After 10 grueling
hours we are on the summit. We stand on the narrow ridge vomiting and slapping
ourselves like Bowery drunks killing imaginary spiders. It is late. The sun
swells and splits on the horizon. Shadows fill the valleys. We feel the need to
move on and find shelter, and yet we linger, watching the mountains turn
lavender and gold.
The view is
unrestricted for 200 miles in every direction, more of the earth than I have
ever seen from one spot. Mountains shred every horizon: titan peaks, five
separate ranges at least, perhaps as many as nine. They unfold ridge behind
ridge into the night.
consider this the pantheon of American wilderness, the last and the best. We
can look to the west and south to the farthest boundaries of Yellowstone and
Grand Teton National Park, and even beyond into the wide buffer of Primitive
Areas, Wilderness Areas and National Forests. We cannot see a single artificial
light, column of smoke, building or road. The village of Cooke has vanished. At
this moment and for weeks to come, Stearns and I will be virtually alone in an
island of wilderness as large as the state of New Jersey.
We move off slowly
toward the timber line at the headwaters of Cache Creek. With no small measure
of anxiety the two of us gradually begin to comprehend the enormity of our
undertaking. We have entered an environment in which man has no exalted post.
Our lives have no priority here.
about for an hour on the darkened mountainside we stop and prepare a camp in a
stand of lodgepole pine inside the eastern boundary of Yellowstone Park. We dig
a shallow sleeping pit, standing on one web and using the other as a shovel,
then pack the bottom as firmly as possible and tie a sheet of plastic between
the bordering trees. Stooped uncomfortably beneath this canopy we stretch out
insulated pads and unroll our sleeping bags.
violently now that our movements are more confined, we brush away loose snow,
pull off our boots and squirm into our bags—ignoring completely several logical
reasons for removing damp clothing. It is almost 30� below, and I have decided
that my skin is as close to the air as it is going to get. Despite the parlor
talk about the "dry cold" of this region, when the thermometer bottoms
out an exposed finger will swell and split like a boiled frankfurter.
With one arm out
of my bag, I set up a stove and begin melting snow from the wall of the cubicle
to prepare supper, a task that proves tedious. With complete lack of foresight
we have packed a bottled butane stove without realizing that the stove will
freeze in this sort of weather. Even with impurities added to the fuel
cannisters, the stove's efficiency, especially this night, leaves a great deal
to be desired. Working by candlelight it takes almost two hours to melt enough
snow for drinking water and to cook a simple dehydrated stew. The stew looks,
smells and tastes like soggy tissue, but it has been a long day, and I lack the
energy and the inclination to prepare anything more.
I sleep dully and
awake at dawn wrapped in a translucent shroud. Five inches of snow have fallen
during the night, and our plastic roof has sagged to floor level under the
load, covering packs and bags like a massive quilt. Kicking the cover away we
half bury ourselves in fluff.
The damp clothes I
have slept in have dried, but the moisture has passed through them into my
sleeping bag, which now bristles with spears of ice. Our leather boots, damp
with sweat and exposed to the night air, have frozen stiff, as well as our face
masks and the woolen inserts to my mittens. Enthusiasm, frozen like everything
else, is discarded.
elaborate and awful. Each serving consists of two packages of instant oatmeal,
one package of instant breakfast, four ounces of powdered whole milk, two
tablespoons of Tang, a few raisins and dried apples, half a handful of wheat
germ, brown sugar, honey and a cup of boiling water. The concoction tastes
every bit as terrible as it sounds, but for nutritional reasons (it is much too
cold to stop for lunch) and to conserve water, we agree to make it our standard