There I was, a few hours ago, finally standing atop the Nokhu Crags... well, OK, one of them really, and not even the highest, which was only twenty feet further south and only about as high again, but without ropes or a partner, I wasn't at all sure I was going to be able to make the climb... regardless, at 12,465 feet, I was about the highest thing around.
I was high - nay, I was ecstatic. I had finally made the bloody Crags after being blown off the ridge at about 11,300 feet a few weeks ago by blinding, horizontal hail and snow and high winds that threatened to catch my skis and sail me, ass over tit, down into the Michigan Lakes cirque. Today, though, I had skied off from the highway, through the pines in the bottom of the Michigan River drainage, and on up out of the valley toward the Michigan Ditch, as it cut across the hillside, to the point where the steepness of the snow defeated the best wax I had. There, I abandoned skis and donned snowshoes for a trek directly up an avalanche gully to the ridge itself.
Which was when I got my first look at the weather. Low clouds--lower than me, even, at their bases--had filled the high, inter-montane valley to the west with drapings of snow, and then the sky above that with billowy cumulus. Wave after wave was sweeping across North Park, directly at the pass. And directly at me.
Never the brightest boy on the hill, I continued on up the ridgeline, through bands of sun and calm, then sun and wind, then wind and whiteout, then hail and snow rushing up the hill, then sun and calm again, as each of the waves of weather crested and washed over the range. I alternately rushed ahead in the calms and flinched and blindly followed the camber of the ridge in the maelstroms.
Finally--after about a half-hour, an hour, maybe?--I stood on the crag. The latest wave of snow had washed off the tops and was revealing the east behind it as it fled. I stood and stared all round. My hands on my hips, then, breathing deeply to recover, I calmed and cooled and reached into my pocket for my black watch cap. Idly pulling it over my ears, I stared and turned slowly, in a full 360° : directly ahead, to the east and down the sheer face of the ridge was the Michigan Lakes cirque, with its astonishing waveform debris flow oozing geologically from its mouth; turning anti-clockwise to the north, there were the snow-swept humps of the Medicine Bows, bounding scores of miles away into Wyoming; and, there, 3000 feet below was the valley, the highway, and, somewhere, the truck; turning further west, North Park, the space between the Front Range and the Zirkels, was still filled with weather, looming and gray and rushing on; immediately west and 2500 feet below was the Lake Agnes cirque, with its eponymous lake still under snow and ice; to the south and just a few yards away was the final Crag, the most challenging...
...and what the hell is that noise? Sounds like air escaping from a container, right by my ears. Maybe my water bottles? No, they're packed away deep on my back...
...and then my hair is frizzy and my black watch cap is crackling and from deep in my mind I'm putting two and two together and...
Oh fuck! I have crampons on my back!
My first useful thought is of metal. I flail at the snaps to my backpack and somehow, simultaneously, at the black watch cap on my head. Both are off me within a second, and then, a second--two seconds?--later I am wheeling around, looking for a place to jump, and...
...and my hands are on the granite and I'm down, down, down, my feet reaching blindly for a hold, and...
...and I'm leaping from the hold and I'm twenty feet below the top of the crag and...
...and I'm crouching down. And I’m thinking, quite clearly and quickly, what do I know that can save my life now? What do they say to do with your hands? Not on the ground, that's it! On your knees. You want to protect your vital organs, keep them from making a path between the sky and the earth. Crouch down and out of the way, try not to be noticed in the fury. No, not so close to the cliff edge. You could still be hit by charge traveling down the face.
I shuffle out a few feet and remain crouched. Balanced on the balls of my feet and waiting. And hoping. Hoping I'm far enough down not to be hit directly and when it comes it won't burst my eardrums and any shards of rock exploding off the Crag will be small enough and slow enough not to do too much damage...
And I wait.
And the sequence of seconds turns into minutes and my heart stops pounding and my feet are starting to shake from my posture, and my shins--my poor fractured shins--are killing me and I gradually ease back against the cliff and sit down. The next wave of snow rushes the mountains and blinds me on its path up over the Crags and I duck my head away from it. I start to wonder how long I need to wait before I can go back up there and reclaim everything I shucked.
A few minutes pass and the snow does not let up and there is no change in the depth of the dark above, but I clamber up anyway. My feet are still shaking--whether from the crouching or from the shock, I don't know.
And everything is where I left it. My baseball cap, my left mitten, my backpack strewn crampons-skywards, and my black watch cap. My synchronous, cursed, blessed black watch cap.
And so I run. Or I clamber as fast as I can. Down, down, down is my mantra and my direction and my saving. For I'm only a zero and a one and a ...two-fifths of a mile away when the crag is hit directly. And the light and the thunder flood the valley with one sharp, ear-splitting crack and a thousand rocky echoes.
Down, down, down. I race and I slip and I stumble and the granite tears open my hand and my knee and I keep on going down, down, down. I stop only when I have found the top of the avalanche chute and have dropped a couple of hundred feet into it in one long glissade.
And then there on the snow are two ptarmigans—still clad in their winter white—black eyes my way; they are chuckling and screeching at something. Some idiocy, perhaps.