The high country is beautiful but, beneath the veneer, it is as fierce and inhospitable as the deserts. Its residents must contend with extreme cold, vicious winds, intense solar radiation, and a warm season measured in weeks, rather than months. The soils are typically poor and rocky. These high lands are often ironically arid when they are not deeply blanketed by snow. Those things that survive must be as strong as the rocks beneath them.
I wanted to watch the sunrise from one of the loveliest places on earth before winter deprived me of access. I left home hours before dawn. The night sky was clear and the stars shone brilliantly, or at least, at first. As I began to climb they disappeared. There was fresh snow on the ground at 8500 feet and it began to fall from the sky at 9000 feet. Undaunted I continued upward through the darkness and the swirling snow, into the black bellies of clouds pregnant with winter. I stopped at 11,000 feet and stepped from my truck, enveloped by the fog. The snow squeaked beneath my boots and an angry wind yanked the cap from my head. I quickly changed into winter gear and began to wait for a dawn I knew I would not see.
The sun rose, somewhere above and beyond the clouds. The fog remained but the quality of the light changed, slowly but perceptibly. I wandered through the Krummholz, alpine fir trees dwarfed and deformed by the violence of their environment. Rather than grow upward like trees, conditions compel these plants to grow in a dense, brushy fashion. The wind flailed my face with icy pellets and piled the snow knee-deep, burying the low-lying branches of the trees. These drifts will soon bury this forest of dwarves. Despite their lengthy entombment the snow protects them from savage winter conditions they would not otherwise survive. In June they will emerge from their icy chambers, these defiant pugnacious tree-gnomes, point their gnarled fingers at the sun, and begin anew their race with a winter that will come all too soon. Some of these trees are centuries old. The patriarchs endure a millennium or more. As I wander, lost in thought, the clouds part and the sun shines down, but only for a moment. Then it is gone, swallowed by the darkness. It begins again to snow