It starts quietly enough. At around 9:30 a.m., I strap snowshoes to my feet and part ways with some friends bound for a backcountry ski. While they skin over a nearby saddle, my dog Taiga and I shuff our way into the stream of snowshoers along the boundary of the Mt, Baker Ski Area, headed for Artist Point. It’s not a long hike, nor an extreme one, but the hordes jostle and slip like drunks. One guy slides on his side in slow motion down the steep hill, parallel to the trail, unsure how to get his snowshoes back under him.
“You could dig in your ski pole to self arrest,” I suggest gently. “I am!” he exclaims, continuing to slide past, his poles dragging unused across the slope.
Maybe he’s overwhelmed, I muse, continuing on.
“What happens all winter; the wind driving snow; clouds, wind, and mountains repeating—this is what always happens here,” the poet Gary Snyder wrote of this place one long-gone August, looking towards the edifice of Mount Shuksan from his post at the Crater Mountain Fire Lookout. Today, though, is the first truly sunny day of the year.
The hanging glaciers of Shuksan gleam blindingly above us. Thick snow spackles every surface, like lavishly applied frosting on a carrot cake. A short, huffing climb farther on, the ridge is all smooth, luscious rises and swooping depressions—not baked goods now, but hips and shoulders and bent knees. Cornices hang bluely from the rocky clifftops; dark conifers wink out from sculpted carapaces of white.
I walk around in my sweat-damp clothes, stunned by this vision that is at once food and flesh and neither of those things.
It makes me hungry. It fills me with something like song. Skiers skin past, gathering in little knots at the edges of the ridge, or descending into the next valley. Mt. Baker looms hugely across the southwest skyline, its crevasses cozened in powder, like eyelids and mouths swollen shut. It seems to scream silence.
And that’s when the actual screaming begins. There’s not much of it, and it’s not fearful, so I settle in with my sketchbook and a clear view of Baker. But then there are more: Woops rise from the southeast, first giggly, then screeching. Then from the northwest, down the cliff faces, then across the valley, in long switchbacking loops of sound, then back to the southeast, more now, then more.
The epicenter of hollering is Artist Point itself, crowned with people, an antlike line sweeping up its flank, and trailing along the far edge of the ridge. Some take turns hurtling down the gentler side of the point back toward the trail on their butts, bouncing and rolling at the end in sprays of glittering ice, snow up their coats, dogs barking at their heels. Others seem to call out because of the horizon itself, standing still, their arms spread. The far woopers are the skiers who, having reached the apex of their own climbs, now sweep toward a valley floor painted with light and shadow.
There is this thing my dog does where her demeanor switches from understated prance to a springloaded rubber band ricochet — wild-eyed, ears back, tongue lolling. It goes something like:
A friend of mine describes this as “zooming.”
Sometimes, at the edge of a landscape, at the edge of an abyss, at the razor thin edge between flying and falling—the feelings are so big that the sound just comes out of you. People screamed at the total solar eclipse. They scream at the moon. They scream across canyon bottoms and they scream their grief into the desert.
They holler with joy while mountain biking or shooting down a froth of whitewater. They yell when confronted with tall trees and the impossible blue of the ocean. They shriek when trundling rocks from cliffs to smash on more rocks below. They scream their way into deep powder skiing and into the lateral strokes of skate skiing and into the last legs of a trail run.
They exclaim over cranes and bobcats and grizzlies and the tundra vastness above the Arctic Circle. They yelp into freezing water. They holler when fog obliterates the landscape, when wind reveals it, when they narrowly miss a cliff edge, when they are blissfully alone in the biggest space they can imagine.
They are zooming.
They are sounding.
This term for gauging the depth of the bottom of a body of water from a boat doesn’t have its roots in acoustic sound, but it may as well. Today, it involves sending noise into the deeps and reading the distance to rock or earth from the echo.
It is a way of asking: Where am I, above that hidden ground?
From the heights of a snow-muffled mountain range, maybe it is not so different. A question, a sudden orientation, an announcement of constant, shocking rediscovery: I’m alive in my body. I’m alive in this place. For now, oh, now.
How beautifully terrible.
How terribly beautiful.
Photos courtesy of the author