The magic of the high country

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

This time of year, I gather with a group of friends and we make our annual pilgrimage to the mountains. With everything we need to survive for three days strapped on our heavy packs, we trudge up river drainages to the high country, where the pace slows to a meditative crawl.

The destination is usually a mountain lake, far from the daily stresses of our workaday lives. After a few hours of sweating, we arrive to find our camp spot unoccupied, clean of debris and ready to receive us.

This year, our camp was situated between huge swaths of huckleberry bushes already showing fall colors, bent heavy with berries. Apparently nobody at this particular mountain lake read recent reports that Idaho had a bad huckleberry year, because these bushes were thriving.

We set up camp, slowly unloading the essential gear from our packs. When you carry everything on your back, every item is scrutinized — some culled because the added weight wasn’t worth it. When you’re hoofing 30-40 pounds of gear up seven or eight miles of steep terrain, every pound matters.

But everyone has luxuries. Ours was beer. There is nothing quite so satisfying as a cheap beer cooled by a mountain lake after a long uphill hike. Each of the five tallboys I packed weighed a pound, but I appreciated every sip over the following days.

With our tents erected and firewood gathered, we got down to the real business of relaxing. The lake we visited this year was surrounded by a granite shelf that loomed overhead like a natural cathedral. Sounds of pikas and chipmunks filled the air as they gathered food for the coming winter. Little birds flitted here and there, chirping their innocent songs.

There is a silence in the high country that enters your soul and hangs around for a while. 

The clouds seemed to rush over the peaks like water, almost close enough to reach your arms out and touch them. Slowly, the last rays of sun dipped behind the cliffs and immediately the temperature dropped about 15 degrees. Down in the valley below, the sun might shine for another two hours, but twilight comes early in the high country.

We sat by a roaring fire, burning hot with the hardscrabble dead branches and trees we scavenged. Sometimes we talked, other times we just quietly sat and contemplated the flames.

After the fire had been drowned in lake water and food put up in a bear box, we gazed at the brightest stars you’ll see all year before disappearing inside our tents.

The mountains are a different place at night. With every noise, our eyes popped open. As we were camped on a granite bedrock, every footstep reverberated loudly. The hooved steps were somewhat easy to recognize, but the quieter steps accompanied by moving brush were the ones that really made us sit up in the tent. 

“Hey bear, hey bear!” we heard our friend call from his tent. Whatever that monster was lumbering by outside our thin walls, I’m glad I couldn’t see it. Whether it was a harmless elk or deer, or a hungry grizzly bear, we yelled and whistled and eventually fell asleep until the next set of footsteps woke us again. 

I can see how this could be terrifying for some — I have an active imagination and it’s hard for me to sleep easy when I’m in grizzly country — but I have to remember that most wild animals are more afraid of us than we are of them. Nonetheless, the can of bear spray is always within arm’s reach.

With the morning sun came relief, both from wild animal encounters and from the cold night air. With the sun beaming off the granite cliffs, we ate our freeze-dried meals and set out for a day of hiking ridgelines, scrambling up rock screes and talus slopes, excited to make our way higher until the mountains reached the sky. Standing high overhead, our knees bloody and arms scuffed, we looked down on our camp from the ridge, all of us feeling a sense of accomplishment. Not many people have touched the rocks we sat on, and we felt damn proud to be part of this exclusive club.

Sunday morning, we packed our gear and gave the camp a last look before starting the long downhill voyage. We tromped down the trail quickly, eating away the miles we worked so hard to climb just days earlier, stopping to pick huckleberries for nourishment and eventually reaching the trailhead. We shared ice cold beers left in the truck cooler, dipped our feet in the cold creek and soaked in the last few minutes of the mountains, nature, blue sky, fragrant trees and deep satisfaction that comes after a successful backpacking mission in the high country.

“Can you believe some people go their whole lives and never experience this?” one of us asked.

In truth, I’m glad they don’t, otherwise these quiet havens would turn into Disneyland. I like how difficult it is to reach the high country and how complete we feel after returning. 

On the long drive home, our thoughts were of the clear mountain lake water, the crystalline sky overhead, the flawless stars and our small, insignificant place under them all. 

Ain’t no place I’d rather be.

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