August 31. A blue moon tonight, the second full moon of the month. The weather is not looking good.
As I trudge up the summit slope cloud sweeps in as if sucked by a vacuum cleaner. One moment I have a view, the next I’m in a whiteout and flakes of snow splatter on the rocks. I don’t know why the hell I’m climbing this mountain, I did it 12 years ago and I certainly don’t remember it being such a slog. But I’m 12 years older—maybe that’s it.
I had come up from my high camp to get water. I knew of a little seepage; hopefully it was running. Late August and many water sources have dried up, especially this year with such a dry summer. I find a patch of vivid green moss with blobs of clear water. A little farther and there’s a good flow to fill my containers.
I amble higher, enjoying scrambling the gully. I see the summit slope; might as well keep going to the top. Doesn’t look far. Maybe 30 minutes? An hour later the summit is still some way off. The slope is steeper than I remember, the scree is worse than I remember and I certainly don’t remember this awful scree-covered slab. It’s like walking on ball bearings on top of sloping plywood. I’m that fagged I could lie down. But I keep going, as one usually does, and eventually I’m at the summit. Socked in. Nothing to see. There’s a cairn and a summit register in a glass jar. There’s no duct tape around the jar so it’s not one of ours. Just two entries, the last one in 2016. There’s a break in the cloud and I can just make out the north-face glacier below.
Time for a snack. I pull out a bag of chips from my pack: Dutch Crunch—Parmesan & Garlic. The bag is blown out like a balloon. I estimate the height of the mountain around 9,000 feet. We had discovered that bags of chips can make it to 9 to 10,000 feet before exploding. They were our altimeter. It was a bag of chips, two actually, that was responsible for a startling discovery concerning actual cabin pressurization—the cabin altitude—inside a passenger jet.
I was flying from Vancouver to Gatwick England. The cabin crew had just demonstrated the safety protocol: tuck your head between your knees if we’re about to land in the ocean . . . I had mumbled, should we do the same if we’re about to “land” on the side of a mountain? I didn’t think anyone had caught my stupid joke, but there was snivelling and sobbing from the row behind.
There was a tap on my shoulder. “Could you keep your comments to yourself, “ said the man. “My wife is an extremely nervous flyer.” No kidding! I apologized profusely and slunk into the back of my seat.
There was an empty seat beside me on which I had put the two bags of chips I was taking to my sister (she’s very partial to our Canadian chips). The bags had swelled tremendously, it was then that I realized cabin pressure is not at sea level: we’re on tops of mountains, for God’s sake!
We were still climbing. I watched the bags swell even more. I looked for something to pop the bags. Nothing. I started to panic. If these bags explode Nervous Nellie would burst into uncontrollable hysterics; and it would be just my luck to be taken out by the trigger-happy sky marshal—they do travel the skies, you know! Not to mention salt & vinegar chips raining down on the passengers.
I summoned the flight attendant and explained my dilemma. He obliged with the pin on his poppy. Phew!
Back at camp the late afternoon sun shines as the rain falls and the patches of red bearberry scintillate with light. In this golden rain they look like pools of blood. Robin Hill crying for the insane slaughter on earth.
The day has come and gone; it’s dark as I listen to the patter of rain on the tent. So much for the blue moon.
After midnight. The rain has stopped and there are shadows on the fly. I had pitched the tent behind a clump of small firs and it’s the pattern of their branches and needles traced on my tent. I crawl outside. A full moon—the blue moon I thought I wouldn’t get to see!
Two hours later plumbing problems get me out of the tent, and the Northern Lights are running wild. Ghostly gossamer lights of spirits flitting through the night home. There is no colour, the moon makes sure of that. I see a satellite pass over, orbiting, orbiting, spinning around the earth like a spider wrapping its victim with thread. It will be back in an hour. Then the blinking light of a midnight jet. Are passengers looking out the windows at the show? They have front-row seats after all.
Magic out the porthole
I was on a British Airways flight to England. Earlier, I had watched the Monty Python parrot skit on the personal screen in front of me. We had been watered and fed, the toilets visited, now the plane was calming down to ride through the night.
I walked up and down the plane. The passengers looked like the parrot: dead, or at the very least, stunned. They looked like rows of wax-works, not a smile, not a glimmer of acknowledgement. Some had eye-patches to keep out the light, some were covered with grey blankets as if they had already succumbed to deep vein thrombosis and were set for burial, and some were watching a movie with blank stares. I can honestly say that no one looked like they were enjoying the trip.
Back at my seat I had my nose pressed to the porthole to see the magic out there. A flight attendant came by and asked me to draw the blind. I told her I was watching stuff, that’s why I paid for a window seat. She came by again, said would I please close the blind. I asked why? “When the sun comes up it will wake the passengers.” I said I’m on the north side of the plane, surely the sun’s not going to bother them? A minute later she came back with the heavy—the cabin manager.
“Are you going to close that blind?”
“No. I’d like to keep it open. I’m looking out the window seeing all. . .” Before I could finish explaining he leaned over, slammed the blind down and gave me a great glare indicating his absolute authority. Keep this up buster and you’ll be on our no-fly list. The flight attendant looked sheepish, and as if to compensate for shutting out the world she said: “What’s there to see, anyway?”
Now the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners ply the skies and the blinds are no more. The windows have a darkening device controlled by the flight attendants—and the plane sleeps on.
But I’m at ground zero and the Lights dance and flit in a great arc over mountains I have climbed. Over Coral, Rainbow, Constones—mountains we named. The belt of Orion hangs over 8.6, the mountain that took 12 days to get to the top. I make out the faint stars of the Seven Sisters. The Big Dipper, grown in size for the lateness of the night, with its star on the outer rim unerringly pointing to the North Star, the star of mariners guiding them home. The star that the Heavens revolve around, the only star of constancy—in its assigned position always.
Close to the Moon the King of Planets, Jupiter. I hear the crackling of galaxies, the static with nowhere to go. The Magellanic Cloud spiralling like smoke from the Milky Way, Orion and the Horsehead Nebula, Supernovae that outshine entire galaxies, and at my feet the dark patches of red bearberry.
So much to see and hear and imagine.
David Harrap // firstname.lastname@example.org
Jasper’s David Harrap is the author of The Littlest Hiker In The Canadian Rockies. Get it at the Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives.