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Totality from a Mountaintop

[This letter to the editor first appeared in Alpinist 60.–Ed.]

[Photo] Paul Zizka

[Photo] Paul Zizka

WE PULLED INTO THE gravel lot by the trailhead at one hour past midnight and went to sleep to the sound of the fast flowing waters of the Deschutes. Around us, the cool of the Oregonian night. Nine hours till totality.

When morning came, we drank our coffee quickly and set out across a cattle grid and along a dusty track. Above, the Trout Creek Butte dominated the hilltop. The sunshade line fell across the arete where the Main Wall meets the North. Sweeping heights of stone burnished by unseen hands. A natural Doric frieze in the early morning light.

The hike to the cliff was steep and when we arrived, panting, we dropped packs onto a fallen pillar and looked out at the view we’d earned.

The Malheur wilderness in summer. The river below as seen from above. Beside it, brown plains and rolling hills. Mt. Jefferson beyond. The air breathed fresh. A land for renegades. Do-whatever-you-want country.

We turned back to the vertical relief in front of us. Columnar basalt perfection– orange-brown colonnades split by parallel cracks of all sizes. The envy of any Hellenic stonemason, this was the temple where we would witness the solar eclipse.

We scrambled, unroped, to the summit. On top, there were only climbers.

“I hear totality is a real dopamine hit,” said one of us. She’d spent the early part of the morning shoulder-deep in an offwidth. The bruises still shone and the cuts still bled.

It began.

We watched it happen through dark-filtered lenses. The sun was red, and there was a chunk missing from it. We knew the cause to be the moon, but we knew not what it meant. The fading light was quieting us. The landscape–the brown hills, the buttes, the vertical relief of our faces–dimmed. The sun was leaving. What was the firmament telling us?

In ancient times, two Anatolian tribes locked in battle beside the Halys River had thought the end nigh and instantly ceased fighting. We too were reduced to contemplation.

The air went cold and there we stood– quiet but connected, separate but as one–a mass of warm, awed bodies. Divining the heavens atop our wild acropolis, each of us an astromancer, we cocked our heads skyward to interpret the omens.

Then it happened. Totality.

The sky went dark and we had been transported to a different planet–a distant world whose once-familiar red dwarf star had been stifled by some alien night.

There was shouting, yelling–the frenzied howls of our animal selves gone mad.

“I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky,” wrote Annie Dillard of an eclipse she’d seen.

In the daytime darkness, she saw only death, but we saw something different.

Beneath a black sun and a midnight blue-to-ultramarine sky, we were wayfarers in a lost beyond.

But horrified? No. We were here. Present. Nothing else mattered as we rode our planet through outer space, a blush of hooting partiers reveling in that boundless joy when somebody turns off the lights. The battle for the Halys plains–the petty things in life–be damned! We’d chased and found our Rapture.

Besides. What need to fear death when one has stood atop this mighty mesa–this mountaintop–for in that moment the butte had grown taller with us. What wonderment with Jefferson ghoulishly lit in the distance and the river-riven summer plains in deep shade below, while we–a roving band of seekers of high places–held up the emptiness of space with outstretched arms and level with all the colors of the sunset.

For that is what they don’t tell you about totality. And that is what you finally learn when you witness the solar eclipse from a mountaintop. Around us, in all directions, on all horizons–not just the west but three-hundred-sixty degrees–the oranges, the reds, the yellows, the tints of sunglow layered each atop the land’s own vanishing points. A sunset with no need of sun because the sun was still above us, obscured by the moon.

I had seen many brilliant sunsets. Sunset over the St. Lawrence–a gulf of rich magenta, frozen hard in winter. Sunset in the Sahara atop a sandstone rock tower–the emptiness of the desert and the orange-tinted hues of a horizon ablaze. Those were sunsets. But they were nothing like this.

The event was passing now. I knew before it happened. Too much time had gone. Totality was supposed at two minutes, zero-point-three seconds. We’d augured it.

And there! The shadow was slipping now! And there! A bead of radiant light leaking from a bend in the corona!

The diamond ring effect, they call that.

But there was no worldly simile with which to liken this. For there was nothing grander, no image in our ordinary lives that could equate to the thing in front of us. No wedding band, no percussion cap. No neon sign, no gas light. No glowing coal, no forge tool.

For what worth is there in comparison when even contrasts collide? When the sun is black and the day is night and it’s sunset in the east and south and north and all at once?

The moon had slid now. In a moment the burning orb was back again. Blinding white. No longer safe to look at. Totality was gone too soon, but we had no say in the matter. We’d seen it, we’d rejoiced in it and we’d spent that moment living. Now we turned our heads back to the Earth, and later, we made our way down the hill to carry on with climbing.

–Christopher Elliott,
Squamish, British Columbia

[This letter to the editor first appeared in Alpinist 60.–Ed.]