other in one day to another, or from one to the other in one day. As Karma and I discovered on the crest of big, fat crest of Bald Mountain Ridge, it can also switch if you just turn around.

As we started up through the still bare woods, the temperature had hovered around freezing. But the views from the open flats along the snowmachine trail gave glimpses of the warmth of the sun in the cloudless sky above. As we trudged north toward the south-facing flank of the ridge, the alabaster snow still lay thick above tree line. Where the last pins of green spruce ended the snow rose, but for a few black rocks, unbroken into the empty blue sky. It looked very inviting.

It took some effort to reach that open high country, though. The higher we climbed, the steeper the trail, and the more grainy the snow underfoot. It felt like climbing a steep dune on a wide beach. Once above tree line, the snow turned crusty, but not crusty enough to hold a human’s weight. Karma could walk easily up the crest, but I wallowed often in deep holes of powder snow.

Approaching the top of Bald Mountain Ridge

Still, for all the labor, it felt good to climb above the last trees the bare heights—until we finally topped the broad crest of the ridge. Just as we topped the last fold of the ridge’s southern flank the full force of the north wind—some 15 mph of cold, blasting air—hit us head-on. Bearing off to the west, we trudged up the last steps to a 100-foot broad plateau overlooking the Palmer-Wasilla valley to the south and the Susitna River valley to the west. There we found a single snowmachiner taking in the view. Donned in a full snowsuit with a helmet on, he could withstand the wind.

With the wind whipping about us, we chose not to linger. After clicking a few quick pictures with numbing fingers, we continued on. For a few minutes we headed north, hoping to get a view down the far side of the ridge. But between the post-holing and the wind, we did not get very far very fast.

Looking south across Knik Arm to Pioneer Peak and the Chugach Mountains

Above us stretched the blue, spotless sky. Around us stretched the rolling rises of the snow-covered ridge. Below us stretched the wide forested and river-mazed valleys.

Snowshoes would’ve made it easy going, but I had none.

Turning to face the warm sun, we started southward, knowing that the brightening days would eventually even calm the north wind’s strength. But one could not force the issue; one could only wait. Spring would climb to these highlands at its own pace.

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