Dust sticks to my sweat. Rocks and branches cut through my fragile skin. The cleanliness of my contrived, pampered existence has long since worn off, replaced by a haggard remnant of my former glory. The traverse has proven to be a far more substantial undertaking than I was anticipating. My water ran out long ago, along with my food. Based on my estimates, I have three more hours to go. An additional three hours of running, scrambling, and climbing along an 8,000-ft subalpine ridgeline seems like an eternity. I chuckle at the naivety of the thought. To the mountains I am bathed in, three hours is a momentary flash; an inconsequential allotment of time; a disproportionate time span in a life measured in eons. Mountains, above all, remind us of the futile and temporary nature of our existence.
The High Traverse is a line that inspired me from the moment I read about it. Buried within illustrious descriptions and crisp photographs of the “classic” climbs of the region, the High Traverse yielded little more than a few paragraphs and couple of blurry, black and white pictures. But that only increased my intrigue of the route. A bit rogue. The black sheep. What I could glean was that a large 500-foot granite dome guarded the entrance of the traverse, followed by no fewer than five subsequent summits strung out along the knife-edge ridgeline.
Leaving home early in the morning, I twitch with excitement, due to both copious quantities of coffee surging through my veins, as well as the anticipation of the adventure the day holds in store. Highway turns to single-lane paved road, which bleeds into gravel, and eventually heals into a dusty single track, blanketed with pine needles and granite boulders.
Like a giant paper mache beehive, the 500-ft granite dome wards off visitors of the traverse with its innate iniquitous. Taking a deep breath at its base, I latch on and begin to ascend. With 200-feet of air beneath me, balancing precariously in ill-fitting running shoes on nubbins no bigger than a dime, I question the sanity of this endeavor. Sweat accumulates in pools on my forehead and hands. My heartbeat loudly divulges my inner distress to the world. I must stop. I must quiet my mind or my body will follow this downfall into madness. Closing my eyes and taking several deep breaths, I begin to climb out of the blur of psychosis. With composure regained, I resume scaling the precipice. Arriving at the top, the dome firmly planted beneath my feet, I let out a yell of sheer jubilation.
The seemingly momentous feat is immediately squelched as I take in the magnitude of the line in front of me. The knife-edge ridge of the High Traverse cuts through the landscape far into the horizon. These seemingly endless precipices were created 80 million years ago by the crumbling and subsequent thickening of the continental plate. The Cordilleran glacier, the grandest type of nature’s artists, created her masterpieces here during the last ice age. The mountains themselves were her canvas and, with an eye for detail, she carved out spectacular cirques, deposited huge moraines, forged towering peaks, and whittled away basins, which would later fill with aqua blue waters. Her works of art have become my playground 20,000 years later.
Despite their indomitable appearance, these mountains are no longer growing, but instead, shrinking. The erosive forces of frost, snow, and ice are slowly disintegrating these once glorious spires to piles of stony rubble. Holding their heads up high, they endure this indignity with poise, even as their bones collect around their feet. I grab a quick drink and dropped in, running and climbing among the eroded skeletal remains of the High Traverse. Despite the exposure of the ridgeline, my cadence naturally melds with the surroundings. Peaks melt away on all sides. The sun begins to drop in the horizon and its rays meld with smoke from distant wild fires. The alpine glows.
This landscape has been the site of countless plays and symphonies over the eons. I am but one more actor in the revelry. Humans are terrified of our finite nature. We stave off death till the bitter end. However, with mountains closing in around me, I am reminded of the transience of all things, even the mountains themselves. There is no way to impede this flow, despite our deepest protests and grievances. However, we may find enjoyment in this transience if we but accept this actuality and join in the flow. Shiver in the bitter alpine winds. Feel the pain of immersion into glacial-fed streams. Allow dust to dry onto sweat. Bathe in the alpine glow. I smile at the thought. Three hours doesn’t seem like so long after all.
Author - Kevin Mahoney is an avid fly fisherman and trail runner. When not teaching high school math and science, Kevin can be found combing the streams and trails of north Idaho with his wife and dog.