In the middle of June, I woke up at two in the morning to a rising sun and a yellow moon. It was hardly dark, and without a feather of fog, I was convinced I could see all there was to see: a big sky, a valley full of snow, a horizon of crevasse-streaked peaks, piles of avalanche run-out spilling down the mountains like crumpled drapes.
At the time, I was camped on a snow-covered glacier, 17 days into a 30-day mountaineering course in south-central Alaska. Still in my sleeping bag, I boiled water for oatmeal and coffee on the gas stove in the vestibule of my tent. By 3, seven of us had roped up and were ready to walk toward an unnamed peak on Harvard Glacier we affectionately pointed to and called “that middle one” — our first ascent of the course. We snaked our way around crevasses and over snowbridges, taking the east ridge to the top. Up there, we practiced headstands, jotted notes in our journals, ate a summit Snickers, discussed the possibility of doing the “Harlem Shake,” and took a self-timed group picture, all full of the rush that comes with the sensation of being on top of something high and pointy.
Scanning the ridges that weave back down to the valley where we were camped, we decided to take a different route, descending the west ridge this time. Again, I led. The terrain turned steeper than any I had seen; it was the kind of slope so slanted you couldn’t see past a horizon directly in front of you. To our right, the ridge plunged 1,000 feet down. A red-bearded, Canadian instructor named Max was walking behind me. He belayed himself toward me to look for a better route. He took a few steps around in his plastic boots, leaned over the windswept cornice to our left — what looked to me like another sheer cliff — and said, “This is going to be exciting.”
One climber at the back of our rope-team said, “I don’t want exciting.”
“Why don’t we just go back down the way we came up?” another yelled.
Max didn’t show signs of hearing them. He told me I was going to down-climb the windward side of the cornice to see if the other side of the ridge had a slope with a less steep grade. He sat in the snow, getting ready to belay me down, plunging his ice ax into the snow, one, two, three times so that he would have a steady grip, should he need to arrest my fall. On the fourth stab, the ground below our feet gave way. The snow exploded. Our bodies dropped. Mid-fall, I looked over at Max in his bright orange parka, with his arms raised amid the spotted and white air.
Such experiences were reminders that we were walking on water out there. But unlike water, snow is opaque. It is thick and white and if you aren’t aware of just how hard it is to really see the ground you’re standing on, it could cost you your life.
The first time I tried my hand at traveling on a glacier two years before, I ended up traveling inside a cloud. A friend and I began that particular journey at dawn, about 3 in the morning in southeast Alaska, when the sky was all blues — pale on the horizon and deep overhead. By noon, though, having crossed the first of the three glaciers on our route, thick clouds swept over that sky and settled down close to earth. The world turned white. The horizon dissolved. It was the kind of fog I had heard stories about: a man who, in similar conditions, slept with his rifle pointing in the direction he meant to walk, as if the gun could shoot bearings as well as bullets; another man on a solo trip walked in circles, discovered his own footprints, then began shouting out for help, convinced that someone else was lost on the glacier, too. Much about the Far North can make you lose sight of where you are.
In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez writes about the ways Western ideas depend upon certain experiences of light and vegetation in the temperate zone, where days are neatly divided into mornings, noons, afternoons, and nights, and seasons into four parts of the year, the meaning of each based on growth patterns of plants. I first noticed the light of the north flying into Anchorage in early June. Turbulence jostled me awake at 1 in the morning, and I pressed my forehead against the plane window and saw a splattering of color soaking into the ice-coated and carved Chugach Mountains. I was displaced enough at the time not to know whether the sun was setting or rising.
Our climbing team eventually headed into those mountains, and the days continued to blur together, with the sun lingering in the north, instead of rising in the east and setting in the west. There were few signs of life — a few spiders here and there, maybe a raven overhead — even during this “season of harvest.”
This landscape challenged my and other climbers’ most basic ideas about the movement of days and seasons. We tried to make sense of this land with comparisons. The most common was martian: utterly foreign. Sometimes, we saw in it a desert: vast, hostile, and at least at first glance, uniform in color. In summer, glaciers are also hot, and the rays of light bouncing off the ice or snow can leave sunburns on the insides of your nostrils, on the roof of your mouth. In vaster stretches, the glacier was a “snocean,” with crevasses, seracs, and fins — curving choppy, bright blue dips and rises in the ice, often striped in color and swirled into marble bends by the winds — standing in for waves.
When we tried to make sense of this landscape, this was how we talked: the glacier was like Mars, or like the desert, or like the ocean. These analogies helped us understand through what we were familiar with what’s going on out there. They helped us see more than light, ice, and a lack of life. They helped us see, in a land that so challenged our notions of time and space, and power and possibility, a world we already knew.
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When we walked on the snow-covered glacier, we walked in a 17-person, single-file line, spaced 20 meters apart and linked by a fat, orange rope. Unlike on dry glacier, where a crack is a crack and firm ice is firm ice, with snow, it is difficult to know if you’re on solid ground, or solid-enough ground, or ground that is no ground at all. We used 10-meter long poles to “probe” the snow, plunging the stick into the ground beneath our feet to feel where it hit ice, snow, or air.
Once, we were headed toward a peak named Denmark, and because it was early morning and the snow was hard and the valley was flat, we probed less frequently, often walking atop untested ground to save time. I was third in line, and punched through the snow up to my knees. When the fourth person on the rope team stepped over the same spot, he stopped our line. “There’s air under here,” he yelled out. When the next team walked over, three of them punched through, with snow up to their shoulders. Max hauled each out back onto solid ground. The three who fell said they could wiggle their legs in the crack below them. We turned around, skipped the peak, and crawled over the cracks on our way back to camp. It’s what polar bears do on thin sea ice, too: get on their bellies, spread the weight over the cracking surface, and hope to stay on ground that won’t give way.
We practiced to stay afloat. We learned figure eight knots, alpine butterflies, prussocks, mules, overhands, slipknots, clove hitches. We learned fixed-rope ascension, team hauls, snow anchor construction, single-team crevasse rescue. We learned strategies for walking and traversing and going up and going down (in steep and exposed terrain, I often repeated to myself that my feet were my first belay). Most of all, we learned route-finding. We learned to read the depressions — where the snow dipped or was discolored, where the probe would hit air too soon, where the ground might give way to no ground at all.
We needed to discover all of this because we weren’t from there — not in the sense of someone not being from Amsterdam, but in the sense that we were profoundly maladapted. Most of us had grown up in houses or apartments. As we transitioned to life on ice, we had to learn ultra-basic functions like walking, cooking, and building shelter. We had to haul hundreds of pounds of dry food, with huge sacks dropped off by bush plane every eight days. We had to go to the bathroom in plastic bags. When we weren’t traveling, we also had to stay inside probed-out perimeters. Unless you were roped up, this meant that the campsite boundaries, often about 20 yards each, were fencing you in — a strange experience of confinement when vast open space extended toward each horizon.
In Arctic Dreams, Lopez describes “the native eye” as a way of seeing the landscape based on the accumulation of a tribe’s experiences in it and observations of it over hundreds of years. Their dependence on other life-forms for their own survival made such observations vital for the well-being of the tribe. It was this kind of eye we were pursuing, albeit as temporary visitors, rather than permanent residents. For us, the search came out of our “rugged play” — Richard White’s term for play that resembles work. The embodiment and urgency of work links people closer to the land, and so the simulated experience of it through activities like mountaineering, backpacking, climbing, and skiing does the same for those playing, or play-working, on the land, as well. Rugged play seeks to foster the kind of intimacy that dependency demands. The familiarity we gained from it brought mountains out of one-dimensional postcards depicting a land from another planet, a superlative place to flatten and fit into a photograph. For the month we were out there, at least, such sight rendered them full, particular, real.
After the ground below Max and my feet gave way, the moments stretched out. What was seconds before a seemingly steady cornice became midair matter, there was the flutter of thought that this might be what death feels like, then the sight of Max falling, too, the brief awareness of his vincibility. Then, we landed — 15 feet below, onto boulder-like mounds of snow. The shock of landing reverberated down my spine. My sunglasses were crooked, my eyes wide. I saw a glowing blue hole next to us, snow all around, then Max’s body crawling toward me. I asked if we were going to keep falling.
The next moments quickened; Max and I relayed that we were both OK and that nothing like that had ever happened to either of us and that neither of us were expecting that to happen that very moment before and wow, did you feel that? I exclaimed that it is funny when the very things you’re scared of happening actually happen, and they aren’t as bad as you think. Within minutes of the “is this how I am going to die?” thought, I had the “I’m so grateful that just happened” thought. I was grateful because in those moments of falling and landing and getting out from the rubble and communicating with the rope team and navigating down the left side of the ridge, I could see where I was.
When the stakes mounted, such awareness came easily. When you fall down, you look up. The body feels —pain, exertion, danger — and the mind takes a hint. The “native eye” draws in some ways upon the accumulation of such moments of full presence and embodiment over centuries. For tribes living off the land, what you see might very soon mean the fate that you get. No one is more aware of what’s around him, Lopez observes, than a hungry hunter.
But as my adrenaline faded that morning, such vision did, too. It was hard to master that sense among the mundane. The first week of the trip, I was leading the group through a traverse of a scree-coated side of the glacier. When I reached a flat spot of moraine, I suggested a break, not noticing that above us, an overhanging and eroding ledge threatened a rockfall at any moment. Living on ice requires full attention and full sight. Anything less, and the mountains start giving you feedback on what you’re not seeing. Feedback, in this case, might mean a rock to the head, or a fall through what you think is ground.
Even after seeing more, I was still missing a lot. Toward the end of the trip, I learned about the life in the ice and snow: the algae and bacteria, the tartegrates and rotifers. There’s a lot going on there. I saw my first fly toward the end of the trip, zero-ed (stopped) my line, and sunk my knees in the snow, leaning closer to see her metallic green eyes twitch. I could squint at the snow all I wanted, but I still wouldn’t get the full picture; mysteries were caked inside all that white matter, microscopic bacteria squirmed inside the layers of ice and snow. And who knows what else? Fossils of prehistoric creatures have emerged from melting ice they were encased in, fur attached and all.
These days, I live in a cabin, not a tent, a few hundred miles north of the Matanuska on an 80-acre homestead near Denali National Park, cooking in a kitchen and sleeping in a bed. I sometimes feel far from the ground two floors down from the loft where I rest my head and read my books. I was playing during the month I spent on ice, and a return to something resembling routine means I don’t need to really see or understand where I am to survive. I don’t depend upon my ability to identify monkey flowers, miner’s lettuce, or potato seeds to eat; if I’m hungry, I can always scan the aisles of the grocery store six miles down the highway, or the numerous restaurants, cafes, bars, and gas stations a few more miles to the south. And since my work doesn’t force me outside all of the time, if the mosquitoes are bad, which they were through the end of July — everywhere in the woods, thick swarms of them, each with the kind of buzz that stuck to the air and wiggled inside your ear — I spent many days my first weeks here staying inside, fly-swatter at the ready. Some of the closest I have felt to knowing this place was when I started enjoying its treats: when the mosquitoes died down, I would lie in the bushes for hours, picking blueberries until my fingertips turned purple, and several Ziplocs overflowed with sticky juice.
More recently, I have set out on a few missions to learn about this place where I claim to live. I wander the grounds with a map, compass, and three different field guides, crawling through the tundra, navigating through the forests, getting lost in the hills as I identify pumpkin berries and amanita, grey jays and reindeer lichen. My mind empties and my senses fill up when these wanders bring me into contact with some rustling in the brush nearby — a cow moose and calf grazing by the pile of boulders I call the “shipyard,” a young black bear bounding back into the trees at the edge of the property, the rack of caribou antlers jutting up from the ridge I am approaching.
Sometimes, I run barefoot through the moss off any kind of trail because such runs make me focus on the ground beneath my feet. My injuries have been minimal — a sliced heel, a bruised toe — and the rewards, numerous. The spongy feel of sphagnum and the crunch of downy land coral press against my arches and stick between my toes. The black spruce and birch branches blur into undulating sinews. When I am tired, I collapse onto pools of moss and look up, following each gust passing through the shaking aspen leaves, as if each tree were an instrument and I know exactly where the conductor will point for the next windswept solo. Such runs offer me the trifecta of forced attention: embodiment, dependence, and presence.
As much as these moments make feel intensely present and grateful and alive, I still wonder: do they mean I know where I am? Do I really see the place I exist in? I fear that I too often mistake appreciation for awareness.
This climbing business has given me many moments of appreciation — landscapes so wild and beautiful they seem unreal in the moment, and when later recalled, appear more as dreams than memories. But it has also shown me how much work real awareness anywhere entails. It’s easy to ignore how much we miss when missed sights lack direct and immediate consequences.
But even when we don’t consciously suffer for all that we have missed, we are missing out on something. I don’t settle for superficial relationships with people, feeling satisfied with a circle of acquaintances, instead of friends. Why is it so much easier to settle into a superficial relationship with place, seeing fuzzy images of light and ice and a lack of life, remaining complacent and blind to what is right around us? When I talk to people, as well, I do not let my mind to wander among others I am not talking to; I try to look at people in the eye, rather than over their shoulders. How can I look at my surroundings in the eye? How can I carry mountain-sight over to city-sight, or town-sight, or even rural-cabin-sight, where the stakes of seeing what’s around me lower?
I recently devoted an afternoon to discovering the front yard of this cabin I’m calling home. I turned off my phone, took off my watch, hid my books, took a jacket, pulled rubber boots over my jeans, and shut the door. I stared down an aspen, examined a woodchip, leafed through patches of lichen. I wandered only a few steps at a time, and happened upon a small patch of fireweed, a purple flower that grows like crazy throughout interior Alaska. I lay on my stomach and propped my chin on my fists and looked until the rest of my surroundings became fuzzy. I watched a bumblebee pollinating for some silent elapse of time — following her thick, velvety legs as they climbed over and engulfed each petal, my eyes glued to her yellow and black fuzz. Her mouth seemed to have antennas that devoured each petal she encountered. Up close, she became massive, the only being in the world I was aware of. Then, she fell. She dropped some 20 inches onto the hard ground. I jumped back several feet. I felt nearly as full of fear as I had when I fell through that windswept cornice, and it took me a second to realize that the fall must have been the same to her. She rolled on the ground, took a few steps, then buzzed off. I was still clutching my stomach and catching my breath.
As high as the stakes seemed that afternoon, they were in reality quite low. I was within a few steps of my cabin on distinctly terra firma. But through the fear evoked from a vicarious fall, I felt embodied and present; I was paying attention to the exact place where I was.
As much as I am a sucker for beauty, I realize that I don’t need obviously magnificent places to shake me into that sense of presence, of attuned seeing. That sight — of foreign, unfamiliar, and strange places, where you have to relearn all of the tasks and functions you take for granted in familiar territory — comes more easily. The travel required in such lands cues us to immerse ourselves, to pay attention, to look a little closer. On familiar grounds, we have to decide to see. And it is through seeing that we can render any place magnificent. Everything we need — eyeballs, ground below our feet — we already have.
I flew into Anchorage again later in the summer, and sat next to an older couple from France. We drifted over that same chunk of continent, full of rugged mountains and cracked-up glaciers. The woman next to me woke up, looked out the window, and gasped. Her eyes widened, and she whispered, over and over, in disbelief, “That’s our earth! That’s our earth!” It’s a realization we can have with ecstasy and delight among ice-cloaked mountains, amid fields of blueberry bushes, in the company of a singular bumblebee. This is our earth. This is the place where we live. If we pay close attention and keep looking up, whether or not we are falling down, we might catch a glimpse of it.