THE FIRST CLIMB
Fisher, Frank, and I had been hunting for elk in the dense forests along the foot of one of these mountains; and for a half day, drenched with sweat, had toiled continuously up and down steep slopes, trying to go quietly, trying to keep our wind, trying to pierce the secrets of the leafy screen always about us. We were tired of it.
“Let’s go to the top and look for goats,” suggested Frank. “There are some goat cliffs on the other side of her. It isn’t very far.”
It was not very far, as measured by the main ranges, but it was a two hours’ steady climb nearly straight up. We would toil doggedly for a hundred feet, or until our wind gave out and our hearts began to pound distressingly; then we would rest a moment. After doing this a few hundred times we would venture a look upward, confidently expecting the summit to be close at hand. It seemed as far as ever. We suffered a dozen or so of these disappointments, and then learned not to look up. This was only after we had risen above timber line to the smooth, rounded rock-and-grass shoulder of the mountain. Then three times we made what we thought was a last spurt, only to find ourselves on a “false summit.” After a while we grew resigned, we realized that we were never going to get anywhere, but were to go on forever, without ultimate purpose and without hope, pushing with tired legs, gasping with inadequate lungs. When we had fully made up our minds to that, we arrived. This is typical of all high-mountain climbing—the dogged, hard, hopeless work that can never reach an accomplishment; and then at last the sudden, unexpected culmination.
We topped a gently rounding summit; took several deep breaths into the uttermost cells of our distressed lungs; walked forward a dozen steps—and found ourselves looking over the sheer brink of a precipice. So startlingly unforeseen was the swoop into blue space that I recoiled hastily, feeling a little dizzy. Then I recovered and stepped forward cautiously for another look. As with all sheer precipices, the lip on which we stood seemed slightly to overhang, so that in order to see one had apparently to crane away over, quite off balance. Only by the strongest effort of the will is one able to rid oneself of the notion that the centre of gravity is about to plunge one off head first into blue space. For it was fairly blue space below our precipice. We could see birds wheeling below us; and then below them again, very tiny, the fall away of talus, and the tops of trees in the basin below. And opposite, and all around, even down over the horizon, were other majestic peaks, peers of our own, naked and rugged. From camp the great forests had seemed to us the most important, most dominant, most pervading feature of the wilderness. Now in the high sisterhood of the peaks we saw they were as mantles that had been dropped about the feet.