Wanderings in Alaska II: Climbing in the Alaska Range outside of Denali National Park

I changed into my green pants, perfect for climbing and scrambling, comfortable and light. The legs when moving always stay warm regardless of weather. Almost always, that is. They would certainly be cold in about an hour and a half. And another, more sensitive member above the legs most emphatically would not stay at all warm. There was no trail. Branches scraped me, roots tripped me, I continued cheerfully up. About 500 vertical feet above the road, there was some snow. 500 feet above that, the snow covered the ground and I sank into it with each step, knee deep at times. Still the legs stayed warm, since they were moving upward on a steep slope. After pushing my way through the forested portion filled with trees 10 to 15 feet high, I made it to a clearing. I predictably and naively had thought this clearing was the top from the bottom. Not even close, as I should have known. And here the wind came back. The trees had partially sheltered me before. Now I felt the full force and power of the wind at my back. Not a kindly tropical zephyr wind, but an angry arctic indisputably wintry wind.

snow mountain alaska

 Angry? An angry wind? It seems to me, the professor of anthropology says with a decidedly learned air, that you are giving a human quality to a inhuman force. Personification, if you will. Anthropomorphism, if you’d prefer to give it a more academic ring. A solid point, professor, sir. I will try to elaborate, for your sake and for mine, if I can. I do not mean to attempt to describe the indescribable, to give human emotion to what is inhuman and unemotional. I hope that my words do not detract from the mother who is forever silent, for silence is always superior to speech, but if possible add to her, to her grace, to her silence. No, that’s not it, not add to her, that cannot be done. What is unconstructed, what is wild, cannot be improved upon by man. Man can only destroy it or respect it. If he respects it, he does not alter it. No, not to add to her, but maybe to open people and myself to the silence of nature, which is only ever a stillness and never a silence, as well as the silence that lies within us; within you, professor of anthropology, and within me. The wind, though it might not have been angry in the sense you and I mean it, was certainly not silent. And if there was anger, it was not senseless. Senseless anger is solely a human quality.

So perhaps there was a reason for it, though it seemed unreasonably fierce, perhaps the winds were righteously angry, and their anger was such as cannot be harnessed, beyond the ability of humans to control. Uncontrollable. The dog may be able to be tamed, but woe to the man who attempts to tame the wolf. Woe to the man who attempts to control the uncontrollable, harness the unharness-able, tame the untamable. Woe to the man who looks at the wild river and thinks only of the cash that could come from damming it, who looks at the mountain to wonder what minerals might lie within it, who sees the forest as lumber, to whose eyes nothing is beautiful but what is profitable. Woe to that man, woe to those men who manhandle what should only ever be handled gently, or not at all. So to conclude, professor of anthropology, that’s the type of anger I’m talking about, the anger of the winds, or at least the anger I attributed to the winds.

The thing is, though I said the winds were angry, this is not true. Nature is indifferent, the sun does not care who it burns, the cold night does not care who it freezes, but Nature is never hostile or vengeful, as long as we change ourselves for the land and not the other way around. So-called civilized people change the land to suit their interests, bulldozing forests to build high-rise apartment complexes, making concrete roads and sidewalks where there ought to be fields of high uncut grass. The “uncivilized,” the “savage,” before whites came with reservations and forced assimilation, never changed the land for his own interest, he changed himself to suit the land. If the land was harsh and uncompromising, the uncivilized Navajo or Eskimo with no desire for civilization did not try to mold the land. Instead, he worked with the land, eating what food was provided, living where there was natural shelter or using natural materials to build a shelter. He realized that all a shelter needed to do was keep its inhabitants dry. Warmth came with the fire. Luxury was unknown. Those in touch with inhuman Nature realize sooner or later that human nature does not fit in with her scheme. Human nature is not natural.

While Nature is indifferent to the plight of its inhabitants, whether they are cold or hot, whether they are unhappy or happy, civilization keeps some people warm and comfortable while it lets others freeze, it keeps some people well-fed enough so that they can convince themselves they are happy, while it lets others starve. Prejudiced hostility rather than indifferent neutrality. Nature is indifferent, but it is also neutral. Whites are rocked by the earthquake the same as blacks. People from Louisiana are no more protected from the hurricane than people from New Jersey. Nature, in its unprejudiced indifference, is a leveler of all people, the master socialist.

 

Warren Zevon, from “The Indifference of Heaven”:

 

“Gentle rain falls on me

And all life folds back into the sea

We contemplate eternity

Beneath the vast indifference of heaven”

mountain snow sky alaska

 On the slope, I kept climbing up, amidst the vastness and eternity, amidst the calm indifference of Nature. It was almost easy, the wind at my back. The deep snow made slipping actually less likely; powdery snow, not wet and slippery. But the wind was cold. The air might have been in the low twenties or high teens, but the wind chill made it feel subzero. The snow began to freeze on my pants, and I hurried faster, trying to stay warm through constant movement. It worked, but I knew once I made it to the top and stopped moving, if I made it to the top, the cold would be unbearable. The last little bit was one of the steepest slopes I have ever climbed up, and I crawled on my hands and knees for balance, a low center of gravity. 4 limbs on the ground. Like a wolf, like a bear, like a tiger. I saw an eagle here, the first I’d ever seen in the wilds, circling regally over the mountains, king of the skies, seemingly unaffected by the winds. A plane flew directly above me. The path the plane made in the sky looked beautiful from this height, where nothing looked ugly, where nothing except the plane could be seen of human civilization. And nothing heard, not even the plane, which was drowned out by the winds.

Crawling, reverting to the nature of the beast, I eventually reached the top. Of course, it was not the tiptop. I could have, if it had been a day without 100 mile per hour gusts of wind (perhaps an exaggeration but I don’t think so), kept on going. Although it was a flat area, there were countless other mountains further on and up. But the wind seemed to double in velocity once I got to the top, and there was no way I could go on. I could barely take my gloves off to take a few hurried pictures. I put on my hat and pulled down my neck warmer, which had been on my head, so that only my eyes were visible. Still, I had to look down and turn my back on the wind, or else my eyes would burn from the snow the wind picked up and hurled in all directions. I could barely see, but what I could see was of such astounding beauty that tears started to come to my eyes. It was either the astounding beauty of the surrounding landscape or the snow blown by the wind that was burning my eyes or the pants freezing to my legs or my increasingly frigid penis that brought the tears to my eyes.

Probably all of them. I had to pee slightly, but I was not at all tempted to. I was truly in the sky; the mountains around me were only slightly higher than I was. I could not stay though, the wind was quite insistent on this point. I started quickly down, backwards so I wouldn’t be facing the wind. Mostly so that sensitive member I referred to earlier would not be facing the wind, as it was now quite cold and definitely confirming Costanza’s crisis. But my crisis was more severe. Cold is worse than wet, a physical rather than a Napoleonic hardship. However embarrassing wet might be when seen, said wet member can be dried and embarrassment can be forgotten, if slowly and painfully. Cold can be warmed, but not thousands of feet above the road and the car and the heat. This was real cold. Not Virginia cold, not even the Arizona high desert cold. No. This was Alaska cold. Frostbite cold.

Once I could face the wind without being pushed back several feet, I ran down, fast, the deep snow helping me not to slip and fall, though not helping to warm me, especially the one part, or unfreeze my pants from my skin. I kept running, thinking that at least it wasn’t painful now that numbness had set in. Necessity gave me speed, and I ran straight down the mountain, two thousand or so vertical feet to where there were trees. Trees and protection from wind. Even when I got to the trees, I kept running, though this was a mistake. Falling countless times into deep snow did not help to warm me. Eventually, when I had been running for about an hour, my head down the whole way to protect my eyes from the wind, I finally stopped when I noticed that there was no snow on the ground anymore and found out that I was burning up. From close to frostbite to too hot. I took off my wind jacket and put it in my pack. As I did, I noticed another blue article of clothing. Thermal pants. They had been sitting comfortably in my pack while I had been literally freezing my ass off (I had sat down on the snow once during the hike at one of the only moments when there was comparably little wind. Another mistake).

I went slowly now and found a running stream that I hadn’t seen on the way up. A few days or weeks from now it would be frozen, but now it was flowing and the sound of it was pure music, pure as only wordless music can be. I sat by the creek in an opening where the sun shined between trees. The warm sun seemed to belie the pure righteous anger of the winds, which had finally quieted down. I could hear the river below me, the creek beside me, the birds in trees above me. I couldn’t hear any cars below on the road. I sat there in the sun, on the spongy tundra. I sat there in the sun, on the side of the mountain. I sat there in the sun, leaning my back against a spruce tree, and closed my eyes.

sun alaska

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