My father is turning green and perhaps a little yellow and seems to be fading into the landscape on which he stands. I shake my head and wonder if anything can be done. I look at the next slide, and then the next, and see that all of them, my father’s slides from the ’40s and ’50s, are suffering the same inexorable fate; they are washing out to nothing as their pigments fade.
Despite the deterioration, my father still looks out at me clearly; he is wearing a red plaid shirt (faint now), blue khaki pants and a dark green baseball cap without any kind of emblem sewn onto its crown. His handsome face, younger than mine, smiles back at me with an expression uncolored by guile or cynicism.
In the picture my father is standing atop a peak somewhere in the wilds of Montana, and in the background a vast panorama of wilderness stretches out as if man never existed: rocky crags, sheer cliffs, cirques with ice-choked lakes, meadows of tundra and brilliant snow fields. A lonely paradise that Rudyard Kipling would have labeled, as he did another wild place half a world away, “…the back of the beyond.”
Several times a summer (and often during the winter) my father disappeared into this primeval Eden. He would take one or two of my brothers, or a couple of graduate students from Montana State University or another member of the chemistry faculty and plot a course into the mountains. They would journey up trails named Indian Ridge, Hell Roaring, or Specimen Creek to lakes named Heather and Emerald, Elbow or Pear, and then climb mountains named Beehive, Cowen, Hilgard, Ramshorn and Hollowtop.
One mountain especially featured large in the adventures of my father and his companions: Granite Peak. These journeys up the highest mountain in Montana always seem to involve danger or comedy or both. My father and two oldest brothers were stranded on Granite Peak during a storm in the middle of summer. They watched horror stricken as the rocks to which they clung became coated with a sheen of ice and lightning flashed around them. They spent the night, until the storm faded and the ice melted, shivering in a crevice.
Another brother of mine remembers being lost on the same mountain and coming to a dead end. He and his friend and my father were stranded on a ledge, peering into a chasm, hundreds of feet deep. A route to the top did open up just above them, but the first handhold was out of reach. Their only real choice was to backtrack.
What did my father do? He gathered up loose stones and stacked them into a rickety pile to give him added height. He stepped on the pile, tottered for a moment, his arms flailing in space, and then managed to gain the once-evasive handhold above. He pulled himself up and then encouraged my brother and friend to follow in his treacherous footsteps.
Granite Peak looms so large in our clan history because it was a rite of passage in our family. It was an ordeal that I always knew I would have to endure. My turn came when I was 15 in August of 1975. To climb Granite Peak takes three days. The first day is spent climbing up a hot dusty, endlessly switchbacking trail. It ultimately emerges from the heat and trees onto a plateau aptly named “Froze to Death.” For me, the journey was long, our packs heavy and I remember feeling totally exhausted by the time I reached our campsite. We pitched our tent next to an alpine stream that trickled in and out of sod tunnels and disappeared over the edge of a precipice. The spongy ground was carpeted with thousands of tiny flowers and every so often a pika scurried in and out of view.
That evening, while the sky turned purple and rose, I sat next to my father as he cooked our evening meal over a little propane stove. I can still hear the hiss of the burner, for it made up for our lack of conversation. My father and I, in the midst of my teenage years, did not have much to say to each other.
When my father was 14, he and his family moved from Chicago to Minneapolis in the depths of the Depression. The night before they left, he announced that he was, for the fun of it, going to ride his bike the 400 or so miles to their new home. This was in 1935, before titanium frames, multiple gears and sexy wind clothes. In three days he went about 300 miles. He rode all day and slept in haystacks. On the fourth day he got a flat tire, and his high-tech repair kit — of rubber bands, rubber cement and matches — failed to live up to its billing. He rode on his rims for another 20 miles and then pitched the bike and hitchhiked the rest of the way.
When I was 14, I spent my days watching “Hogan’s Heroes,” eating Pringles and worrying whether my jeans had the proper red tag on them.
On the next day of our hike to Granite Peak, we awoke to ice and clear skies on Froze to Death plateau, and I was amazed at how cold I could be in the middle of August. Our breath hung in the air as we cooked our oatmeal. We left before all the stars had disappeared from the sky, and our few words to each other were whispered. For a long time we trudged along in the gray twilight of dawn, and then, suddenly ahead, a movement caught my eye. A herd of mountain goats, like luminous white ghosts, flitted along a low ridge, peered at us for a while and then disappeared as if sinking into the ground. We made a detour to get a better view of them, but when we reached the spot where they should have been, they were gone.
As the sun rose we came to large saddle where we had to descend about 500 feet before beginning the main ascent of the mountain. I remember thinking then about the return trip — that we would head back to camp exhausted from the day’s efforts and have to climb that 500 feet, a significant obstacle to overcome.
I am not a rock-climbing enthusiast. The notion of hanging off a cliff with little or no protection, strapped in (or not) by ropes, carabiners and pitons holds no attraction for me. Why not just wander out onto the interstate blindfolded? As mountains go, Granite Peak is just within the realm of technical climbing. But still, at 15, as I peered up at the sheer cliffs ahead of me, I felt I was about to attempt the impossible, or the insane.
In everyday life I would never go the top of a skyscraper, willingly climb over the edge and then grapple my way from one window ledge to the next. But in essence that is exactly what climbing Granite Peak is like. The higher I got, and the greater the exposure, a strange fatalism came over me — a feeling that danger was inevitable and that I just had to continue, come what may, whether it was edging out over a precipice or shimmying up a rock chimney. No saintly calm filled me with resolve, no feeling that God was looking out for me, just a detached acceptance that I had to go on. I am sure that my father’s calm and confident demeanor contributed to my ability to go forward. My father never harangued or humiliated me to press on. He only waited patiently or offered quiet encouragement and then led by example. Of course, he also accidentally dropped a rock on my back midway up.
In the midst of our ascent, I looked out at the world. A vast landscape of mountains, snowfields and tundra spread out around me like a fairy land beyond any imagining. The lakes of the Rosebud drainage were right below us and they shimmered in the midday light like the sun-struck fins of a trout. Off to the south and softening to a hazy blue were Yellowstone Park and the Tetons. To me, seeing this panorama was the greatest joy of the whole adventure. For my father, I am not so sure. I know that he found the landscape beautiful, but I think for him the physical challenge of getting to the top was the heart of the adventure.
When we reached the summit, my most profound feeling was one of solitude; we had not met or seen anyone all day, and now, for 360 degrees, atop a 12,799-foot mountain, not a person, not even the evidence of another human being could be seen. This loneliness intensified my perception of being somewhere special and otherworldly. I could have been on a different planet than the one on which my ordinary life occurred.
Then there was the wind; there is always the wind on top of a mountain. It roars and rushes past you, tearing your voice and breath away. It tugs at your clothes, pulls your hair and burns your skin. Often I find wind annoying, a malicious imp that rips things from my hands, keeps me awake at night and puts me in a bad mood. But somehow on a mountain top, the wind is more elemental and essential, like the breath of God blowing life into the rocks and ice and whispering how small you are and how grand nature is.
Descending a mountain is always done in silence and in something like a trance. Fatigue and hunger conspire to take the spark out of any conversation. As my father and I climbed down, full day became early evening and the light changed from brilliant to melancholy. It is now that I have the most distinct memory of our adventure. We reached the saddle I had anxiously noted earlier. We were at the end of our strength facing a 500-foot climb back up to Froze to Death Plateau and our camp. The talus hillside in front of us was bathed in a burnt orange light and the clouds above were a stark charcoal gray. My father was more tired than I had ever seen him. He walked more slowly than I did, one weary step after the next.
My father had just finished a five-year stint as head of the chemistry department. He had found it a highly demanding and stressful job. Exercise and the things that he truly loved to do had taken a back seat to the onerous tasks of a thankless desk job. Now he was out of shape and bone tired. I really wondered if he was going to make it back up to the plateau.
At that moment I realized, for the first time in my young life, that my dad would get old, that his powers and abilities were not unlimited. He would go on, after this, to do athletic events I have neither the stamina nor endurance to even contemplate: he would ride a bike from the Montana-Wyoming border to Canada in one day; he would run a hundred miles in under 30 hours, but on that day, on the empty slopes of Granite Peak, I knew, like any child must come to realize, that my father was mortal, that he would, in real life, fade like one of his slides.