Chapter III. The Second and Third Climbs

Once more, lured by the promise of the tracks we had seen, we climbed this same mountain, but again without results. By now, you may be sure, we had found an easier way home! This was a very hard day's work, but uneventful.

Now, four days later, I crossed the river and set off above to explore in the direction of the Continental Divide. Of course I had no intention of climbing for goats, or, indeed, of hunting very hard for anything. My object was an idle go-look-see. Equally, of course, after I had rammed around most happily for a while up the wooded stream-bed of that canon, I turned sharp to the right and began to climb the slope of the spur, running out at right angles to the main ranges that constituted one wall of my canon. It was fifteen hundred nearly perpendicular feet of hard scrambling through windfalls. Then when I had gained the ridge, I thought I might as well keep along it a little distance. And then, naturally, I saw the main peaks not so very far away; and was in for it!

On either side of me the mountain dropped away abruptly. I walked on a knife edge, steeply rising. Great canons yawned close at either hand, and over across were leagues of snow mountains.

In the canon from which I had emerged a fine rain had been falling. Here it had turned to wet sleet. As I mounted, the slush underfoot grew firmer, froze, then changed to dry, powdery snow. This change was interesting and beautiful, but rather uncomfortable, for my boots, soaked through by the slush, now froze solid and scraped various patches of skin from my feet. It was interesting, too, to trace the change in bird life as the altitude increased. At snow line the species had narrowed down to a few ravens, a Canada jay, a blue grouse or so, nuthatches, and brown creepers. I saw one fresh elk track, innumerable marten, and the pad of a very large grizzly.

The ridge mounted steadily. After I had gained to 2,300 feet above the canon I found that the ridge dipped to a saddle 600 feet lower. It really grieved me to give up that hard-earned six hundred, and then to buy it back again by another hard, slow, toilsome climb. Again I found my way barred by some unsuspected cliffs about sixty feet in height. Fortunately, they were well broken; and I worked my way to the top by means of ledges.

Atop this the snow suddenly grew deeper and the ascent more precipitous. I fairly wallowed along. The timber line fell below me. All animal life disappeared. My only companions were now at spaced-out and mighty intervals the big bare peaks that had lifted themselves mysteriously from among their lesser neighbours, with which heretofore they had been confused. In spite of very heavy exertions, I began to feel the cold; so I unslung my rucksack and put on my buckskin shirt. The snow had become very light and feathery. The high, still buttes and crags of the main divide were right before me. Light fog wreaths drifted and eddied slowly, now concealing, now revealing the solemn crags and buttresses. Over everything--the rocks, the few stunted and twisted small trees, the very surface of the snow itself--lay a heavy rime of frost. This rime stood out in long, slender needles an inch to an inch and a half in length, sparkling and fragile and beautiful. It seemed that a breath of wind or even a loud sound would precipitate the glittering panoply to ruin; but in all the really awesome silence and hushed breathlessness of that strange upper world there was nothing to disturb them. The only motion was that of the idly-drifting fog wreaths; the only sound was that made by the singing of the blood in my ears! I felt as though I were in a world holding its breath.

It was piercing cold. I ate a biscuit and a few prunes, tramping energetically back and forth to keep warm. I could see in all directions now: an infinity of bare peaks, with hardly a glimpse of forests or streams or places where things might live. Goats are certainly either fools or great poets.

After a half hour of fruitless examination of the cliffs I perforce had to descend. The trip back was long. It had the added interest in that it was bringing me nearer water. No thirst is quite so torturing as that which afflicts one who climbs hard in cold, high altitudes. The throat and mouth seem to shrivel and parch. Psychologically, it is even worse than the desert thirst because in cold air it is unreasonable. Finally it became so unendurable that I turned down from the spur-ridge long before I should otherwise have done so, and did a good deal of extra work merely to reach a little sooner the stream at the bottom of the canon. When I reached it, I found that here it flowed underground.