My son’s first glacier. He, who has been stumbling through his fifteenth year, moves as if born attached to these tools, performing a dance more natural than walking. Even his frontpointing appears effortless, delicate, as if he’s tiptoeing up a sidewalk upon which his heels will never touch, as if youth holds some antidote for ice and gravity. He wants what we all want: more.
Farther, steeper, higher, the whole mountain, and then, of course, another.
He knows I go to the mountains, but I don’t think he knows why. And here he is, treating this ice work, this frozen world, with a kind of reverence, as if guessing that for him, too, salvation may be found here.
Now that we cannot pretend they are not shrinking, every visit to a glacier is more sacred than ever. The Byron is so close, our backyard glacier, an hour by car from Anchorage and only a mile more of flat walking on a well-maintained trail before we enter the primeval world of snow: a jumble of seracs, leaning towers, perfectly named erratics of rock and ice, the alluvial fans of debris where a dozen miniature avalanches have spread their wares as a card dealer fans the deck, pick a card.
Random, he says, one of his favorite words. He’s right, sure, but I don’t like to encourage him: he seems to see the whole world in the word.
A glacier is called alive because it moves, advancing, retreating, a frozen army.
It also speaks. Under the rush of wind, the sound of rushing water. Under the snow, under the ice, creaks and groans, every once in a while a crash, an echo. Ancient, almost translatable, it says beware in every tongue. Jake Breitenbach knew that mountains move: his elegy tells us, his body encased within the Khumbu Icefall. And closer, on Denali, Mugs lies in the crevasse that “swallowed” him “silently, quickly,” as his clients said. When I would see Mugs around town, at the bakery, I was surprised that he walked around, lived, and breathed the same air as the rest of us; but if you knew what he’d been doing in the mountains, it would have never occurred to you that he wasn’t immortal.
We say he died doing what he loved. We say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We say when your number’s up, your number’s up.
But for us this is the right place and the right time. The mountain won’t move.
We will. Upward, we reach the toe, or the head, opposites that describe the same feature when applied to glaciers: the terminus. Or is this the beginning?
This is the week of the Northern solstice when time becomes unhinged. We’ve got all night, dad, my son says; he sounds exasperated that I want to stop just after nine pm. The sun won’t set for hours, but now it’s gone behind a ridge. In its shadow, we return to winter. We layer on all our clothes, point out with our axes the possible routes to the summit, etching them into memory for future use.
Why the ridge and not straight up? he asks. Damn, I think, Day One and already with the straight up. I explain the likely paths of the seracs above the directissima, the probable crevasses, and then, for balance, the lesser dangers of the cornices on the ridge. That’s a real word? he asks, direttissima? He looks at me as if for once in his whole life I have told him something possibly useful for navigating the world.
On the way down a new landscape appears: ice chunks, aglow in the twi-night sun, float across Portage Lake like burning ships. Above the lake, more snow and peaks float on the shadowed forest, alight in the long alpenglow, gateway to the infinite: Begich, Boggs, Maynard, their names map-learnt, not yet experienced.
I think of the way my British friends say the word glacier: Glahss-y-ear, making it sound the enchanted place that it truly is. My son and I have been to the glahss-y-ear but my language won’t hold it. “Earth’s the right place for love,” Frost best said, and like him, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.