Hidden Gems

Veins, vugs and vertical vivification

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Words were scarce and conversation was minimal as our socially distanced party of rockhounds crawled up an overgrown boot trail that seemed to twist and turn forever through dense brush and heavy timber.

Somewhere way above us was a remote alpine basin full of jade lakes, scalable slopes and an exposed breccia vein with pockets of pyrite-bearing quartz crystals known for their rare beauty and extraordinary size.

Under any other circumstance the four of us would have been belting out show tunes, yodeling at each other or engaging in philosophical banter toward some larger degree of motivational purpose.

But since Uncle Don considers both the route we were following and our destination to be classified top-secret—his favorite long-deceased uncle, a New Age guru named “Jingles,” first guided him to the breccia vein decades ago—it was prudent to keep our pieholes shut and let the natural noises of the North Cascades prevail.

So other than a handful of chattery squirrels and a couple industrious woodpeckers making an occasional racket, we were subsumed by the rhythmic thunk of our heavy boots on the trail, mixed with outbursts of breathing, expectorating, snot-blowing and the discordant clatter of trekking poles.

The less we talked, the deeper we listened and the more audible our movements became as we bashed, bonked and painstakingly maneuvered our way across the silent brooding mountainside.

Our sharpened senses and expanded consciousnesses were fused to the forest in a hypnotic sort of glee when we inevitably encountered the first traces of snow lingering in the trees.

As one icy embankment led to another, the crunching sounds of knee-deep post-holing grew prevalent and a bevy of ice axes were somberly deployed to aid us in the struggle.

The treachery of a thousand rock wells and snow bridges abounded and just around the rocky foot of a towering spire we found our route impeded by the log-strewn debris of a substantial avalanche path.

The chopping blade of a felling axe soon rang through the air and as we forged ahead with significant route-clearing work we found ourselves aided in innumerable ways by the digging blades of two small foldable shovels.

Contouring the gullied sidehill over intermittent snowfields for the next mile or so proved exceedingly arduous, but our unwelcome presence there did help incite a rousing choral performance of high-pitched utterances from among the hoary marmot warrens.

Eventually, as we contoured around the northerly snow catchments onto more southerly exposures, we watched vast stretches of melted-out greenery unfurl themselves in sun-drenched spectacles of copious wildflowers and shrubby tree islands.

Trickling freshets imbued with soft gravel beds and curvaceous clumps of flowering mosses spilled tunefully over terraced piles of lichen-encrusted stones and we were obliged to diverge and amuse ourselves in style for the lion’s share of a couple hours.

Then—harassed by pesky swarms of biting flies, stricken with intensifying hunger pangs and increasingly desperate to secure a sheltered campsite for the next couple of nights—we followed Uncle Don down a random goat trail and came out into a grassy notch just above the shore of a rock-rimmed lake.

In a flash, we busted out our bivvy bags, slapped together regimental portions of spaghetti with meatballs and waddled off to buffer ourselves in downy splendor against the frigid air.

The next morning, after enjoying the sleep of the dead, we emerged from our cocoons on creaky limbs to find the world encrusted in ice.

Thankfully, the oceanic frost melted quickly enough so we could suit up into our climbing harness and follow Uncle Don on a high-angle tour of the top-secret mineralized breccia formation.

The cliffs around there weren’t too steep and were well-featured, presenting a plethora of footholds and handholds to choose from as we edged efficiently across gritty slabs that hung imposingly with increased exposure over a gaping void.

After squeezing ourselves into a body-width declivity and stemming our arms and legs a few hundred feet up a natural chimney, we contoured out to a broad road-sized ledge full of dangerous-looking rockfall that ramped gently upward across a sheer granite face. The singular band of rusty, mineral-stained rock was impossible to miss and we were enthralled to thoroughly explore its features.

Snooping around hundreds of crystal-pyrite-lined cavities called “vugs” we discovered several specimens as big as dinner plates and one measuring closer to coffee-table-size.

The lure of taking some big trophy pieces did run strong initially, but in the end not a single one of us could find it in our hearts to wrest more than a handful of smaller crystals. The pleasure of the moment was just knowing such exquisite mountain treasure remains to be discovered by anyone willing to find it.

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