Rants from the Hill: As winter looms, a final foray to close out the season

My annual transect of our neighborhood mountain takes a turn for the perilous.

 

Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Out here in the windy expanse of the high, wild, western Great Basin Desert, highway 395 is our lifeline. Not simply the route south to Mono Lake and Yosemite, and north to the Lassen lava lands and Shasta country beyond, it is also the only way we can access diapers, tractor parts, beer—anything that can’t be beamed to us from a satellite. Our remote home here on the Ranting Hill sits within a labyrinth of ridges and canyons on the eastern flank of our home mountain, which trends north-south and carries the Nevada-California state line along its rocky crest. On this side of the mountain is a classic, high-elevation desert landscape—a sandy, expansive ocean of sagebrush dotted with bitterbrush, rabbitbrush, ephedra, and desert peach. On the west side of the mountain is a broad, sweeping valley through which runs the distant highway, curving past the lone outpost of Hallelujah Junction. Beyond the highway is the pitched escarpment of the Sierra Nevada, which rises dramatically in a heavily forested palisade of granite turrets and crags.

Many world religions recognize sacred mountains, high places of spiritual power or significance. These holy mountains, which are often conceived of as living entities, are honored through rituals that involve walking. For example, Buddhist and Hindu devotional practice includes the kora, a ritual circumambulation of sacred peaks by which the devotee makes a pilgrimage not to the mountain but rather all the way around it. This ritual of walking meditation, which is always performed clockwise in order to follow “the way of the sun,” is said to “open the mountain.”

Because our home mountain is almost 20 miles long and is surrounded by broken flanks of foothills and canyons—not to mention a few ranches where the would-be meditating circumambulator might get a load of buckshot in his britches—I have instead made it an annual ritual to “close the mountain” before the first snow renders its summit inaccessible until April. To honor my home mountain I hike from our place on the Ranting Hill all the way over the mountain’s high crest and down to Hallelujah, a ten-mile-long transect of the range that lifts me to almost 8,000 feet before dropping down the mountain’s steep, western face to the highway, which snakes through the distant valley below. Much like the bear, my ritual is to anticipate winter by going over the mountain just to see what I can see. 

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A storm lowers over the author’s home mountain.
Michael Branch

I was recently set to make the mountain-closing trek over the ridge with fellow desert rats Cheryll and Steve, when the night before the hike an early season storm descended, blanketing the desert with low clouds and bringing a hammering rain that sent water coursing through the forking network of arroyos that runs through this desert like veins. Concerned that winter might beat us to the summit, we decided to try our mountain transect despite the foreboding weather.

We set out early, trudging through the driving rain carrying oversized day packs stuffed with extra clothes and food. Three miles into the muddy slog we reached the soggy, wildfire-scorched bitterbrush flats at the base of the mountain, and from there began an 1,800-foot ascent into the chilling fog. By the time we reached the small spring halfway up the mountain we were thoroughly soaked, and had already pulled on gloves, hats, and every piece of spare clothing we had. Looking homeward across the Great Basin through the swirling fog, we could make out occasional glimpses of the broken hills and sagebrush dotted sand flats rolling east to the gray horizon. Above us to the west wound a faint game trail, rising up through copses of bitter cherry and coyote willow and dodging between slick granite cliffs that gleamed in the rain. 

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The author, left, with fellow desert rat Steve, preparing to climb the mountain.
Photo by Cheryll Glotfelty

By mid-afternoon we crested the summit ridge and entered a sweeping valley that is slung between two rocky peaks and graced with groves of gnarled aspens surrounded by the green domes of snowberry bushes. I tried to imagine this same spot in July, when the magnificent expanse of this hanging valley would be covered in an undulating, yellow blanket of flowering tower butterweed. But now the situation was more threatening than pastoral. The valley appeared ominous as the fog thickened, the freezing rain turned to snow, and a cutting wind rose from the flanks of the mountain.

“Looks like big weather,” Steve observed, squinting.

“Way too exposed up here,” Cheryll added. “Time to skedaddle.” 

Shivering, I nodded my agreement. “We wouldn’t last long up here. Besides, I didn’t bring the whiskey.” I had already begun to lose sensation in my feet, and it was obvious that we needed to head for lower country, and that without delay.

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The hikers enter the summit valley as the rain turns to snow.
Photo by Cheryll Glotfelty

The three of us now set to hiking with intense concentration, knowing that even a short pause would be an invitation to hypothermia. We soon reached the far side of the summit valley, from which we hoped our descent of the mountain’s western slope would begin. Instead, we found ourselves staring straight down a precipitous, brush-choked ravine that was far too thick to bushwhack. Our only alternative was to ascend a steep boulder field to a secondary ridge from which it appeared a route down the mountain might be possible. The numbness in my feet had now overtaken my legs as well, and my fingers also began to deaden. It was far too late to turn back and still arrive home before dark, and so we began to pick our way up and over boulders slick with rime. Moving with silent urgency, I suspect we were all thinking the same thing: under these dangerous conditions, even a minor injury would quickly become a major problem. 

After another half hour of climbing I was out of breath and dangerously wet and cold, but I could now make out the crest of the boulder field etching the horizon above me. At last reaching its top I clambered out onto an exposed ridge, where I noticed among the first flakes of sticking snow the scat of pronghorn antelope and that of black bear within a few feet of each other—a reminder that the keystone species of the Great Basin and Sierra overlap on my home mountain. If this mountain is sacred, as it seems to me, it is perhaps because it is the enchanted place where the magisterial worlds of mountain and desert abide together. 

Emerging onto the ridge I first looked back across Nevada. Somewhere out among those endless, fog-shrouded ridges was a small hill, atop which sat a warm, glowing home, where I pictured my beautiful daughters reading by the woodstove. And then I turned west, gazing out over rainy California, spectacular in the lowering storm. Beneath the ceiling of dark clouds I now saw the ridge descend before me, narrow and sinuous as a dragon’s back, but clear and passable, even as steep canyons dropped away from it on either side. Beyond the serpent’s curving spine lay a broad valley through which ran the gleaming asphalt trail of 395. Only about four miles away, but nearly three thousand feet below me, the ribbon of highway looked as peaceful as a miniature stream, with insect cars floating along it, and occasionally the tiny box of an eighteen-wheeler passing through the shining, black artery like a rectangular bubble. I tried to imagine the folks inside those cars and trucks. How warm they must be. How sweet must be the music pouring out of their radios. What lives they might be escaping from or returning to. Whether they turned their heads far enough to notice the desolate beauty of my home mountain rising above them into the freezing fog.

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The hikers reach a passable ridge to the valley below.
Photo by Cheryll Glotfelty

We ran that winding ridge toward the highway below, warming quickly as we dropped in elevation, descending to safety and leaving behind us a network of peaks and ridges that would soon be buried beneath the season’s first snow. Glancing over my shoulder occasionally as I hiked I saw winter nipping at my heels, closing my home mountain behind me as I strode for the lowlands. 

Reaching the sage flats we bushwhacked through open desert scrub for several miles, our boots thawing out and then caking with mud. In a short time we reached Hallelujah Junction, an isolated roadside outpost that certainly lived up to its name on that freezing afternoon. As I pushed open the swinging door of the little store I smelled warm buttered popcorn and heard men talking idly of weather and of miles of highway behind them or still ahead. The sound of football crackled from a small television that sat on the checkout counter between a rack of keychains and a Plexiglas container of smoked jerky. 

Steve and Cheryll and I circled the small, warm space, and then stepped to the counter carrying the kinds of things Hallelujah specializes in. I bought a box of strawberry frosted pop tarts and a small bottle of whiskey, which I emptied into a large cup of ink-black coffee. Hallelujah! We have closed the consecrated mountain, and that is how I know that this season has come to an end, and that another has silently begun.

The author’s home mountain not long after the hike: closed for the winter.
Michael Branch

Whenever I drive the Hallelujah stretch of highway, my memory triggers the aromatic smell of that bone-warming, bourbon-laced coffee. And that causes me to look up into my home mountain’s towering canyons and imagine granite and lichen, bitterbrush and aspen, willow and chokecherry, pronghorn and bear. And three shivering hikers, huddled on a windy ridge in the swirling snow, looking down with relief on the gleaming, ribboned black snake of a distant highway.

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