This was a dreadful time, rendered the more dreadful by the gloom of the weather and the country. I was never warm; my teeth chattered in my head; I was troubled with a very sore throat, such as I had on the isle…I would be aroused in the gloaming, to sit up in the same puddle where I had slept, and sup cold drammach; the rain driving sharp in my face or running down my back in icy trickles; the mist enfolding us like as in a gloomy chamber — or, perhaps, if the wind blew, falling suddenly apart and showing us the gulf of some dark valley where the streams were crying aloud. The sound of an infinite number of rivers came up from all round. In this steady rain the springs of the mountain were broken up; every glen gushed water like a cistern; every stream was in high spate, and had filled and overflowed its channel. During our night tramps, it was solemn to hear the voice of them below in the valleys, now booming like thunder, now with an angry cry. I could well understand the story of the Water Kelpie, that demon of the streams, who is fabled to keep wailing and roaring at the ford until the coming of the doomed traveller.

Robert Lewis Stevenson

Degrees of Difficulty

July 28, 2014

There is something in the thaw,
found where he fell, carved by cold,
the face a map from somewhere
to somewhere, or else the skin
blackening as it warms.

In these mountains, centuries pass
like mist in a spring so brief
the birches lay half in one life, half
in a season best forgotten, trunks stooped
and leaves a weak show in thinning air.

If there was a road here
it was in the mind, a hard route in any year
for a foothold hacked with axes.
There was trade beyond these ranges,
home perhaps, or strangers to a stranger.

A quiver’s mush of arrow spurs, leggings
and leather jerkin stuffed with straw –
he climbed into the age of ice
to settle like a debris in our lives.
Our breath lifts out before us on the chill.

These ridges announce the boundaries
of the world, knuckles of vertebrae
beneath a haze of alpine flower,
everything connected each to each
for a life reclaimed from zero.

We are met in these remains,
climbing with little and too late
into a place without name, deep as years,
under a sun the ice tames, a sustenance
in the frozen passes when we return.

(Estill Pollock)