The Alpine Wanderer

It’s early afternoon when he makes it to the base of the cirque. Or maybe it’s midnight, with a faint slice of moon, the rise and swale of snow glowing pale like human skin. The last few nights it hasn’t frozen in the high country, the crust hasn’t set up as firm as it usually does in spring, but the soft snow doesn’t bother him much. His paws are wide, his body lithe, he floats on top of coarse facets—effortless—like a water strider on a pond. While our tracks are direct and obvious— huge, teardrop-shaped imprints tromping towards the couloir—his are delicate and wandering and are noticed because they are the only other tracks we’ve seen here at 8,000 feet.

IMG_7055He has far to travel, although he has already traveled far, up this drainage all evening long, crisscrossing in search of abandoned carcasses. He may have found a frozen snowshoe hare and eaten it all, splintering the white bones in his jaws. Or he may not have found any food. This wouldn’t worry him; he is used to eating infrequently. When he finds food, he eats voraciously. For this habit we’ve named him the glutton—gulo— hardly fitting for an animal that floats on snow and often walks further in a day than we do in a week.

He keeps moving; he’s always moving, if not for food, then to find a female, or to stay out of another male’s range. Spring is in the valley below, fawns and calves have been born, everything is growing. But here, high in the mountains, ten feet of snow keep everything buried, silent. Perhaps that’s why he wanders among the high peaks—it is always silent.

We can only speculate. All we see are tracks that wind circuitously from a lake to our south. They come to the base of a massive, half-submerged boulder. They climb the snow ramp up the boulder and stop on the sharp edge. They pause, then walk to the highest point on the boulder—fifteen feet above the snow below.

The tracks stop. I imagine him gazing out on the star-bathed world and not feeling lonely, never feeling lonely because his life is solitary and harsh and he can remember nothing to feel lonely for. But he does feel endowed with strength, he does feel that he can dictate the short years of his life.  His next action proves his raw power—his predator nature—to himself.

He springs straight off the top of the boulder. He lands far out in the snow, feet together, sinews compressed. And he goes on walking. He walks by another boulder, big as a ship’s bow, then turns uphill and walks in a straight line, straighter than the steps we can make, up the couloir. Even on the steepest slope–forty degrees—steep enough to reach out and use our hands for balance, he goes straight, never stopping. I can see him taking fifteen minutes to reach the top of the couloir. It takes us an hour.
.El Capitan-48-1.jpg

Photo: Brian Christianson


He does not stop at the top. He curves off the mountain, into the gully in front of him, descending to the forest below. He goes further into the mountains. Perhaps he goes to visit his young (he will visit until they are weaned). Or he goes to escape the rising din of the valley. As the world melts, loud humans move into the high country.

Whatever the reason for scaling the couloir, he does it with conviction. He has a purpose I wish to know. I take a few steps down his path and am almost moved to follow his tracks, to disappear into the wilderness in front of me. When I am on the edge of the wild, I often think of disappearing, of becoming the unseen rather than the obvious. I know I would starve quickly, but at least I would, at last, be honest to myself about what it costs to live.

The wolverine is transparent. We see only his shadow.

He climbs, he descends, he tracks forward.


El Capitan-45-1

Photo: Brian Christianson

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