A tide of golden light rushed over the landscape when the sun emerged in the late summer evening from behind two of the few clouds in the sky. Just before dipping behind the north ridge of Crow Peak some 2,400 feet above and behind Crystal Lake, it dropped below the clouds. Its rays immediately dispersed the shadow on the dark wall on the opposite side of the valley lit the slope with emerald and amber light. Then, only moments later, the sun dropped below the ridge, the light disappeared, and the wall sank back into shadow.
In the sudden chill the sun left behind, I rose from the grass beside the lake’s outlet where I had stopped for one last break and turned to my pack. But instead of reaching for my pack, I took a step back. There, less than 20 feet away, a full-grown goat stood perched on 5-foot boulder at the edge of the clearing.
“Good evening, goat,” I said after recovering from the surprise.
He looked down at me silently. Then, as I again reached for my pack, he turned and slowly sauntered away, its rear swinging behind it as it climbed into the tundra on the far side of the trail.
Then a clattering of stones came from above. High on the steep face nunatak above descended three other goats Hopping from ledge to gully to boulder,, they made their winding way down, dropping stones as they descended.
Climbing back onto the trail, I turned to watch them as they zigzagged down toward me. Then I turned down the trail leaving them to their world—a world we can only visit.
We can visit this world for a day, a few days, maybe a month, but to do so we have to carry so much of our world with us. And when we run out of what we carry we eventually must leave. I had only come for a dozen or so hours. Now the time had come to return to our world, but not before climbing to a remote corner of their world.
One would not immediately think that hiking in Crow Pass would allow access to a remote spot, but while most people stay on the trail below some venture into the heights above. Some climb Jewel Mountain and Summit Peak above the east side of the pass. Some climb Crow Peak and Camp Robber Peak on the west side of the pass or venture over Paradise Pass to Grizzly Lake at the headwaters of East Fork Ship Creek. Those that make such climbs often cross paths with no other people.
I had scrambled into a shallow but steep cirque tucked between Clear Glacier and Crow Pass. Though many people hiked Crow Pass Trail, upon leaving the trail and clambering up the steep tundra toward the rocks above I left all people behind. I would not cross paths with anyone until dropping onto the trail again for the hike out.
But evidence of people’s passing did mark this upper valley. At the upper end of the cirque, above the last tundra in the high world of rocks and snow, highlighted by an occasional lone flower or weed, a plastic water bottle—still full—lay among the rocks.
Above this lone bottle the slope of loose stones and gravel slanted steeply upward for 500 feet to a serrated ridge top. After a very laborious scramble I stood atop that ridge looking down and across the white and blue expanse of Clear Glacier and the long hump of Camp Robber Peak silhouetted against the sky at its uppermost corner on the far side.
Then I turned up the ridge, slowly made my way among the rocks and ledges to the crest of the next buttress. Down 2,000 feet to the left nestled the waters of Crystal Lake and the Crow Creek valley dropping into the. Over 1,000 feet down to the right unfolded Clear Glacier. Behind me the knife-edge ridge I had just climbed pointed far down the Raven Creek valley toward Eagle River and Mount Yukla and the great 7,000-foot peaks stretching away to the snow-peaked horizon.
Up here, in the land of rocks and ice, of little water and much wind, we can stay for but an even shorter time. If we have hiked the equipment up this far, we might stay a night or two. But lack of water and food will eventually drive us back to the lowlands. Having neither enough food nor the water, and certainly not enough warm clothes and no shelter, my short time in this high country quickly ran out.
Turning around, I began making my way back the way I had come, glissading down snowfields when possible, having to clamber over rocks when necessary, dropping back out of the long sunlight of evening on the high ridges into the cool shadows of the valleys.
Just after reaching the trail, I heard voices. Moments later, three bare-breasted young men, each carrying a beer, came over a rise in the trail. We talked for a moment, them asking about the river crossing, me wondering why the mosquitoes didn’t plague their bare skin. Then we parted company, each heading down to our own place of rest for the night.
Crystal Lake lay deep in shadow when I stopped beside it. The hut on its shore seemed empty. There, after a quiet moment beside the lake’s outlet, and then rising to the surprise meeting with the goat, I bid the goat goodnight. Then I turned down toward my distant place of rest, leaving the goat to his world—at least until the first people started up the trail tomorrow.
“Enjoy the quiet,” I told him as we looked back at each one last time. He then turned toward the other goats descending the rocks above him as I turned down the trail. They could now reclaim the world in which they lived and which we only visit.