Sunday, July 21, 2019

A RIDGE TO ONE’S SELF

On the crest of the ridge above Turnagain Pass

The sun reflected fiercely off the snow spreading out around me like a coat of soft, wet enamel. Sunglasses would’ve helped. Even partially shielding my eyes with the cup of my right hand glare off the snow stung as I circled along the rim of the deep cirque dropping away on my right.

On such a bright, warm day—one of the few in many weeks—it seemed surprising to see no other life than the greening flora on this high ridge above the west side of Turnagain Pass. Other than the labor of my breathing and the squish of my feet in the snow, nothing else moved or made a noise. No hawk hovered overhead; no vole scurried over the ridge nearby; not even a bug buzzed in the tundra underfoot. I had the ridge all to myself, creating a unique feeling of solitude—hiking alone in a very big place.

The next ridge to the west

The next ridge to the west

At the far end of the cirque, snow gave way to tundra. Dropping my hand from my eyes, I began climbing the upper edge toward the summit of the next buttress on the ridge.  Arriving at the summit I found it under another sheet of snow.

Looking down the wind-packed berm hanging over its far edge, one could see 2,000 feet down into the Seattle Creek valley and then up the far side to a serrated wall of 4,000-peaks rising against the blue, cloudless west sky.

Self-portrait on the way to the highest buttress

Having now reached the top of this buttress, the goal since it first came in sight when I climbed onto the back of the ridge, I did not want to end the hike yet.  A whole lot of high country still extended about me. I only needed the flimsiest of reasons (if I needed one at all) to continue hiking. On the far side of the buttress I found that reason. Across the next cirque beyond this summit there loomed another, higher buttress. So the ridge drew me onward and upward.

Passing around the next cirque I hazarded a couple of approaches to its thickly corniced edge.  Avalanche debris below the 15-foot-wide cornice made me cautious, but a solid wall of snow at one point held me long enough to take some pictures of this still deeply snowed north flank of the ridge. I shook my head at the power of the sun and wind: In just over a quarter mile, from the east side of the ridge above Turnagain Pass to this west side of the ridge above Seattle Creek, one passed from green tundra to avalanching snow.

At the far side of the cirque the snow again gave way to tundra. And, again, upon approaching the summit of this buttress I climbed alongside another berm of snow hanging off far side.

The lone ptarmigan on the ridge

Rounding over the final few steps to the top, a small, quick movement pulled my eyes down and to the left. There, 20 feet away, a ptarmigan fluttered in a hollow of snow. With the sun behind it, it its form made distinct silhouette against the snow.

 

As it surprised me, so did I seem to surprise it. I stopped as it hopped across the snow. It lifted into the air seeming bent on flight but flew only tight circle before skittering back to where it started. As long as I kept my distance, it stayed. To think it reluctant to leave a fellow sentient being would amount to pathetic fallacy, but one could not help thinking such a thought in the solitude we shared.

Then I cooed to it. It whistled in return.

I took another slow step towards it. Twice more it lifted from the snow as if to flee, and both times it rose into the air only to circle quickly back to the same spot. Then it hopped two steps, as if to take flight again, but it did not. Warily, it seemed torn between the need for safety in flight and the desire to stay. In the end, as I made no further movement towards it, it stayed.

So for a moment we shared the ridge.

Cornice on the north side of the ridge with Pyramid Mountain and Turnagain Arm in the background

After watching it for a few minutes, I left it to its solitude and walked the few steps to the far side of the buttress to take a break and look back down from where I’d come.

Down the valley to my left flowed Seattle Creek. Down the valley to my right flowed Ingram Creek. Together, after flowing more than 8 miles from where I sat, they passed on either side of side of Pyramid Mountain rising at the far end of the ridge. Just beyond that mountain they reached the waters of Turnagain Arm. On the far side Turnagain Arm the Twentymile River valley reached for another 15 miles into the high, heavily snowed Chugach Mountains. Over toward Portage to the northeast rose the tell-tale hump of Maynard Mountain. Nearer to the east rose Tincan Mountain and Kickstep Mountain.

It then seemed time to go, but not to hurry the going. In a long, leisurely curve along the back of the ridge I followed a very indirect way down through the wide views extending from the quiet ridge.

Returning to the green world below

Upon reaching the highest brush, I unexpectedly flushed two more ptarmigan into the air. These two, having no need for me, darted across the snow just below me, their brown and white mottled wings flashing in the sunlight against the green spruce forests 1,000 feet farther below.

Now, as long as I trended downwards, the hike would eventually, a bit reluctantly, come to an end. One, after all, rarely has a ridge almost entirely to one’s self.

The sense of solitude experienced in so big a landscape can really get into the brain and bones and make one never want to leave it behind and above.  But at least I had the memory of sharing a few moments with a lone ptarmigan to carry with me back into the crowded lowlands below.

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