Contagious Magic

In memory of Carol McBrian

It's noon on an unseasonably warm January day and I am going to the Pickets, alone. The light strains to make it through the canopy of Goodell Creek—even leafless, the trees block out the sun with swarms of moss and hanging lichen. But I know that if I walk fast enough I will get some of that afternoon sun where the trail climbs toward the alp slopes. I know this trail, I remember this trail. My pack is light—even with skis it's scarcely the weight of a summer overnight pack. I've no rope, no avalanche gear. It feels good, it feels simple like the first time I came here. 


The Southern Pickets from the summit of West McMillan Spire, January 2014

The Southern Pickets from the summit of West McMillan Spire, January 2014

In the summer after college I moved briefly to the Skagit Valley. I lived on a farm and looked up the valley each morning at Eldorado and the Marble Creek cirque. Between brief stints of work I wandered the trails of the North Cascades, short on partners and long on time. After a leisurely day climbing Forbidden I surprised a black bear on the road as Johannesberg shuttered the last orange rays of the afternoon; I was happy.

When I decided one day to hike toward the southern Pickets, I was in a hurry. My stepmother was coming up from Oregon the next day, which meant a lot to me. Neither she nor my father had come to visit since I moved to Washington, and I was grateful now. I wanted her to see this place, a place for which I had no words, a place that meant everything to me. But I also wanted to go to the top of a mountain in the Picket Range—of course I did.

Lounging above Goodell Creek, 2003

Lounging above Goodell Creek, 2003

On that first visit, I slowed as I neared treeline. Distances stretched out in the July sun, and the peaks seemed further and further away. As I hiked my ambition drained away, and the huckleberry meadows enticed me. I was disappointed by how easily these simple things distracted me. How was I supposed to be a great explorer if I only wanted to sit in the sunset and wait for the stars to rise above these mountains? I dragged my feet, I sang to myself. I realized I couldn't be late meeting my stepmother at the train station; I stopped. I did watch the sunset, and I did wait for the stars. 

Carol and Forest getting goofy in 2012

Carol and Forest getting goofy in 2012

I met Carol at the train station and drove her proudly up the Skagit to the farm. I took her on a drive up the Cascade River Road. There, near the center of my world, she could look up from the side of the road at the hanging ice of Johannesberg and, maybe, understand. Carol was a serious activist and a serious christian, and her faith led her to work for an unusual cocktail of causes: hunger, poverty, old growth conservation, closing  the School for the Americas, and on and on. She encouraged my love of the mountains, but she also worried after my spiritual well-being. "Forest," she said, "you need to find a place of spiritual renewal closer to home than the wilderness; someday you may not be able to go to the mountains every time you need to reconnect." She was right, and I ignored her.


My beater Volvo died halfway up the road. The view was blotted out by towering maples and nameless, wooded ridges. A tow-truck came from Marblemount to defeat me. Carol knew I wanted her to see the mountains, and she wanted to see them as well—for my sake. I was never able to share them with her.




Ten years later, a deep, hollow sound resonates through my skull as I climb toward that sunlight amid the salal and the doug fir. It's the sound of a shovelful of earth hitting the coffin lid. We buried Carol two days ago, and now I am doing the only thing I know to do.


Working on West McMillan in 2010

Working on West McMillan in 2010

I walk to free myself from the chill of a bone-white Oregon fog. When my father tossed in that first spray of dirt, the sound of it shook him and he convulsed with sobs. My brother and I rolled up our sleeves and with the help of the rest of the family we moved darkness into darkness. When we were done, one of the gravediggers looked at me urgently and held out a tupperware: "If you want to take some of the dirt home."

Since that first time in the Pickets I haven't become a great explorer, but I have learned to do the math and today I make it to camp. I sleep deeply beneath the last great hemlocks, then rise long before dawn. I get a kick out the ridiculous cliff bands and deceptive rolls and gullies of this place. I watch the stars wheel around and watch the half moon drag itself over the southern sky toward Triumph and Despair. I listen to the scratch of my skis as I fly toward that peak I wanted to climb all those years ago. It's easier now, but I know it means less. 


Anthropologists sometimes talk about contagious magic, or magic based on the belief that once things are in contact they remain somehow permanently so, no matter how physically separated they may later become. It's the principle behind so many of our symbols and gestures: a stone from the beach that connects us to our honeymoon; a boyfriend's t-shirt; the driving cap that my friend inherited from his father; the dirt you bring home from the grave. It may also underly the feeling we get when we return to a place, or go to one that others have visited. When I travel a familiar trail to a familiar summit, I am communing with the self who walked there years ago, and with so many faceless and friendly others. The summit has been touched by so many, and when we go there we touch them as well. The whole affair, from the road to the lonely summit, is a distillery of contagious magic, of all our desperate longing for connection to one another and to something greater. And maybe it's  also the principle that drives exploration—the notion of going somewhere clean of all contagion, a place waiting for our magic.


I stand on top of West McMillan spire, the most visited summit in the range, and I look at these big dark walls to the west. Maybe Carol is down in that shady cirque at my feet—maybe this is the threshold with that other world. I hold in my heart this primitive sense of magic that buoys me up, an endless need to go where so many—or so few—have gone.  I hope someday I will find that place she spoke of, a place of renewal far from this wilderness. But if I should go no further, I will be grateful that she showed me how to search, and that these wild places were here for me to find. 

The southern Pickets from Luna Col, West McMillan second from the left

The southern Pickets from Luna Col, West McMillan second from the left

Speak Now

Margaret Wheeler taking in the views of the Aiguille de Bionassay.

The old man teetered up the ridge toward us, a ski pole in either hand, his jeans tucked into big wool socks , his hiking boots shifting disconcertingly in his crampons. At 14,000 on the Gouter ridge of Mont Blanc, a fall to either side of the ridge would be fatal.We'd passed him and his younger partner earlier, and now we were heading down from the sunny, windswept summit. His partner was also walking with ski poles, though he had two ice axes strapped to his pack.  They had no rope. I stepped out of the track to let them pass; I made eye contact with the old man and he lurched toward me, his feet suddenly forgotten. I steadied him and turned to watch them go.  Then I was relieved to hear myself speaking.

It's difficult sometimes to speak up in the mountains, perhaps especially so for guides. I find myself irrationally afraid of offending people, of being taken for overbearing or arrogant.  I hesitate to invite rancor and conflict into the beautiful mountain experience for which my client has hired me. But I'm even more afraid of how I would feel if an accident happened and I had been silent. It's the same principle that would make me act if I saw a drunk person sitting down behind the wheel. Maybe, too, the same principle that urges me to say the most important things I have to say to the ones I love: what if this is my last chance to say anything at all. 

Heading down from the Gouter Ridge after a summer storm. 

"I think it is a good idea for you to turn around now," I said. The man tilted his head back and grimaced appraisingly at the ridge ahead. His partner said, "We will use the ice axes from here." I said, "Your friend is very, very tired, and it is a long way down. If he stumbles again the way he just did, he could fall and die." I told him again--please turn around.

We kept walking down the ice carapace that hovers above the busy valleys of Savoie. A rip curl of cloud rose up over the summit from the Italian side--the weather would change soon. We piled into the Gouter hut and ate pasta, tea, cookies. We collapsed into our bunks.

I was relieved to see the old man in the hallway that evening. Judging from the time, I guessed maybe they made it to the summit. I felt too embarrassed to approach him and ask. Of course I had not reason to be embarrassed. It was not wrong to speak up--reaching the summit did not change that he had been in real danger when I spoke. They had merely managed to stretch a little bit of luck a very long way.  

But their luck ran out. In the morning we watched the gendarmes pick the old man's body off the mountainside. We tried to focus on our own descent down off the Gouter ridge. It had snowed over night, dusting the rock and obscuring the most beaten path. He probably fell shortly after beginning the descent. He came to rest in the Grand Couloir, the famous funnel of rockfall one must cross to gain the route. His limbs drooped at the wrong angles as the helicopter lifted him through the air; they came back for the young partner a little later. Someone said it was his son. 

In the same way that their summit didn't prove me wrong, their accident didn't prove me right. I find myself looking to these events for reassurance, for evidence that I am doing things the right way in the mountains, that I am safe.  But the only conclusion I can fairly draw is that we don't step out of society when we go to the mountains. Especially on popular, crowded routes, I have all the responsibilities of a citizen. 

I more committed than ever to speak up. And why wouldn't I want to bring my best, my most human self to the places I love?


Sunset on Mont Blanc from downtown Chamonix.

10 days in August: Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Click to Enlarge: Sunrise from Monte Rosa

August 7

I arrive in Zurich and waddle out to the train station. Waiting for the post office to open so that I can purchase phone service, I look in the Starbucks for my brother-in-law Devin. He is supposed to be around here on his way back to Seattle from Nairobi. Can't seem to find him, but do manage to miss a train and miss out on any kind of coffee at all. Ride the train through Bern to Visp, where a taxi driver named Michel picks me up. Michel is from France, and his wife is a German who has just procured Swiss citizenship. Michel is from St. Etienne and is currently unemployed, and we have a great conversation about european economics as he takes me up the endless switchbacks up to the trailhead. I hike quickly up to the hut to meet Martin and our guests. After some cowering in the hut as a thunderstorm passes through, we head out to climb the west ridge of the Wiwannihorn. It's a good first day in Switzerland.

August 8

It's pouring rain in Zermatt, and there is nothing to do but walk around town and drink coffee. Even the via ferrata in the Gorner Gorge is dangerous today, with the river raging through and random debris posing a serious threat of trauma. We wander the streets and talk about mountains. Martin tells me that today a square meter of commercial land in this valley is worth 4,000 euros. It was these meadows that brought people up to these harsh, remote valleys--for when the winters snows melted away, there was a chance to graze sheep and cows, and to grow a little hay to put away against the winter. Before their modern, sophisticated tourist economy, the Swiss alps were a difficult, impoverished place. The Matterhorn was the Zermatterhorn;  "matte" was meadow, and "zermatte" was "by the meadow." The Matterhorn, the alpenstock of god, was once just the mountain by the meadow. 


Heading down from the summit of the Monte Rosa

August 9 

Ride the lift to the Kleine Matterhorn and stroll up to the summit of the Breithorn--"the wide horn." In and out of the clouds we follow the snow arete east and visit the middle summit. In vain we wait for visibility and then turn back. Our bodies reach out for oxygen that isn't there, and hopefully produce the red blood cells we will need later in the week. Everyone is growing tan, and at our various ages we are each building the creases and wrinkles that come from smiling and laughing in the mountain sun. 

August 10  

Rather than scrape fruitlessly at an icy Matterhorn, we head toward Monte Rosa--the Pink Mountain. On the way we climb the Riffelhorn with some of the group, winding our way through deceptively easy overhangs on the south face. The mountains are clearing off to a new and brilliant white splendor after the storm. We hustle to get over the dry, cracked glacier and up to the opulent Monte Rosa hut before dinner time. We gaze into the mountains reflected perfectly in the windows of the modernist hut, order beers, and wait for the pink  alpenglow to bathe the high peaks. 

Approaching the Monte Rosa hut

Approaching the Monte Rosa hut

August 11

Rise at 2am, wander up boulders and slabs to the glacier. A brief passage of thin bridges gives way to smooth going, a testament to a big snow year. We climb by headlamp and watch the day begin on the 4000 meter peaks around the valley: the Matterhorn, the Weisshorn, the Zinalrothorn, and half a dozen others. The ridge steepens, narrows, becomes a comb of ice-plastered rock. The mountain falls away, and soon we are on the summit with the madonne and a crowd of fellow pilgrims.


August 13

An unexpected fall on a section of knife-edge ridge has me, well, on edge. The Breithorn Half-traverse is good training for the Matterhorn, in part because of the real exposure it offers. We follow the crampon marks over the reddish schist, looking down at the icy walls of the north side from time to time. The fall, when it comes, is another piece of the landscape, a sharp intake of air. A crampon catches, and bodies lurch, and then we all stop, held in place by friction. What remains is still a fine climb, an enjoyable stroll along the crest, an encounter with a real mountain--maybe more real for the surprises it holds. 

Martin Volken, the consummate mountain guide

August 14

Easy walk to the Hornlihutte. The hut is under construction and running at half capacity. The usual hustle and bustle is cut in half, but only for those of us who have been here before. It's a squeeze at the table, but the pork chops, potatoes and green beans are worth it. The guides jaw over climbs past and future, and the stars slowly begin to wheel across the window outside. 

August 15

On the Breithorn Half-Traverse

The Hornli ridge is in fine shape, and we reach the summit with no problem. The hours of rock and ice are a blur, a feast for the senses, a wild dream that will spill out of the container of this day and flood other, emptier days. Each of my hands, in turn, gets trampled by a cramponed foot on the fixed lines. I watch the blood mark each snowy belay on the upper mountain, and think of Urs--Bear--the Zermatt guide who punctured my little finger. In the afternoon I meet my guest for the following day.

August 16

A second day on the Hornli ridge, and almost finer than the first. My fingers have plugged up their leaks, and we move seamless to the summit and back. On the way down, as I photograph him with one hand and hold the rope with the other, he dangles and calls up to me: "Can you imagine how much I trust you at this moment?" I think about it, and I can. My guest tells me of sitting and watching the Matterhorn from the restaurant at Schwarzsee last year, of longing to visit its flanks. When we return to this restaurant, he is delighted to find that the same band is playing. Two Brits with a drum machine, bass and guitar, with Credence Clearwater in heavy rotation. He gazes up at the Matterhorn, disbelieving that we were on top this morning. We order big plates of rosti and enjoy the music. 








Heading back to the valley