As Whitehorse greets Winter, a familiar friend (and foe), the temperatures have been in steady decline. Having only spent two of the [more pleasant of the] four seasons in this dry cabin, just when I think I’ve got the hang of something, Nature swiftly descends, reminding me that I have no idea what I’m doing. More on that, another time, for now: 0600 summits dressed as the legendary 100 layer dip*!
I set my alarm for 13 minutes before my pal’s set arrival time–an intentional move on my part that allowed me -zero- time to second guess this very early morning adventure. My intentional plan vanishes as I get a message: “my alarm didn’t go off. I’ll be there soon!” I consider telling him to stay in bed as climb back into my own and pull the comforters in closer. My curiosity eventually encourages me to check the weather. I pull the blankets closer still as I read: real feel temperature of -31 with 30+KM/hr winds. Before Regret gets it’s chance to change my mind, Alexi’s jeep headlights cut through the night and dance through my cabin windows. I jump up, throw a couple beers, another merino layer and an ultralight down blanket into my pack and wrestle the zipper closed.
As I open the cabin door, the cold morning air, and the billions of shining stars, take my breath away. We drive down Fish Lake Road, sipping coffee from the HydroFlask as Orion twinkles directly in front of us, guiding us to the trailhead.
Alexi seems equal parts hesitant and excited as he laces his boots and puts on an additional 100 layers. My hikers hit the frozen ground, the snow against my soles squeaking like Styrofoam. With a glance at my watch reading 6:47 AM, I turn to see the pale of dawn creeping up behind the distant East peaks. I turn my head back to the trail, nodding to Orion and his mighty bow, and with one deep inhale I quicken my pace, fusing with the dark of night and the surrounding alpine.
As we make our way up the steepening slope of the mountain, sweat beads under and through the first layers of our clothing, breath becomes short, fast and frozen against our balaclavas. In the silences, I am reminded of the all the tents I have woken up in: Peru, Manitoulin, and Guatemala; Iceland, Algonquin and the Yukon, too. Unzipping those tents in the middle of the night, peaking my face out and being blasted by the brisk air, looking up and being absolutely bashed on the billions of balls of exploding gas overhead. There is nothing that makes me feel more human than the night-sky. How grateful I am for the pads of my feet meshing with the soils of this globe; thankful for these hands reaching with my heart for the pincushion moss against my fingertips. How spoiled I feel to be a cognizant being basking in the Planet Earth experience.
The sun, still a long way from daybreak, is slowly rising. The deep oranges and yellows begin to push out the pale blue dawn that too is pushing the deep dark of the night sky to the West, directly ahead of us.
We break out of the alpine to frozen, fresh snow-clad willows that silently sparkle like a million diamonds, their shimmering beauty stirring a familiar feeling of life as magic, something found first, I think, in the wondrous years of childhood. The saddle is in sight and the faint light is bright enough to turn off my headlamp. Knowing the sweat will freeze on my body and make me colder once we hit the infamous wind of Fish Lake Peak, I take off my jacket for the final push. The western sky is now lightening and I look once more to Orion as he dissolves into the yawning dawn.
The wind increases both in strength and brutal cold as we approach the summit. It is so fierce and relentless, that we must take shelter below a rock formation near the summit. We peak our bodies out infrequently to bask in the glowing East but must immediately retreat and warm our frozen fingers and wind-whipped faces. Alexi and I set up camp chairs, I pull out my blanket and drape it around the two of us. We chat, we laugh, and we relish in the stillness. We crack a craft beer to celebrate but our lips stick to the cold can, and the liquid turns to slush, and then ice, within minutes.
We sit shivering, facing the Western mountain ranges that shine brilliant white against the pink, blue and purple pastel sky. 8 ravens appear and float above us, suspended in the unrelenting winds; they caw, cluck, and croak among themselves, their feathers parting furiously in the breeze. This is a moment I hope to remember for many, many moons. As I watch them glide in slow motion, my peripherals pick up a burst of little while flecks which I almost mistook for snow being flung from the wind, but a longer look revealed a flock of ptarmigan skirting close around the summit, dancing down to the saddle below. The world is waking up.
We gather our courage and brave the elements to see day breaking. The wind rages and rips the tears from my eyes as I try desperately to feel my toes and fingertips. The increasing pain of numbness is immediately forgotten as the deep red gathers and grows behind the mountain, swiftly revealing that beautiful bright orb, our sun. The light cuts the East mountain tops, blasting beams of morning across the sky, reaching past our bodies to bathe the West peaks in the soft pink of dawn. Here, another day.