The last half of 2014 was difficult for me personally. As many of you already know, I lost my dear friend Milly in October. She was more than a great dog. Her spirit was the better part of myself and my youth. We were wound together. I am still slowly coping with her departure and my own vanishing youth.
Additionally, on Christmas Eve 2014, my Nonni died. She lived a full 97 years. Having survived WWII in Italy, she sought to raise her family alone. She was a woman of strong will. She was certain of her faith, and lived her life according to her beliefs, brooking no exceptions, for herself or her family. With her husband absent, she managed to bring 6 children to NY in 1960. She was the foundation of our family in this country. Nearly every Friday, and on all holidays, we young cousins gathered at her house in Astoria. The warmth, and noise, and chaos of that tiny house provided a haven; something solid, in an uncertain childhood. When we were at Nonni's house we knew who we were. Christmas Eve was her day. It was the most important holiday in our family. Her advanced age not withstanding, losing her on Christmas Eve was very difficult for all of us, and it was devastating for me. I was the eldest male grandchild, and as such, my Nonni took a special interest in me. Throughout my childhood and especially during my time in the Army, I knew her strength was with me.
This winter, I spent much time in active meditation in the mountains. Many days I climbed alone, listening for the Ravens, the Earth form of the spirits of recently departed loved ones. On beautiful calm days, and on ugly wind whipped weather days, with friends or alone; the mountains listened to the Ravens and kept me safe.
The day before I was set to drive back to NY; the day before I was set to leave the spirit world, I couldn't sleep. A storm had just cleared, and the previously veiled mountain peaks, shone sharp as the moon rose through the windless night. I left my cabin alone at about 11 PM and almost in a dream state I began to ski through the forest on approach to the Grand Teton. The light of the moon slowly began to wash away the stars as I climbed above 9000 ft, and into the soft snow dropped by the earlier storm. I had been climbing for hours and did not see the headlamp of another soul. I continued to dream-walk, and in this dream, everything seemed perfect. A night like this is one in a thousand during the winter in the mountains. All was perfectly still...no sound; no movement save the stars and the geologically slow crawl of the mountains themselves...and of course my own body passing through the timelessness.
The sun rose as I climbed above the Tepee Glacier at about 12,000ft. I could see far below into the valley, but still no other climbers. I had climbed this route two years before, but in a group, and on belay. At that time I had slipped in a deadly spot on the ice waterfall further up and caught the rope of a climber anchored above me. Today, I felt the blessing of the mountain and continued on alone, still listening for the Ravens, who until now remained silent and out of sight.
I strapped on my crampons and readied my ice-axes as I climbed the thin strip of snow between the cliffs on the way to the summit face. The conditions felt great and I resolved to continue until they might deteriorate. I sunk my ice axes deep into the ice on the falls and carefully climbed through the crux without slipping...which is why I am here to write!
As I climbed up out of the cliffs and onto the summit face I heard my first Raven, and I felt deeply relieved. I breathed a bit easier even as I climbed close to the 14,000 ft summit. The winds were still calm...perfectly calm, as I have never before seen on a summit in winter. I had carried some of Milly's ashes, expecting to scatter them into the wind. But, miraculously (and I think I do mean to use this word in the Biblical sense, my lack of faith in any one particular religion not withstanding) I was able to set a pile of the ashes right on the summit marker! By way of prayer, I shouted my Nonni's name, Milly's name, and the name of a friend of mine who died in the mountains with me a few years ago.
And then I readied myself for the descent. I skied in perfect powder off the summit! Such a feeling of pleasure I am unable to relate in words. (This is a picture from another peak, Mt. Moran, that I skied with a friend earlier in the season....so perhaps you can see what I mean.) I negotiated my way down through the cliffs, sometimes rappelling with the 100 ft rope I carried. And then I skied safely to the valley floor as late afternoon sun warmed the low elevation snow.
The next morning another storm blew in, with 40 mph winds on the peaks. Milly now flies free over thousand of miles, even into the stratosphere. She is part of what we all are, what we all will be, and what we have always been.
Mother Earth and I shared this brief and special instant in time. With my Nonni's strength, my friend's protection, and Milly's loyal love, I became a brush in Mother Earth's hand, and together we painted a portrait. And if it lasted for a thousand years or a few seconds, to the mountains and to the universe it was just the same. Our entire lives are like tracks in the snow. We strive, hopefully in concert with the Earth, and it is important to do so (I feel this way, although all logic and senses tell me that all we do is meaningless), but the grand sum of all our life's pursuit lacks any significance. What then is the purpose? Perhaps it is simply to strive, and once in a rare while, to be granted the gift of a perfect moment in which understanding, and knowing, and being are all the same.