fall

April 21, 2005

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We lean against solid Talkeetna granite and quietly watch the sun sink behind the peaks surrounding the cabin. We had been forced to rappel the cliff to recover our gear, and then climb the trail to the top one more time to recover the packs and get the dogs. My hands are rope-burned, and I have blood on my pants. Colby sniffs it and eyes me reproachfully. I don’t think he understands what happened, but I know the rich smell of Frannie’s blood unnerves him.
The dogs have worn themselves out answering the challenge of every ground squirrel sounding a warning. Now they lie heavily against us, one on each side. I am glad for their warmth on my legs. We have filled our plastic mugs with wine, and we are sluggish with the fullness of sausage, cheese and noodles, with the relief of a frightening afternoon that ended well. Tomorrow we will climb again, but this time it will be for the joy of stretching across granite, and not because of someone else’s misfortune. I slurp my cup of merlot empty, and pour another from the bottle that’s leaning against a nearby rock. Anna’s hand on my leg is a gentle and familiar request. I slow down. Friends who are wiser than me in the weather lore of our local wilderness say that when clouds cover the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage, the odds are good that the weather over the Talkeetna Mountains north of Palmer will be clear. Seen from the deck at my home, the weather streaming through the pass between North and South Suicide Peaks is forbidding, so we chance the Valley weather and ramble up the Glenn Highway. Along the western slopes of the Chugach, brooding over Eagle River and Chugiak, the first shades of fall are already tinting the birch trees and scrawny alders. It will frost hard tonight, but this morning the weather gods are beginning to beam down through frail clouds and smile on us. By the time we reach the Palmer Hay Flats, we can see the break in the mountains to the north that marks the entrance to Hatcher Pass, still some twenty miles away. As Anna laughs, the dogs get excited, and try to crawl through the sliding window in the back of the truck cab. We all want another weekend before winter shackles us to snowshoes and skis, to silky down jackets, polar fleece and runny noses.
Archangel Valley Road is a small track that cuts off from the main Hatcher Pass Road,just after the Motherlode Lodge, and heads still deeper into the mountains, past rivers of scree and tundra tumbling from sharp and unnamed peaks. It is a rutted and muddy track, overgrown by alders, frequented chiefly by bruised and dented Toyotas. There is one creek crossing that I like to stop in; for some reason sitting in the truck in the running water is appealing. The beavers have been diligent this summer in the creeks alongside the road. Their dams and ponds almost fill the narrow valley. In July, this is mosquito heaven, but we are here late enough in the season that the lazy ones still lingering are fat and sluggish. We leave the windows down and drive higher. The ruts in the road are great fun to bang through in four-wheel drive, but the dogs are getting tossed about in the back. Anna squeezes my leg in her familiar way. I slow down.
The road ends at a rusty gate that protects even rustier mining equipment at the abandoned Red Fern Mine. The mine is a lifeless hole bored directly into a granite monolith rising from this high valley floor. Achingly cold water flows in a deep rush from this hole, feeding the ponds the beavers have constructed below, as well as the creeks that they would control. The rock itself is terraced, the flats topped with tundra and stones fallen from higher up. This area is a favorite destination for both climbers and those less inclined to the vertical. Access to the top is directly up the sheer front face, or a gentle stroll up the meadowed back. This small peak stands sentry to the valley above, guarding the easy access this valley offers to the next one. This is one of the qualities of these mountains that has brought us here yet again. Each pass, each valley, leads to the next. You never have to make the same trip twice, although habit often takes us where we have been before. It will again today, eventually.
We park and sort gear on the tailgate while Colby and Bailey inhale the smells of four-legged friends come and gone. They dart hopefully through the brush by the road, startling the occasional chickadee and kicking up lazy drifts of fireweed cotton. Of the millions of birds that summer in Alaska, chickadees are one of the few species that stick it out for the winter. That they aren’t tourists makes me like them more than the others. Sometimes I feel like those of us that live here are on display for the vacationers that flood Anchorage at the height of summer.
Our weekend climbs have predictable and comfortable rituals at both beginning and end. Sorting gear from is one of them. We root through the jangling racks of rock climbing equipment, coil the ropes yet again, and stuff Gore-Tex, nylon, and fleece into worn packs. Everything has a place. I get the tent and the poles, while Anna crams the rainfly into her pack. We roll and stow our sleeping pads; and because the dogs rule our lives, roll and strap on a sleeping pad for them, too. Bottles of wine get nestled deep into the soft stuff; the small stove and fuel are kept as far from the food as the packs will allow. We will eat well tonight; instead of the dehydrated and dried food we usually bring, short trips allow the luxury of real cheese, fresh fruit, and homemade caribou sausage. The trail to the public-use cabin is short, and we will haul the camping and the climbing gear in one load. Boots are laced, and pack straps are cinched.
We head up the trail, following Bailey. He bounds ahead, but keeps ranging back to check and make sure we’re moving in the right direction. Colby lazes along between us. The trail is actually a creek bed in places; in the spring the snowmelt follows the path of least resistance, which is the one we are on. This time of year, the trickling remainders of last winter crossing the route are only enough to cup in our hands and hold up for the dogs to lap.
Winding past the monolith, we begin to gain on the ridge above and behind it. For the first time today the laughter of other climbers intrudes. They are far from where we are heading, but still I begrudge their presence. The scale of the valley makes it hard for me to even pick them out, until Anna spies their bright parkas higher on the far rock face. They have taken the easy trail up the back of the monolith, and are pushing boulders over the front drop. The sharp crack of rock on rock reverberates. As a climber, it is not a welcome sound, but I admit I know how satisfying it is to launch big rocks down steep mountain slopes. A really big crash makes me wince and Anna laughs. She whoops out a greeting and it swirls into an echo.
The sound of stone smashing stone follows us higher. We pass the wooden sluice pipes from the mine, long since collapsed into long boards and snarls of wire. This place is no longer truly wild, but the mountains and the weather are quickly reclaiming what the miners left behind. Another crash startles us both, this time, and I turn toward the other climbers in time to watch the arc of yet another rock, a big black one, as it heads for the first terrace below the cliff. It doesn’t crack, or smash or bounce, or make any of those fun noises that stone pushed from high places makes on the way down. Anna will tell me later she heard a thud, but I am already moving fast toward the slope at the back of the cliff and my hurry is making the gear on my pack jangle and rustle too loudly to hear. It isn’t until I can hear the yelling that I know I am close. A child meets me halfway up, out of breath from her panic and her dash down the incline. It takes a minute, but through the crying and gasping she spits out “Frannies’s fallen, gone over the edge. Mom can see her from the top. She isn’t moving.” Anna is with us now, and she kneels to calm and talk to the girl. I walk uncertainly a few more steps up toward the top, and as I turn to ask Anna to head for the car and for the cell phone, to call for help, so someone else can take responsibility, she calls to me. “Jared, Frannie’s a dog…”
Startled, I turned to check the whereabouts of my own dogs, excitable retrievers themselves. Anna, a step ahead of me as usual, already has a leash on them both. I catch her eye, and smile my thanks. The three of us hurry up the hill. Lizabeth, the little girl, is here with her mom and little brother to share a picnic, gather early fall berries, for enjoying the afternoon. Frannie is their Labrador retriever, who had, in inimitable Lab fashion, been unable to resist chasing a rock rolling right over the edge.
Greta, the mom, was trying to console a crying boy while peering over the edge for their dog, a precarious position for them both. Anna leads Greta and the boy away from the edge, and introduces them to our “boys.” She takes a moment and stuffs a nut we use for rock climbing into a handy crack in a nearby boulder, hooks on carabiner, and secures Colby and Bailey to the rock by their leashes.
I have already shed my pack, and stretch out full-length on the itchy fall grass to peer over the edge. Frannie lies on her side fifty feet below us, on a wide and grassy ledge. Her tongue hangs out, wet and bloody on the grass. She is breathing loudly, out of sync with the quiet day. She does not look up when I call her name. Anna comes and lies beside me, close enough that I can feel her heart hammer with mine as she looks over. “You have to get down there,” she whispers.
We crawl away from the cliff, and start digging apart our packs. Anna builds a nest of nuts, camming devices and aluminum nuts in a Volkswagen-sized boulder twenty feet back from the drop off. These are pieces of metal we use while climbing that will go into fissures in rock and lock into place. We stuff them in as we climb up, threading the rope through clips attached to each piece. They are our protection from falling, holding the rope if you slip so you don’t hit the ground. She builds an anchor that I can attach the rope to so I can rappel down to Frannie. I thread the rope through a carabiner that is attached to bright red nylon webbing slung though the anchor points. It will equalize my weight on each piece. I toss the rope over the edge, and watch it unfurl in the same arc I had witnessed what had assumed was a rock just a few minutes ago. I stuff a first-aid kit, hiking poles, a jacket, water, and lengths of climbing cord into my pack. Then, stepping into my climbing harness, I clip into the rope and walk backward to the edge, nervously exchanging glances with Greta and Anna. I take a long look at Anna’s anchor. “It’s a good one, Jared. Go.”
My feet planted on the edge, I lean back and let feed rope through my hands until my head is level with my boots. I begin backing down the face, letting slack rope feed through the harness to lower myself down. Colby and Bailey whine their discomfort at this. They have often sat fascinated as we climbed up, but they have never watched from this end. I have rappelled hundreds of times, but never in a hurry, with three teary faces urging me to get down there and please be quick about it.
The streaked granite rock glides by quickly as I let the rope slide fast through my hands; friction heating them and burning through summer callouses. This Talkeetna stone is solid, not like the crumbly, blasted stuff along the Turnagain Arm. Climbers call that rock Chugach Crud for the tendency it has to break free when you climb along the highway to Girdwood. What is a dependable hold for twenty climbs may become a souvenir on the twenty-first.
I step down onto the ledge with Frannie, and look around to be sure it is a safe place to be before letting go of the security the rope offers. Lupine and dwarf fireweed are still blooming at the base of the cliff, the sun-warmed granite sustaining the flowers longer into the fall season than those out in the open. The valley drops away below, its river shining a sunlit ribbon beside the dusty scar of the road. It would be a beautiful spot if not for the gasping and bloodied dog at my feet. I feel a sun-warmed bloom of my own, anger at the woman above who let this happen. I am glad it is not my dog, gladder still that it is not one of the children lying here in front of me.
Offering a tentative hand to Frannie, I can see the childhood scar on my thumb where my own dog bit me when I clumsily tried to pull a porcupine quill from his nose. Frannie’s eyes roll nervously, but she doesn’t try to rise or bite. Her tail thumps the grass beside us, and I take it as a good sign. Loose bits of grass and gravel bounce on the ledge, and I turn to see my wife rappelling down the cliff. Her trip down only takes a minute and then she is with us, telling me to tie off to the rope, that she has secured both ends above. Anna has brought the other rope and the rest of our climbing gear. She has realized that the only way we will get Frannie to help is to descend the rest of the cliff, so she has brought the gear to do it.
I turn again to the dog. She thumps her tail softly, and I run my hands gingerly down all four of her sleek black legs. I can find nothing obviously damaged. I think about a deer I shot in the neck when I was twelve. It fell at the first shot, but I had to walk up close and shoot again to be sure. I have not hunted since.
I hope Frannie’s back is not broken. Her tongue lays long on the grass between us, perforated neatly across the middle, by her teeth. It is nearly severed and there blood bubbling from her nose with each breath. Can a dog bark without a tongue? She must have bit through it when she landed. I pour lukewarm water that I know tastes like plastic into her mouth, and she laps it awkwardly. There is nothing to be done for her here. We need to get her down. While Anna rigs another anchor in the wall behind us, I pull the hiking poles from my pack, and thread them through the bright sleeves of my raincoat. When I zip it up, it becomes a tidy, dog-sized litter. I rig nylon cord to the ends of both poles, catch the pieces in the middle and twirl an overhand knot to make a simple loop. I hate to move the dog without knowing for sure what is wrong, but there is nothing we else we know to do.
Anna threads the rope for another rappel as I gently roll Frannie into the improvised litter. She groans, and is heavier than I expected. Anna feeds me rope as I crouch to attach the litter to a loop on the back of my harness. It is my turn to groan as I stand and lift the dog off of the ground. She dangles behind and below me, and Anna tosses the loose end of the rope to the valley below. Frannie and I rappel down, her awkward weight hanging below throwing me off balance. Anna follows, and at the bottom we unclip from the rope, grasp the litter poles and head toward the vehicles. Greta and her kids beat us there, and their truck swirls up a cloud a dust in front of the mineshaft. “What about the gate?” I ask. “I rammed it open,” Greta replies. I feel less anger at her with this news. Anyone willing to ram open an iron gate with her truck to save a dog is all right in my book. Greta asks us to load the dog on the bench seat of the pickup, explaining that “it’s a smoother ride there” and requests our phone number. They bounce off down the road, the ruts making me wince for broken Frannie. I sag against Anna. The adrenaline that drove me this far is gone. It is her turn to feel my heartbeat.

May 2004

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