I was out hiking today in some pretty interesting conditions. During the summer, this hike would cover two rocky ridges a mile or so apart, and it makes a loop if you do it right. However, to make the summit of the mountain- or as close to a real mountain as you can get on this side of the country- you had to make a nearly vertical approach up some outcroppings which were still covered with ice in most places. Leaving the others behind, I pushed up to the top by myself.
He was already sitting there on some rocks, waiting patiently for the birds to fly past. Before I even said hello, he was excitedly pointing to a bald eagle which, he explained, was flying the wrong way and thus was probably a local. It was pretty clear that he’s forgotten more about the raptor population in the area than I’ll ever learn. He talked about their perceptive vision and their sense of smell. As we talked, I got to take a look around.
Up on the ridges it was a little precarious. During the summer, it’s a scramble over boulders and loose rocks. In the winter, with about six inches of snow left on top, it became a trap. Every couple steps, someone’s foot would drop through, sometimes down past the knee. It was basically luck that no one got a twisted ankle. He always came prepared for the winter. In his bag he had gaiters and I think he had crampons too. After all the use I got out of my Outdoor Research gaiters in the previous weeks, I was kicking myself for not having them. But he knew the habits of the mountain well. It was still risky for him at his age.
"Better to die in a snowdrift than in a nursing home- that’s the way I look at it," he told me. We had a laugh. I think it meant a lot more to him than me. He was definitely in his sixties- late fifties at the youngest. He had wiry beard, and a wool cap pulled low over his head. His binoculars dangled from his neck the whole time.
Nature was the mutual friend that introduced us, and we hit it off right away. He told me how he’d fallen in love with that mountain, and came there at least once a week. When he’d moved back there, he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to see as many trees as he liked. The mountain fixed all that. I talked about living in the city when some of your first memories were living in a town of 2,500 people. Turns out that we’d both lived in the same corner of Montana, though at different times- my family had lived about 27 miles away from him. Though we were of different generations, you could tell he was a man of the same heart and mind.
I turned to take some pictures and he started packing up his mat, his allotted time on the mountain come to an end. He expressed the certainty that in future seasons, we would meet on the summit again, we shook hands, and that’s when he told me his name was Bob. Then he said one of the most wonderful things anyone’s ever said to me.
"I now leave the mountain in your care." And with that, Bob was gone.
I thought that with the pace I moved at downhill, I would pass him on my way back down, so I sat for a while, watched the vultures, and ate some trail mix before I started. But I didn’t catch him. At one point I saw a lone set of tracks wander off into the snow from the trail, and jokingly suggested that he had taken off to the woods he called home. Some said he was a ghost. All I know is that I didn’t see Bob again.