Off the Map Week 6: Addicted to altitude

The woman looked exhilarated but concerned as she met us coming down the Swiftcurrent Pass trail. “You’d best be careful heading up to the pass. There’s supposed to be a big thunderstorm today. An L4.” That term puzzled me until the middle-aged hiker clarified that the “L” rankings indicated the severity of storms. My companion Kitty explained that they had L5 events back in her native Florida, when the air felt utterly alive with charged particles and the ground would shake continuously as thick thunderbolts slammed into the earth.

The weather could only generate up to L4 conditions here in these Montana mountains, the woman explained, but an L4 was bad enough. I thanked the lady and turned to Kit, asking if she were game to continue. I was used to risking my own neck on these adventures, not that of others. Kit glanced up at the dark clouds spilling over the high ridges above us, shrugged and said she was still inclined to carry on.

I admired Kit’s enthusiasm, even as I feared somewhat for our safety. Experience told me that a storm was inevitable, but there was a chance we could reach Swiftcurrent Pass and experience the grand western scenery before the tempest struck us too badly. To my shame, my own deep-seated compulsion to climb higher warred with my conscience and ultimately succeeded in keeping me silent. I bit my lip, swallowed any foreboding comments I might make and followed Kit up the trail that had been blasted into the rock of the mountainside.

The two of us were exploring the ice-sculpted interior of Glacier National Park, home of grizzlies, mountain goats and mosquitoes aplenty. An exceptionally cold spring season had kept the high country cloaked in white far later than usual. These mountains should have kicked off their winter blanket long ago, but only now were they shaking free from their slumbers, groggily returning to a state of vibrancy and vigor. A few more years of this weather, and the steadily-disappearing glaciers might begin to advance down the valleys once again. Not likely, given the trajectory of current climate trends, but one can hope.

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