Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Mountain Walk

Dave from Indiana taught me the mountain walk a couple of decades ago. It was my third fire assignment ever, and I was part of a Midwest call when needed twenty person crew. As such we were mostly all strangers, thrown into a world of smoke and flame for the next three weeks.

In an unusual move, our crew was told to get to the top of the mountain as quickly as possible, no marching in line, just go, to pick up some supplies a helicopter had dropped off. Free from a constrained pace, Dave and Perry took off and I stayed with them, determined to show that a girl belonged on the fireline (don't laugh, back then there were often questions about this). The three of us left the others in the dust and were given the assignment of carrying a bunch of heavy stuff farther (obviously, we didn't think this through carefully before bolting up the slope). As we hiked, Dave showed me the mountain walk. "You can walk all day in the hills and not get tired," he said. "Steady going, all day long."

Many things have left me since those days, but I never forgot the mountain walk. Last week, on one of the last fall days, I trudged up the climber's trail toward the base of Mount Joseph. Climbers don't bother with sissy switchbacks; this trail does not wrap like a snake around the mountain. Instead, it charges straight up, saving at least half an hour over the regular trail.

Mount Joseph lurks over our valley as a guardian and a sentinel. The first snows wreathe its top; the spring avalanches roar down its face. You can tell a lot from a mountain, and this is one to study. Imposing, rough and craggy, it is one I have never yet climbed, and today with the waning light would not be that day either. Instead I climbed high in the meadows below, using my mountain walk.

I'm not the fastest hiker around, so I'm always surprised when others don't match my pace. It's not speed that I have going for me. It's a somehow boundless spring of endurance. I feel like I can hike all day long, not fast, not slow, just medium. If my knees would let me, I bet I'd be a good endurance racer, but in truth I really just enjoy the contemplative mountain walk.

I saw a lone hiker ahead of me, resting on a rock. Eagerly I approached. It's not often I see other people up here, especially solo ones. But upon spying me he leapt up and bullied his way  up the slope, obviously not wanting an encounter. It made me laugh to see how fast he was walking. It wasn't a race to me. I've never been a summit kind of person. The ridges below were fine.

I don't know what has happened to my fireline buddy. We hardly ever knew each other's last names back then. No doubt he has long forgotten the Cottonwood Creek fire in an obscure corner of Wyoming. It's been a long time.

The sun would be setting soon and the knee-jarring descent lay ahead. I headed back down the climber's trail, using a downhill trick that another long-ago fireline buddy taught me. A way to move in the mountains: nothing fancy, nothing all that original. It's the little things people teach you along the way that matter.


  1. Just read this after getting back from a mountain walk myself (albeit a short one)! Nothing better...

  2. I need to learn the mountain walk. I'm a very sloooow hiker. Others have pointed out that I might be faster if I put the camera away, but where's the fun in that?

  3. Want to share your mountain walk (and down-mountain) insights? Nice word and photo pictures of one of the year's last mountain hikes.


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