“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. This post originally appeared on High Country News and is reposted with permission.
Out here in the windy expanse of the high, wild, western Great Basin Desert, highway 395 is our lifeline. Not simply the route south to Mono Lake and Yosemite, and north to the Lassen lava lands and Shasta country beyond, it is also the only way we can access diapers, tractor parts, beer—anything that can’t be beamed to us from a satellite. Our remote home here on the Ranting Hill sits within a labyrinth of ridges and canyons on the eastern flank of our home mountain, which trends north-south and carries the Nevada-California state line along its rocky crest. On this side of the mountain is a classic, high-elevation desert landscape—a sandy, expansive ocean of sagebrush dotted with bitterbrush, rabbitbrush, ephedra, and desert peach. On the west side of the mountain is a broad, sweeping valley through which runs the distant highway, curving past the lone outpost of Hallelujah Junction. Beyond the highway is the pitched escarpment of the Sierra Nevada, which rises dramatically in a heavily forested palisade of granite turrets and crags.
Many world religions recognize sacred mountains, high places of spiritual power or significance. These holy mountains, which are often conceived of as living entities, are honored through rituals that involve walking. For example, Buddhist and Hindu devotional practice includes the kora, a ritual circumambulation of sacred peaks by which the devotee makes a pilgrimage not to the mountain but rather all the way around it. This ritual of walking meditation, which is always performed clockwise in order to follow “the way of the sun,” is said to “open the mountain.”
Because our home mountain is almost 20 miles long and is surrounded by broken flanks of foothills and canyons—not to mention a few ranches where the would-be meditating circumambulator might get a load of buckshot in his britches—I have instead made it an annual ritual to “close the mountain” before the first snow renders its summit inaccessible until April. To honor my home mountain I hike from our place on the Ranting Hill all the way over the mountain’s high crest and down to Hallelujah, a ten-mile-long transect of the range that lifts me to almost 8,000 feet before dropping down the mountain’s steep, western face to the highway, which snakes through the distant valley below. Much like the bear, my ritual is to anticipate winter by going over the mountain just to see what I can see.
A storm lowers over the author’s home mountain // Michael Branch
I was recently set to make the mountain-closing trek over the ridge with fellow desert rats Cheryll and Steve, when the night before the hike an early season storm descended, blanketing the desert with low clouds and bringing a hammering rain that sent water coursing through the forking network of arroyos that runs through this desert like veins. Concerned that winter might beat us to the summit, we decided to try our mountain transect despite the foreboding weather.
We set out early, trudging through the driving rain carrying oversized day packs stuffed with extra clothes and food. Three miles into the muddy slog we reached the soggy, wildfire-scorched bitterbrush flats at the base of the mountain, and from there began an 1,800-foot ascent into the chilling fog. By the time we reached the small spring halfway up the mountain we were thoroughly soaked, and had already pulled on gloves, hats, and every piece of spare clothing we had. Looking homeward across the Great Basin through the swirling fog, we could make out occasional glimpses of the broken hills and sagebrush dotted sand flats rolling east to the gray horizon. Above us to the west wound a faint game trail, rising up through copses of bitter cherry and coyote willow and dodging between slick granite cliffs that gleamed in the rain.
The author, left, with fellow desert rat Steve, preparing to climb the mountain. // Photo by Cheryll Glotfelty
By mid-afternoon we crested the summit ridge and entered a sweeping valley that is slung between two rocky peaks and graced with groves of gnarled aspens surrounded by the green domes of snowberry bushes. I tried to imagine this same spot in July, when the magnificent expanse of this hanging valley would be covered in an undulating, yellow blanket of flowering tower butterweed. But now the situation was more threatening than pastoral. The valley appeared ominous as the fog thickened, the freezing rain turned to snow, and a cutting wind rose from the flanks of the mountain.
“Looks like big weather,” Steve observed, squinting.
“Way too exposed up here,” Cheryll added. “Time to skedaddle.”
Shivering, I nodded my agreement. “We wouldn’t last long up here. Besides, I didn’t bring the whiskey.” I had already begun to lose sensation in my feet, and it was obvious that we needed to head for lower country, and that without delay.
The hikers enter the summit valley as the rain turns to snow. // Photo by Cheryll Glotfelty
The three of us now set to hiking with intense concentration, knowing that even a short pause would be an invitation to hypothermia. We soon reached the far side of the summit valley, from which we hoped our descent of the mountain’s western slope would begin. Instead, we found ourselves staring straight down a precipitous, brush-choked ravine that was far too thick to bushwhack. Our only alternative was to ascend a steep boulder field to a secondary ridge from which it appeared a route down the mountain might be possible. The numbness in my feet had now overtaken my legs as well, and my fingers also began to deaden. It was far too late to turn back and still arrive home before dark, and so we began to pick our way up and over boulders slick with rime. Moving with silent urgency, I suspect we were all thinking the same thing: under these dangerous conditions, even a minor injury would quickly become a major problem.