Another mountain. Another whiteout. We spent three days approaching the summit. First skis. Then snowshoes. Then crampons and ice axes, and a ten-millimeter rope tethering the two of us to the same fate.
Day three. The slope above us would give way to a flat saddle along the summit ridge. The ground blizzard cut the visibility to twenty yards. But I knew the saddle was ahead. Every kick and step was becoming slightly flatter, slightly longer, slightly easier. I cinched the hood of my parka so only my nose and goggles remained outside.
Soon we were on a nearly-level field of wind-packed snow. My friend stopped to put on his second parka. I untied the tether between us and stored the rope in my pack. Flat ground. No need for a rope. I had been here before. I had a map of this place in my head.
So I thought.
My friend found his parka. I went on.
Fifty yards. A hundred yards. I turned around and looked for my friend. The wind shifted for a moment and I caught a glimpse of his red parka. Then he disappeared again into the white. He was following my tracks.
Two hundred yards. The saddle sloped here, but only slightly. I read the map in my head. Four hundred yards to the far side of the saddle. Then, turn left before we reach the edge, and follow the ridge to the summit. I had been here before. In summer.
Three hundred yards. I stopped to wait for my friend. I couldn’t see him anymore.
The saddle was flat. No risk of falling here. No avalanche danger. The cliffs on the far side of the saddle were a hundred yards away—on the map in my head—and we weren’t going that far. We’d turn left soon and follow the ridge.
We could rope up when he got to me—belay each other across steeper terrain—when we got to steeper terrain.
The wind picked up, and with it the blizzard. Horizontal snow. For a moment I saw my friend again. Fifty yards. Close enough. Maybe I would go just a little farther and wait at the ridge.
One step. The wind seemed to be blowing straight down. Not down the mountain, but straight down—as though it were coming from directly above and going straight into the earth, following the pull of gravity into the center of the earth. Why is the wind doing this?
The whiteout precluded any differentiation of the landscape; the sky, the ground, the storm—everything blended together. I couldn’t find the horizon. We were in the center of a giant snow globe. Shaken. Disrupted. Disoriented. At mid-day the light offered no gradient. Only white. Grey-white. No thin line—no horizon—nothing to separate earth from sky.
Vertigo. I’d had the same sensation swimming in the ocean. At night. Stars reflected on the surface. Stars above. Stars below. No horizon. No reference. At least buoyancy had allowed a sense of up and down. No problem finding the surface.
But the wind and snow and flat light allowed no perspective, no reference. Without a landmark, my inner ear struggled to recreate a horizon in my head. The gyroscope had stopped spinning.
Why can’t I find the horizon?
About to take another step.
My friend called to me over the howling wind. To wait. He wanted to tell me something before we got to the summit ridge.
No more steps. I waited.
The map in my head put the horizon just above level. I looked. Squinted. Removed my goggles. Why can’t I find the horizon?
About to take another step.
My friend called to me again. To wait. He must have something very important to tell me.
I stood still and still tried to find the horizon. Were we lower than I had anticipated? Maybe we hadn’t come far enough.
I looked straight up and slowly rotated my head toward level. Slowly. Looking. No horizon. No thin grey line. No variation in the light.
Level. Still no horizon.
Maybe the horizon is below us. Had we gone too far?
I continued looking. Level. Then below level. Five degrees. Ten degrees. No horizon. Forty-five degrees. Seventy degrees. This is ridiculous. Now I’m practically looking straight down.
I was looking at my boots. Ready to take another step. My friend called to me again—from only ten yards. I stood still. Waiting. I squinted to see my boots through the whiteout. The snow was going past my boots. Not from left to right or front to back. The snow went from above to below. Up to down. The snow was disappearing into the ground, into the saddle.
I leaned forward a little. How does the snow go straight into the earth like this?
My friend stood two yards behind me now. He wondered aloud where we might be. Did we cross the ridge without knowing it?
I suggested we go a little farther, then turn. Maybe we’d find the summit ridge.
What were you going to tell me?
You yelled from below. What did you want?
For you to stop.
For you to stop.
But you were going to tell me something.
No. I just wanted you to stop.
I kept looking at my boots. The horizon was gone—erased by snow and sky, in a single, undifferentiated whirl of white.
I stared harder. Squinting again. Slowly, a barely-defined line materialized below me. Three feet away. Two steps away. I leaned over again—to get a better look. The line appeared more clearly. One side white and still. Our side. The other side grey. Falling away. Rushing down. I tapped my ice axe on the wind-packed snow. Tapping. Tapping. Then nothing. Empty. I had found the horizon. Finally. Three feet away. A moment before, I hadn’t known that we stood at the crest of a giant cornice. On one side—our side—firm snow. On the other side the cornice fell away into a gaping void. The far side of the saddle. Cliffs.
I backed away. Two more steps and we would have disappeared with the rushing snow. Down. Straight down.
Now the wind made sense. Now I could see how the wind went straight down. I had found the horizon. I was standing on it.
– – –
We descended all afternoon and found our larger packs. When nightfall caught us still on the mountain, we dug a trench in the snow and set up our tent. Refuge. I asked my friend what had prompted him to yell, to tell me to stop. He shook his head. Nothing.
I lay in my sleeping bag, only then beginning to sense that something big had happened earlier in the day. Not nothing. Something big. Bigger than me. Stronger than me. Wiser. I couldn’t explain what had occurred in the moment my friend had called to me—the moment he had told me to stop. He couldn’t either.
There had been no stroke of lightening, no divine exclamation, no supernatural apparition, no inner voice—nothing either of us could quantify. Nothing remarkable.
– – –
When I was in sixth grade, my band teacher, Mr. Shellhammer, taught us the word resonance. He taught us what it meant. But, more than that, he taught us what it did, what resonance could do.
He held up two tuning forks of the same pitch and struck one of them on his heavy wooden conductor’s stand. He walked among us and passed it close to our ears. We could hear it. We could feel it.
He then held the other tuning fork—unstruck, unmoved—next to the first. Not touching, only close. The second tuning fork began to vibrate. It began to resonate at the same frequency, producing the same pitch. Mr. Shellhammer told us that we should resonate with each other. When he said it, I thought he spoke of our instruments—that my trumpet should resonate with the clarinet in front of me and the trombone behind me and the French horn on the other side of the room.
But I learned, long after sixth grade, that he had proposed something more meaningful. He had intended something significant, something consequential—that we should resonate with each other, our person should resonate with another person.
– – –
Ten years later—on the side of a mountain, with the wind screaming across the top of our tent—I finally understood what Mr. Shellhammer meant: that we could find people who resonate at the same frequency; that we could become people who resonate at the same frequency; that resonance could effect a transformation; that resonance had consequences—life-changing consequences, life-saving consequences.