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Into the Darkness We Go

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 62 (Summer 2018). Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up the hard copies of Alpinist for all the goodness!–Ed.]

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

It was like the faint memory of wind stirring tent fabric at the edge of sleep, blurring the distinction between darkness and first light across the Wind River Range. Stone towers and shadow-locked snow. The way my breath deepened just before my awakening—and when I did finally wake, how the wildflower meadow and the skyward granite were once again lit with a memory of the life I’ve come to know, one that bends and distorts when I slip into and out of dreams.

On the trek in to the Cirque of the Towers, we reached the first lake, dark and blue, six miles through pine. We stepped around its northern shore to cross old granite bones. I was with Eliza Earle, a climbing photographer and friend I’d met in Colorado. Petite, with a laugh that could make your heart soften, she had a fearlessness that I sought in myself. She lived with unmitigated honesty, her eyes like light through blue ice.

Hazy with salt and sky, we headed up the switchbacks of Jackass Pass. A small moth somersaulted down the path; the frail shimmer appeared strange even amid the stupor of heavy miles. Maybe I was somewhere else when my foot stepped on her. There was no hesitation, no falter; I was like a trained horse whose legs followed the trail. I carried the afterimage of brown and white wings for the next six miles. How sudden she appeared in my line of vision, how sudden she was erased—as if her path was so intent to find mine, or mine to find hers. So I imagined myself rolling away, until the oscillation of light and dirt ended with a heavy shadow.

It was a Saturday in August, the weekend before the solar eclipse. When we arrived beneath the towers, groups of backpackers, climbers, fishers and ambitious day-hikers dotted the land. We found a small patch of grass, threw off our packs and pitched our tent into soft soil. The echoes of climbers on the granite faces rang like ghostly birdsong.

How do I begin to describe to you the smoothness of a rope, in your hands, through your fingers? How slowly it fords distance? How silently it leads a climber, or you, at the other end, across seemingly insurmountable stretches of space? There are gaps in the collective consciousness of my memory. My mind only keeps fragments of these absurd ventures of light and dark, of the swelling of granite and the intimacy of hands—yet, somehow, I still feel the slow softness in my palms, through my fingers, to Pingora, across Wolf’s Head, to anywhere. Anywhere that it was needed.

A lapse in the story of things. How do I begin to describe the inversion that happens when you listen to a voicemail, on an exposed mountain ridge, in the backcountry, in some Wind River Range? How, with slight hesitance and urgency, the nurse tells you the results of your recent MRI, that there may be something wrong with your right breast. Yes, that one, the one that sits so softly on your chest—one of two, the ones your husband fondles with care; the ones you are so proud to bear, as a daughter of the undulate earth, a daughter of ill-fated genetics.

The earliest memory I have is of a basket filled with polished and colorful rocks. I had never seen anything like them, of course. But they were full of mystery, and I couldn’t stop touching them. They belonged to my maternal great-grandmother, and somewhere there’s a photo of all of us, four generations of women, sitting on a bench outside her blue apartment building. I’m four years old and in my mother’s lap. Perhaps the pebble she let me keep is in my pocket, and though my recollection of the smooth, orange surface is now nebulous, it was through this small gift that my affinity for mementos of mother and earth likely began: the hollow disks of sand dollars she gave me; the quartz and pyrite rocks I’d pick up during family hikes along the slopes of the Kern River or the washes of the Mojave Desert; the speckled, ruddy seashells from the beach; the softness of the mist of Vernal Falls, when she took my siblings and me to Yosemite (an effervescent feeling I can only glean from waterfalls). When my mother found a lump in her breast, we learned her cancer came from the inherited mutation of the gene, BRCA1. I was fourteen, but I already had a bad habit of amassing small stones.

Eliza and I slept long, and the next day, we rose after the sun, headed for the 1,200-foot, parabolic dome of Pingora, a Shoshone expression for “high/rocky peak.” Soon, Lonesome Lake was a dark green to the east, glistening below wombs of snow. We skirted another party to reach the shelf below the South Buttress.

Eliza once pursued acting, and she is still unafraid of strangers and of snaking positions in line. “We technically got to this ledge first,” she said, so she went up, moving quick and with little gear. On my lead, I chose a crack that grew thinner as it arced. The silence, when the wind didn’t blow, was how I wanted to hold my breath, to be a part of this valley of light and shadow. I tried to imagine the context for what I was doing, if seen from afar, from a bird—how, there, across some stretch of sky, was a woman, climbing so intently with her feet and hands.

At the top of Pingora, we finally understood the sheer vastness of the whole Cirque for the first time. We’d crossed into something sincere, pressing the skin of our hands to become as rough as the rock itself—two women so self-sustained—and our laughter radiated. “We are more than capable!” Eliza said. “Maybe even the most capable party here right now,” she added with a wink. Our fears of being imposters on backcountry expeditions and in the climbing world felt so hollow now.

Our chatter was upbeat; our grins, wide. We began to descend. Yet, I noticed Eliza repeat, “Into the darkness I go,” before dropping into every rappel, and maybe I knew her reasons, but they were assumptions nonetheless. She was there still, with me, despite the loss of her partner and lover over a year ago. He had rappelled off the end of his rope in Yosemite. She was home in Colorado when he fell, but she dreamed of him trying to call her that very night.

[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

The evening collected across the valley domes with an alpenglow as gold as the earring in her left ear, or the thin strands of hair that fell around it. Then the light churned a soft pink, like the rose-colored algae on the banks of snow, or the way the whites of her eyes turned red with grief—that confession of fervent life and its glowing spite of death.

When people mourn, it is the eyes that give them away. My mother is smiling in a photo taken just outside the church; all of us are, because that’s what you do for photos. But if you look into every one of our eyes, you see that encroaching darkness—that denial that death is needling into the soft tissue of our beings, slow and sure. When my aunt died of ovarian cancer, my grandmother gave me her running clothes and pots and pans. I was nineteen and inheriting things I felt I didn’t deserve. At the funeral, my grandmother repeated, “This isn’t real,” over and over.

Eliza and I woke again, after the sun, having rolled in our sleep for nearly a dozen hours—it was a Monday in the cities, but not in this alpine morning. Although we didn’t come solely for the eclipse, it was still something we couldn’t miss while we were there. So we scrambled up a granite dome that appeared to have no name. Maybe it was an extension from the Watch Towers of Pylon Peak, some minor shoulder. Its wide summit stood alone from the Cirque—the dot to a fermata.

The wind shuffled the clouds, and the sun was softened by their passing. “I hope the clouds go away,” Eliza said. “I’m sure they will,” I replied. A gray bird rose from somewhere below, swift with her intention to land, but we startled each other, and she cawed and studied us as she flitted away.

Cheers from ascents echoed off opposing walls until we were no longer sure where the sounds came from. We’d only thought of the scramble up and we’d dressed in shorts and thin windbreakers. Now, as we waited for the total eclipse, we felt the air off the snowfields. Eliza wiped her nose with the back of her palm and started hopping from stone to stone to keep warm. I joined her briefly, but kept wanting to look up instead. Through solar glasses, the sun seemed like an eerie eye staring just as deeply back at me.

It was nearly half-past ten when the first sliver of darkness appeared. Climbers gathered on ridges and summits; hikers assembled in meadows, near the shores of lakes. Eliza and I were somewhere in the sky.

With the glasses, only the sun existed. The sky was black, and the encroaching moon was black. Remove the glasses, and there was the world. The valley was again full of light and shadow, the green shades of lichen on gray stone, dark moss and moistened soil; the turquoise of an ice-locked lake, of Eliza’s eyes, hidden behind the lenses when it was time to gaze.

There was no immediacy at first. The world was spinning, and of course we couldn’t tell. The moon was moving, and we were too small. I watched our shadows stretch the stone. I huddled against myself as Eliza danced across the rock in the wind. The eclipse was slow, elastic; I was mesmerized by the inaudible orbits of our solar system and our stretched perception of them. Change would only happen when we looked away and down into the valleys. We gawked at each other’s goosebumps and shivered in the diminished light. I licked my chapped lips, burned with smile. The domes, the serrated ridge of Wolf’s Head, Shark’s Nose, the Watch Towers and their edges were still carefully sketched by the sun. All the while, the moon continued to eat away the light with its dark shape.

I once had a dream of dark matter. When I woke, I scribbled: A flower that chases darkness feels for the space where light cannot go, but darkness is hard to measure when its limbs are thicker than the trees—how it travels through sky and us like slow-rolling waves too big for the eye. Dark matter remains invisible, though its presence can be inferred: it has gravitational effects on the surrounding universe. I see it as the definition of wilderness, this going beyond conventional bounds, this elusive nature of indomitable space.

It’s difficult to ponder the degree of wilderness that resides in the body alone. I never thought to ask my mother the specifics of her surgeries and body scans, or how it first felt to have her head shaved. I hurt her feelings many times, instead. She underwent a double mastectomy when she was diagnosed, which also meant she lost her nipples. Breast reconstruction can only do so much. She chose not to have anything placed in imitation of the areola. Years later, when I was seventeen, I remember jesting to her one morning before school that a man might feel it strange to find nothing there. “You don’t think I know that? That I’ll never be normal?” she replied. Last year, I was the one lying chest-down in an MRI machine, and I began to understand the expanse of feral space my mother must have wandered through. I wrote a poem in my head about the knocking sounds and magnetic blotches of ink, about the way the doctors would stare into me.

And that was the moon in the sky in those moments—something dark and flowing, a slow immeasurable rise of some bewildering hole from which light could not escape. The wind was a cold distraction from the task at hand: not to miss a thing. I crouched down with arms over my bare legs or paced with pen and paper in my hands. I wanted to witness the imminent shadow of the moon, to see it flash across the towers and this valley—but how could I? With human eyes, I would only notice it was already there, never its arrival, like the Big Bang, or the fact of having a mother. 

Dearest mother. When she penned, “I know” onto the notepad days before she died, eight years ago, what was it that she saw in her mind? “I’m sure she dreamt about you,” an old friend said to console me. You encompassing all four of her children. Wouldn’t we have it so? She knew something we couldn’t, not until it was time. Whatever it was, I hoped, on top of that granite dome, that what she saw was a thrilling glimpse over some dark precipice. The question of what resides on the other side is the mystery we’ll have to solve ourselves one day.

Physics speaks of the law of conservation of energy, of thermodynamics, how energy is neither created nor destroyed and only transforms into other states. Maybe there exists a transformation when souls are crossing into darkness. Something that has accumulated over time in miniscule amounts, something enough to propel the universe against itself. Maybe this is death. What if we merely transition, become less orderly, a dark energy that expands a gathering universe and its disordered consciousness? 

It happened, and we might as well have gone insane. It was a distant molten core crossing the brink of madness. Where we were, we could only see 99.89 percent totality. Still, everything was brown and gray with strange tungsten light. At the edge of the cliff, the streams and the small waterfalls rang louder than the wind. The temperature dropped drastically, and our shadows seemed to have greater depth. It was both dusk and dawn. The sun was a single spotlight with a heavy scrim. It was hysteria akin to when things go wrong, and you’re alone—but I was not alone and, yes, everything was wrong. The grass and the stones flattened, purpled, and it was there, that eerie sense of inherence that I imagine only death provides. And like the moth, we felt ourselves shift into a sudden and silent burst.

In the midst of it all, the eclipse was both the emptiness inherent in the repetition of words and the filling of a void with mantric sound.

It was both introversion and outward frenzy. Climbers howled, throwing up their arms, as if reaching into the sky at nothing, for no reason other than to pause the passage of time. These howls echoed long, lingered, created strange resonances. A rippling human thrum. Like a harrowing ring of a Tibetan singing bowl, sounds shaping more sounds at the fringe of this amphitheater, as if we were all (even the land) about to bend through that vanishing point in the sky, where energy passes into darkness.

I welled up with childish glee. Eliza’s mouth widened, my lips cracked. We, too, felt the need to call into the sky. I rejoiced in this slide between dream and waking. A hazy memory of an orange, polished stone. A flower chasing darkness. We were gray and indistinct, unsaturated bits of everything. Just as mundane and just as divine. The sun was a tear in the ether. We laughed with the cold, our arms around our bellies. My mind wanted to escape the body, too—the soul ridding itself of a violent and deathly thing. I wanted to witness the stretching of space. Touch the rim. Howl before falling over and away.

In the midst of it all, the eclipse was both the emptiness inherent in the repetition of words and the filling of a void with mantric sound. All the while, the sun was a silent ring in the sky. A black void in the bright and flowing firmament, a cosmic ultrasound, tangled and webbed with malignant body.

When I looked at Eliza, her yellow windbreaker was a wilting pastel in this moon-dark dance; her eyes were wide and unafraid. “This is wild!” she said over and over. 

I still have a distinct image of my mother floating in the calm shallows of a beach outside Mexico, with her hair grown again and her eyes closed in meditation. How wild and illusory she looked. Even during her brief remission, rashes appeared on her legs, as mottled as the red and brown seashells beneath her. I cannot describe the sensation of prescience that rises when I think of her now.

I wanted my memory to fall apart into the land. Then, as if the irises of my eyes suddenly widened, as if they finally adjusted to the grayest of wildernesses, it was all over. The moon relinquished its dark grip.

As I hiked down with Eliza, I felt saddened by the brevity of it all. I wanted more. I wanted to live in it. Thrive in that space dead to time. Where I was no longer a woman on a mountain, but a bird bolting from the stone, a moth lit with black flame.

I don’t know where Eliza’s mind went; I never asked. We somehow traveled back in time, or forward, to wake up again from some collective dream. The moon came and went, as was predicted by science and by my own monstrous imagination. And like my own mother, what it had come to bequeath was done. 

It was a Tuesday when Eliza and I woke before the sun. Guided by our own headlamps, we trekked to the base of a grassy ledge system. The stars faded with every step; every wildflower grew sharper as the morning slid forth. Beneath the East Ridge traverse of Wolf’s Head, we began without a rope, hoping it would be a quick, 4th class scramble to the true start. The ledges narrowed, the icy air rose off a lake hundreds of feet below, and Eliza, who was in front of me, began to second-guess herself. So we simul-climbed the rest of the approach and the first half of the ridge, with a rope between us, like an inchworm never quite folding itself completely. Later, we pitched out three rope-lengths through woven ridgeline, transferring from the south side to the north between large and blocky pylons.

The sun wavered in its light because I remember it doing so. But I had cried after listening to the voicemail up there. I stared into the dirt beneath the west end, and the light wavered. Eliza held my hand, her eyes soft and glossy. She knew my history. She also knew my regenerative story: how I used Yosemite as an escape from the familiarity of Southern California. I worked odd jobs and ran trails to all the waterfalls—where the memory of my mother resided behind a veil of mist. But I needed to live beyond memory, to create my own change. I was twenty-five when I moved to Colorado on a whim to start life over again (something Eliza had also done). There, I met my blue-eyed husband. I had blood drawn when I was twenty-six, and I learned that I’d inherited the mutation.

“I’m so proud of you, Sara, for the screenings you’re doing,” Eliza said. The vastness of stone was spread around us like a flower. She squeezed my hands. The key was “concern” in the message; there was nothing definitive.

Then the moment was over. It had to be. We still had to make numerous rappels, hike a scree slope to a saddle, then slide our feet down into the valley on the other side. We had to navigate loose blocks perched precariously on an edge. I had to negotiate myself against such sheer sky, the watchful birds and blue nothings. I couldn’t let my mind retract, for fear I’d fall off the mountain. Maybe even willingly. Whether or not the concern was warranted, death is already an obvious and sure thing. I’ve witnessed it: the repose of my mother’s brow and the stillness of her chest; the time in Yosemite when a man jumped from El Capitan. Troubled by a sound akin to falling rock, I’d thrown my head back, and I saw his body fall like a large raven into the cacophony of trees.

I stared up at the walls, now, and I hated the cruel and repetitive histories of mortality. I am in no hurry for the latitude of death, but I will never deny having imagined the force of gravity against my own body. How, while descending from Wolf’s Head, I included the boulders and grassy slopes below. How I may have imagined the way I would have looked, leaping into the sky to become a small and indistinct black figure crossing the sun, like a raven or a moon. How Eliza would have turned her head in horror; how she would have heard the clanging of metal from my harness in fast, discordant song. 

To say that I am an observer unaffected by so much passing, as the sun is unaffected by the crossing of our moon, would be a lie. The death of my mother changed me. Like a tree struck by lightning, losing half of its origin to slow flame, I felt my body peel and crack away to ash in the wind. Nature will never mend the scarring. Rather, it shows you how to grow in spite of it, from it, with it—how to layer reclamations as fibrous rings.

We hiked out of the Wind River Range after a total of six days. We had brushed our hair with our fingers or left them in braids. I had washed my socks in the stream, washed myself, my grief. What rituals we create to give ourselves permission. To love. To do. To be. Life is small action and smaller words, a gathering of passage through time, each moment played out like a fanning of assembled wings. 

My mother once told me, in dream, that dying “is the middle way for the long way through.” Eliza and I talked of love, of our dreams. While we yearned for those long gone, we were devoted to our lives the way they were turning out to be—so much more colorful, as Eliza put it; so much more aware and closer to the fringes of ourselves. A strange tincture. 

In the end, I am the point through which my own darkness passes. I am a ring of light around a void. The point at which nature ends and the world is no longer real, where time and eternity waver. It is my mind and its inception of divine darkness. Mother and child.

Eliza and I appeared at the trailhead, saw our faces in the reflections of car windows, the wear of sun, the grit. “I look horrible!” she said. I couldn’t help looking closer at mine, as if trying to remember who I even was. Dark-haired, I was haggard, but beautifully so. A daughter. A brief smattering of alpine mornings and the way they bend with dream. The unsureness of me. The way I’ve gathered myself like rope, tossed into the sky, waiting for the release as it falls into a deduction of fate. How we celebrate life first. Then into the darkness we go, again and again.