Sky Gardens

A walk among the flowers

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The road is obscure. It is little-traveled, but by and large is not in bad shape. Along the upper reaches the sides were lined with alpine wildflowers—columbine, lupine, tiger lily, paintbrush, phlox. Glacial ice gleamed blue-green across the plunging valley, its bottom clad in dark conifers. Somewhere down there, invisible from this elevation, a cold, clear creek rushed through the trees.

When the rain stopped, we packed our backpacks and headed up a sort-of-trail that exists on no map, climbing up through the wet woods. The way was rough and tumble; steep and slippery—progress was slow.

As we ascended, we encountered snow patches that grew larger and larger, eventually finding ourselves on a steeply pitched snow slope. The clouds descended and visibility dropped to 50 feet. We deployed ice axes and kicked steps up the steep snow. One last grunt and we were on top of the south-facing ridge; a paradise of greenery and flowers, the vivid colors stunning after the snow field whiteout.

We pitched our tents, being careful to avoid the delicate wildflowers that carpeted the lonely ridge top. Mists swirled around us, erasing the landscape except for occasional glimpses of remarkable peaks and a chiaroscuro of rock and snow. A stand of gnarled trees shielded us from the wind.

As evening approached, shafts of luminous sunshine danced on the peaks, highlighting first one spire then another like an impressionist animation. Far below, islands of trees emerged from the mist and then disappeared like phantoms. For a moment, we could see the distant cone of Mt. Rainier shining in the last light of the sun.

After dinner, we leaned back and listened to the Zen monk-like rhythms of a chanting grouse, watching darkness swallow the mountains.

When I emerged from the tent at first light, visibility was again nil. Unzipping the tent vestibule, I startled our resident bird, who gave me the full grouse treatment—neck pouches inflated, tail feathers fanned wide.

Daypacks loaded, we headed north up the ridge along a narrow spine, traversing rocks, snow and heather. The clouds began to lift as the ridge top opened up, revealing technicolor gardens. In my many years of enjoying wildflower blooms in the North Cascades I had never seen flowers like this. In places, a dozen varieties were amassed in great bouquets, a kaleidoscope of day-glow colors. In other spots vast fields of lupines created purple carpets.

Bedazzled, we each went off in different directions, gingerly exploring the trail-less gardens. The clouds parted and our great volcano was revealed, close at hand and glittering with blue ice. At the far end of the ridge I found a comfortable rock and sat for a while, delicate white blossoms at my feet on the brink of an abyss above a scrimshaw of snow cornice and sculpted glacial ice.

In late afternoon, the clouds again billowed in, and we made our way back toward camp, feeling our way along the ridge crest. After dinner, we were treated to one last spectacle as the clouds dropped below us, flowing like rivers through the dark valleys. The Salish Sea gleamed in the distance.

Darkness finally fell on the ridge and I savored that beloved combination of exhaustion and euphoria, filled with the satisfaction of a day fully lived. Stars appeared, the wind died and the silence was like music.

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