Sacred Places

Finding solitude on Mt. Baker

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I recently had the good fortune to accompany a close friend on a backpacking trip on Mt. Baker.

My friend, who prefers anonymity, had been telling me about this place for a long time. He discovered it many years ago while engaged in cross-country rambling in the glorious meadows that give way to the blue ice of Baker’s high country. He had arrived at this place in a whiteout and was stunned when the mists parted and a truly epic view of the mountain’s ramparts was revealed.

This spot is not reached by any trail. It is not noted on any map. Like many other off-trail destinations, it was there to be discovered, requiring only an inquisitive mind, a lust for beauty and buckets of sweat.

We reached this sacred place after two days of hiking, lugging our backpacks across gullies, side-hilling steep heather slopes and navigating by scant half-remembered landmarks. When we arrived, there were no sign of human habitation—no fire rings, no paths cut through the wildflower gardens, nothing to signal the previous presence of our species.

The front-row view of Baker’s icy crown was transcendent, among the best viewpoints I’ve seen of this beautiful mountain. We gathered water from a snow-melt rivulet and pitched our tents on bare dirt recently (and usually) covered by snow.

In the time that we spent there, we saw no one. The place seems unchanged from eons past. We watched the clouds lift, revealing the splendor of the icy dome of Koma Kulshan, and wandered among the flowers like drunken sailors. The quiet was broken only by the thunder of the avalanches that roared down the mountain at regular intervals. The sunset flared like a Vegas pyrotechnics display and when it was done, we sat in silence and watched the moonlight play on the ice.

There are many trails that offer ready access to the flanks of the mountain. All of them get busier each and every season— and with good reason.

Here in the early years of the 21st century, the benefits of connecting with wild places have become obvious, and, for many, absolutely necessary. The government has, out of necessity, initiated regulations, quotas and fee collection schemes. This is as it should be. The alpine country is fragile and the quest for solitude has become popular, an obvious contradiction in terms. But it is good that other places exist, off the beaten path where a pilgrim can still find himself alone and wrapped in silence.

After our time in this alpine paradise was up, we broke camp, leaving no trace of our presence, split up and headed back across the shattered rock and lupine-brightened meadows. The wind blew down from the ice and the marmots whistled. Solitude is a precious commodity, and the good fortune of finding it lingers in my memory.

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