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An essay by Stewart Edward White

The Main Crest

Title:     The Main Crest
Author: Stewart Edward White [More Titles by White]

The traveler in the High Sierras generally keeps to the west of the main crest. Sometimes he approaches fairly to the foot of the last slope; sometimes he angles away and away even down to what finally seems to him a lower country,--to the pine mountains of only five or six thousand feet. But always to the left or right of him, according to whether he travels south or north, runs the rampart of the system, sometimes glittering with snow, sometimes formidable and rugged with splinters and spires of granite. He crosses spurs and tributary ranges as high, as rugged, as snow-clad as these. They do not quite satisfy him. Over beyond he thinks he ought to see something great,--some wide outlook, some space bluer than his trail can offer him. One day or another he clamps his decision, and so turns aside for the simple and only purpose of standing on the top of the world.

We were bitten by that idea while crossing the Granite Basin. The latter is some ten thousand feet in the air, a cup of rock five or six miles across, surrounded by mountains much higher than itself. That would have been sufficient for most moods, but, resting on the edge of a pass ten thousand six hundred feet high, we concluded that we surely would have to look over into Nevada.

We got out the map. It became evident, after a little study, that by descending six thousand feet into a box canon, proceeding in it a few miles, and promptly climbing out again, by climbing steadily up the long narrow course of another box canon for about a day and a half's journey, and then climbing out of that to a high ridge country with little flat valleys, we would come to a wide lake in a meadow eleven thousand feet up. There we could camp. The mountain opposite was thirteen thousand three hundred and twenty feet, so the climb from the lake became merely a matter of computation. This, we figured, would take us just a week, which may seem a considerable time to sacrifice to the gratification of a whim. But such a glorious whim!

We descended the great box canon, and scaled its upper end, following near the voices of a cascade. Cliffs thousands of feet high hemmed us in. At the very top of them strange crags leaned out looking down on us in the abyss. From a projection a colossal sphinx gazed solemnly across at a dome as smooth and symmetrical as, but vastly larger than, St. Peter's at Rome.

The trail labored up to the brink of the cascade. At once we entered a long narrow aisle between regular palisaded cliffs.

The formation was exceedingly regular. At the top the precipice fell sheer for a thousand feet or so; then the steep slant of the debris, like buttresses, down almost to the bed of the river. The lower parts of the buttresses were clothed with heavy chaparral, which, nearer moisture, developed into cottonwoods, alders, tangled vines, flowers, rank grasses. And away on the very edge of the cliffs, close under the sky, were pines, belittled by distance, solemn and aloof, like Indian warriors wrapped in their blankets watching from an eminence the passage of a hostile force.

We caught rainbow trout in the dashing white torrent of the river. We followed the trail through delicious thickets redolent with perfume; over the roughest granite slides, along still dark aisles of forest groves, between the clefts of boulders so monstrous as almost to seem an insult to the credulity. Among the chaparral, on the slope of the buttress across the river, we made out a bear feeding. Wes and I sat ten minutes waiting for him to show sufficiently for a chance. Then we took a shot at about four hundred yards, and hit him somewhere so he angled down the hill furiously. We left the Tenderfoot to watch that he did not come out of the big thicket of the river bottom where last we had seen him, while we scrambled upstream nearly a mile looking for a way across. Then we trailed him by the blood, each step one of suspense, until we fairly had to crawl in after him; and shot him five times more, three in the head, before he gave up not six feet from us; and shouted gloriously and skinned that bear. But the meat was badly bloodshot, for there were three bullets in the head, two in the chest and shoulders, one through the paunch, and one in the hind quarters.

Since we were much in want of meat, this grieved us. But that noon while we ate, the horses ran down toward us, and wheeled, as though in cavalry formation, looking toward the hill and snorting. So I put down my tin plate gently, and took up my rifle, and without rising shot that bear through the back of the neck. We took his skin, and also his hind quarters, and went on.

By the third day from Granite Basin we reached the end of the long narrow canon with the high cliffs and the dark pine-trees and the very blue sky. Therefore we turned sharp to the left and climbed laboriously until we had come up into the land of big boulders, strange spare twisted little trees, and the singing of the great wind.

The country here was mainly of granite. It out-cropped in dikes, it slid down the slopes in aprons, it strewed the prospect in boulders and blocks, it seamed the hollows with knife-ridges. Soil gave the impression of having been laid on top; you divined the granite beneath it, and not so very far beneath it, either. A fine hair-grass grew close to this soil, as though to produce as many blades as possible in the limited area.

But strangest of all were the little thick twisted trees with the rich shaded umber color of their trunks. They occurred rarely, but still in sufficient regularity to lend the impression of a scattered grove-cohesiveness. Their limbs were sturdy and reaching fantastically. On each trunk the colors ran in streaks, patches, and gradations from a sulphur yellow, through browns and red-orange, to a rich red-umber. They were like the earth-dwarfs of German legend, come out to view the roof of their workshop in the interior of the hill; or, more subtly, like some of the more fantastic engravings of Gustave Dore.

We camped that night at a lake whose banks were pebbled in the manner of an artificial pond, and whose setting was a thin meadow of the fine hair-grass, for the grazing of which the horses had to bare their teeth. All about, the granite mountains rose. The timber-line, even of the rare shrub-like gnome-trees, ceased here. Above us was nothing whatever but granite rock, snow, and the sky.

It was just before dusk, and in the lake the fish were jumping eagerly. They took the fly well, and before the fire was alight we had caught three for supper. When I say we caught but three, you will understand that they were of good size. Firewood was scarce, but we dragged in enough by means of Old Slob and a riata to build us a good fire. And we needed it, for the cold descended on us with the sharpness and vigor of eleven thousand feet.

For such an altitude the spot was ideal. The lake just below us was full of fish. A little stream ran from it by our very elbows. The slight elevation was level, and covered with enough soil to offer a fairly good substructure for our beds. The flat in which was the lake reached on up narrower and narrower to the foot of the last slope, furnishing for the horses an admirable natural corral about a mile long. And the view was magnificent.

First of all there were the mountains above us, towering grandly serene against the sky of morning; then all about us the tumultuous slabs and boulders and blocks of granite among which dare-devil and hardy little trees clung to a footing as though in defiance of some great force exerted against them; then below us a sheer drop, into which our brook plunged, with its suggestion of depths; and finally beyond those depths the giant peaks of the highest Sierras rising lofty as the sky, shrouded in a calm and stately peace.

Next day the Tenderfoot and I climbed to the top. Wes decided at the last minute that he hadn't lost any mountains, and would prefer to fish.

The ascent was accompanied by much breathlessness and a heavy pounding of our hearts, so that we were forced to stop every twenty feet to recover our physical balance. Each step upward dragged at our feet like a leaden weight. Yet once we were on the level, or once we ceased our very real exertions for a second or so, the difficulty left us, and we breathed as easily as in the lower altitudes.

The air itself was of a quality impossible to describe to you unless you have traveled in the high countries. I know it is trite to say that it had the exhilaration of wine, yet I can find no better simile. We shouted and whooped and breathed deep and wanted to do things.

The immediate surroundings of that mountain peak were absolutely barren and absolutely still. How it was accomplished so high up I do not know, but the entire structure on which we moved--I cannot say walked--was composed of huge granite slabs. Sometimes these were laid side by side like exaggerated paving flags; but oftener they were up-ended, piled in a confusion over which we had precariously to scramble. And the silence. It was so still that the very ringing in our ears came to a prominence absurd and almost terrifying. The wind swept by noiseless, because it had nothing movable to startle into noise. The solid eternal granite lay heavy in its statics across the possibility of even a whisper. The blue vault of heaven seemed emptied of sound.

But the wind did stream by unceasingly, weird in the unaccustomedness of its silence. And the sky was blue as a turquoise, and the sun burned fiercely, and the air was cold as the water of a mountain spring.

We stretched ourselves behind a slab of granite, and ate the luncheon we had brought, cold venison steak and bread. By and by a marvelous thing happened. A flash of wings sparkled in the air, a brave little voice challenged us cheerily, a pert tiny rock-wren flirted his tail and darted his wings and wanted to know what we were thinking of anyway to enter his especial territory. And shortly from nowhere appeared two Canada Jays, silent as the wind itself, hoping for a share in our meal. Then the Tenderfoot discovered in a niche some strange, hardy alpine flowers. So we established a connection, through these wondrous brave children of the great mother, with the world of living things.

After we had eaten, which was the very first thing we did, we walked to the edge of the main crest and looked over. That edge went straight down. I do not know how far, except that even in contemplation we entirely lost our breaths, before we had fallen half way to the bottom. Then intervened a ledge, and in the ledge was a round glacier lake of the very deepest and richest ultramarine you can find among your paint-tubes, and on the lake floated cakes of dazzling white ice. That was enough for the moment.

Next we leaped at one bound direct down to some brown hazy liquid shot with the tenderest filaments of white. After analysis we discovered the hazy brown liquid to be the earth of the plains, and the filaments of white to be roads. Thus instructed we made out specks which were towns. That was all.

The rest was too insignificant to classify without the aid of a microscope.

And afterwards, across those plains, oh, many, many leagues, were the Inyo and Panamit mountains, and beyond them Nevada and Arizona, and blue mountains, and bluer, and still bluer rising, rising, rising higher and higher until at the level of the eye they blended with the heavens and were lost somewhere away out beyond the edge of the world.

We said nothing, but looked for a long time. Then we turned inland to the wonderful great titans of mountains clear-cut in the crystalline air. Never was such air. Crystalline is the only word which will describe it, for almost it seemed that it would ring clearly when struck, so sparkling and delicate and fragile was it. The crags and fissures across the way--two miles across the way--were revealed through it as through some medium whose transparence was absolute. They challenged the eye, stereoscopic in their relief. Were it not for the belittling effects of the distance, we felt that we might count the frost seams or the glacial scorings on every granite apron. Far below we saw the irregular outline of our lake. It looked like a pond a few hundred feet down. Then we made out a pin-point of white moving leisurely near its border. After a while we realized that the pin-point of white was one of our pack-horses, and immediately the flat little scene shot backwards as though moved from behind and acknowledged its due number of miles. The miniature crags at its back became gigantic; the peaks beyond grew thousands of feet in the establishment of a proportion which the lack of "atmosphere" had denied. We never succeeded in getting adequate photographs. As well take pictures of any eroded little arroyo or granite canon. Relative sizes do not exist, unless pointed out.

"See that speck there?" we explain. "That's a big pine-tree. So by that you can see how tremendous those cliffs really are."

And our guest looks incredulously at the speck.

There was snow, of course, lying cold in the hot sun. This phenomenon always impresses a man when first he sees it. Often I have ridden with my sleeves rolled up and the front of my shirt open, over drifts whose edges, even, dripped no water. The direct rays seem to have absolutely no effect. A scientific explanation I have never heard expressed; but I suppose the cold nights freeze the drifts and pack them so hard that the short noon heat cannot penetrate their density. I may be quite wrong as to my reason, but I am entirely correct as to my fact.

Another curious thing is that we met our mosquitoes only rarely below the snow-line. The camping in the Sierras is ideal for lack of these pests. They never bite hard nor stay long even when found. But just as sure as we approached snow, then we renewed acquaintance with our old friends of the north woods.

It is analogous to the fact that the farther north you go into the fur countries, the more abundant they become.

By and by it was time to descend. The camp lay directly below us. We decided to go to it straight, and so stepped off on an impossibly steep slope covered, not with the great boulders and granite blocks, but with a fine loose shale. At every stride we stepped ten feet and slid five. It was gloriously near to flying. Leaning far back, our arms spread wide to keep our balance, spying alertly far ahead as to where we were going to land, utterly unable to check until we encountered a half-buried ledge of some sort, and shouting wildly at every plunge, we fairly shot downhill. The floor of our valley rose to us as the earth to a descending balloon. In three quarters of an hour we had reached the first flat.

There we halted to puzzle over the trail of a mountain lion clearly printed on the soft ground. What had the great cat been doing away up there above the hunting country, above cover, above everything that would appeal to a well-regulated cat of any size whatsoever? We theorized at length, but gave it up finally, and went on. Then a familiar perfume rose to our nostrils. We plucked curiously at a bed of catnip and wondered whether the animal had journeyed so far to enjoy what is always such a treat to her domestic sisters.

It was nearly dark when we reached camp. We found Wes contentedly scraping away at the bearskins.

"Hello," said he, looking up with a grin. "Hello, you dam fools! I'VE been having a good time. I've been fishing."

[The end]
Stewart Edward White's essay: Main Crest