On a recent trip to North Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains, I experienced the full gamut of spring weather.
Fog followed by whipping wind, snow, hail, sunshine, rain. Finally, more fog, capped off by a cobalt blue sky. Each meteorological iteration unexpected and beautiful in its own right.
It was the kind of day that, judging solely by the forecast, was not a day for rock climbing. The objective, Chimney Rock on the Selkirk Crest, is sometimes called the “Lighting Rod of the Selkirks.” Standing as it does, separate from and above the rocks around, the name makes sense.
And so, with a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon, my climbing partner and I departed Spokane with some trepidation.
We arrived at the Horton Ridge trailhead 2½ hours later and seemingly one season back. The road was covered in snow (although still navigable in a battered Subaru) and the trail wove in between wind-blown snowbanks, all covered by a fresh powdering of snow from the night before.
We hiked up the ridge and dropped into the glacial-carved bowls underneath Chimney Rock. Navigating steep snow and with the wind blowing and visibility dropping, it felt more like a winter trip than an early June adventure.
And then, as we neared Chimney Rock, the weather shifted. I watched the clouds flee the running edge of the wind, and the 7,124-foot rock revealed itself. The sun broke through. We whooped at the change and the views.
But it was not to last. As we ate a quick lunch, sheltered from the wind in the lee of the crest, we watched the sun and clouds wrestle – the sun breaking through and then, just as suddenly, the clouds gaining the upper hand.
Once at the base of our chosen route, we saw that the rock was seeping wet. But the battle in the sky continued and so we dilly-dallied, hoping the sun would prevail.
Looking out over Priest Lake, we saw rain clouds skimming the water and passing to our north. Should we climb?
Yes, let’s try. Gathering our courage, we roped up. I stepped onto the first ledge; shoes soaked already and hands cold.
And then the touch-and-go wrestling match shifted decisively.
A roiling cloud bank rammed into Chimney Rock, unloading hail and more wind, shattering the small bit of bravery we’d mustered.
Retreating, we hiked down through the snow, weaving between boulders. And then, 30 minutes after our failed attempt, things changed again – as they seem to do – and the clouds were gone. The hail a confusing memory. The sun bright and warm.
We hiked out under that sun.
Sunny days are wonderful. Bright blue skies enjoyable. And yet, I think I prefer the drama of changing weather. The contrast of cold and warm, clear and muddled. The sun breaking through thick clouds and warming your face, even momentarily, can provide a jolt of energy. Clouds pouring over distant peaks give contrast to the topography and remind me of just how large, complicated and unknown our world can be.
There is a passage in “Moby Dick,” one of the few memories I have of that book, that I think of whenever I interact with this kind of weather.
“To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”
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