This Mountain

We live at the base of So-Bahli- Ahli. Lofty lady. It’s the name local tribes gave the mountain that presides over the living here in our far-flung corner of the Pacific Northwest. The valley of the Stillaguamish.  This was before the settlers came and the farmer that lost his horse.  The mountain that was once a woman. The story of love, jealousy, and heartbreak was told for eons until the day a farmer looked up, and thought the glacier looked a lot like his lost white horse. That’s the story now.  Whitehorse Mountain.

Photo by Gary Paull

Our family can see the mountain’s north face out our front window.  The massive bulk. The long solid walls of metamorphic rock. The tabled glacier broken and hanging.   The three of us have been home more lately and able study the view, one that has started to become obscured by the hemlock and cedar trees overtaking our yard.  We can still see the sloping snow though, and the jagged spiked rock towers that cradle the glacier. We can follow the tracks of skiers down, or the tiny dots of climbers trudging upward. My husband and I point them out to our son. Bring out the binoculars. Mostly in spring, during the small window between late winter and early summer, before the bergschrund below the summit appears. The bergschrund that forms as the glacial ice heaves away from rock. Gravitational pull.  Every winter the maw is covered over by snow, creating a slope for climbers to reach the summit.   The climb becomes ever more technical as the snow melts, as the gap widens.  

I’ve climbed the mountain. I have.  Learned that she has a fondness for slide alder and possesses exceedingly steep and fir forested flanks. Tumbled rock and talus. Vertical snow. That she has a shortness of meadows but a grace of goats and deer. Black bears. Thrushes and sapsuckers.  Marmots and picas.  

So-Bahli-Ahli almost killed my husband when he was sixteen.  A slab of snow and boulders loosened and let go. Tumbled to the front and back of him.  Left him stunned but standing. Alone in the middle, with his friends safe, and off to the side. He has climbed the mountain many times since.

Photo by Gary Paull

My son has climbed the mountain too. Grown up in her shadow. One day in the fourteenth year of his living he looked up and said well,  isn’t it time?  We worried and deliberated.  Cautioned ourselves of avalanches and falls.

It takes a long day to summit, we cautioned him. Before sunrise to after sunset in the long days of early summer. You start just up the road from our house and climb upward over 6,000 feet from the trailhead on the valley floor.  A wild mountain, we say, free of roads or motorized nuisance. Too steep for logging. The customary way is up the backside. Most climbers go this route. Leaving the semblance of trail near tree line to route over her boney back and across a bare shoulder to reemerge near neck line, and onto the wide north face of the glacier, the one we see from our window. 

Photo by Gary Paull

My hunger for peaks has faded. I am happy now to wander a meadow or forested flank, getting just high enough to see a valley or ribbon of water below.  The day my husband and son climb, I watch through binoculars from the yard. Watch for them to emerge from the backside and move across the glacier – tiny black dots moving against white.  I recall how it is to stand at the top of this mountain, and imagine my son, ice axe raised. Beaming. A mountaineer now. I imagine how he can see his home and town. The river. All in their valley. And too- the vast beyond. The smallness of us all.  

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very well written!

  2. Andrea G Menin says:

    I love this! The metaphors of back, shoulder and neck resonate with me.

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