Soon afterwards we broke out of the woods and stood at the foot of the slide. There it was composed of small sharp rocks, loosely tumbled together, and steep bankings of soft sand. It began to rain slightly–the clouds were descending upon us, wisps and shadows of it crossed the summit of Flume as if enticing us along. In a sheltered place by the woods we repacked our packs with the blankets more protected and with the poncho on me. The grade became steeper and steeper, mist was all about us, and finally we climbed up through loose avalanching sand on bare wet rock. Sometimes the mist would break away a bit so that we could see the nearby foothills of Flume. Occasionally we caught glimpses of the westering sun–oh, much too near the horizon for us.
Hard scrambling began, over steep ledges where we had to take advantage of every little depression or projection for handholds and footholds. We must negotiate the slide without slipping and losing hold. If we had not negotiated it successfully where would we be now? A good long way below, down at the foot of the slide–if indeed there was anything left!
I had a strange wild feeling of desperateness–for Daddy was terribly tired under the weight of his dreadful pack–and also, here was serious and difficult climbing–not rock-skipping or aesthetic dancing–but here our lives depended on our ability to climb and to keep on climbing, tired or no.
The mist seemed to be separating oftener now–we saw often the gorgeous foothills near us. When we looked down, there to the left was a Flume foothill covered with the black of luxuriant spruces and the brilliant yellow of fall birches–to the right and farther off, we saw the flanks of Liberty, its summit in cloud, and there we saw the green of still unchanged trees and the bright scarlet of the fall maples. The sunlight was glinting far off on green fields and mist-hung hills, but every time I looked the shadow of it moved nearer, till we were in it–it warmed our numb hands as we sat on a rock near the top of the slide to eat a bar of chocolate.
Then, after a little more climbing we came into the woods, and except for our being tired we could go on with no obstacles such as sheer and terrifying ledges. I should say, for Daddy’s being tired–to my huge surprise, I could not claim that I was–perhaps because it was such a relief to be on unobstructed ground again. Oh, that trail! It is one of the treasures of my memory. On the right was a steep bank of soft moss with little green leaves and vines running about over it, blended with the green of the trees, stunted spruce and balsam. On the right it was the same, but downwards–downwards into the space of the slide and brilliant hills.
Daddy needed a rest, and, forgetting that the trail went over the peak of Flume anyway, he said that I, being curious about that peak, could scramble up that and come right back. It was wasted daylight. I was partway back when I heard him calling me, and as fast as I could over the rough ledges I came down. Wasted daylight–and again I felt that it was my fault.
The peak of Flume is very bare, and just below it there is a few yards of knife-edge, with sheer dips on each side. Sunset–a marvellous sunset caught us on the peaks–but my worry about Daddy, who by this time was putting his utmost strength into every step, and the distance from the Liberty Shelter took the joy out of it for me–again I felt a strange wild desperate feeling, as if I was alone and more than alone among those awesome mountains.
I had some mind and heart to give to the glowing sunset, though–for perhaps even then I could not think of the dead earnestness of things. Even then I think that I alone could have reached the shelter before it was absolutely necessary to use artificial light, for I never knew the afterlight of any sunset to stay so long.
There was a long bank of dark blue clouds on the western horizon, rimmed with brilliant gold. Little wisps floated above it, and they were bright cloud-gold. The darkening peaks around us were draped with white mist, and many of the valleys were full of it. Still marvellous touches of fire could be seen on the flanks of Flume–fire of the fall trees. There was russet glowing in the north and brighter in the south, while the eastern sky formed great vaults and caves of violet-gray clouds and gleaming peak. The peaks to the east seemed to be a different color from the western ones–the east weird olive green, the west purple and glossy blue.
Into the dark col we descended, between Flume and pointed Liberty. Still we could easily see without light–Daddy told me to go ahead of him if I wanted to–he had to rest. I went on into the black woods alone–here proud Liberty had been forest-fired, leaving gnarled gray distorted trunks and fresh green undergrowth. Suddenly black shadows leaped around me as I stepped into undestroyed ground where there were great spruce forests. There were little rustles all around me–I was startled for a moment. Then my eyes began to see ahead–where the shadowed trail went up out of the valley. I knew we were on the Liberty side then, and I was glad and relieved, for it seemed no darker than it had been just after sunset on Flume. Daddy came along behind me. Couldn’t a miracle happen, I thought, just this once? A miracle, that would keep the light till we reached the shelter. Out of the darkness far ahead loomed the peak of Liberty–and the shelter was on the far side of it. We plodded on.
We actually reached the very peak before we had to use the flashlight. If the going had been smooth at all we could have kept on much farther. But we came to difficult climbing and were scared to break an ankle or something, so we fished it out. The mist hovered threateningly all around us, so the light only made a gloomy pathway upon it–and it began to snow–a fine hard dry snow like granulated sugar. But we had no time to think of being cold–except our hands–except our hands which we were always grasping the wet cold rocks with. My first memories of the peak of Liberty are bitter ones indeed. The wind howled and swept around us–at last we were in the black darkness. My sense of direction had vanished long ago. Daddy walked a few steps in several directions, but could not seem to find the trail down to the shelter. Once he thought he saw it, going down beneath great arching boulders, but it was only a dark clump of wet blowing mountain-grass. He seemed to find it, but I had no confidence. In the awful whirlwind of my brain I fancied he was leading us back towards terrible Flume. But no, it seemed new. We went along a little bit of smooth knife-edge, and on both sides of me were stunted flattened balsams, besprinkled with the sugar-like snow. We trod on many clumps of that same dark mountain-grass, down and down–and then we were in higher woods again–and any light that may have been cast down from the open sky was momentarily gone–and our flashlight was yellowing and yellowing; now one could look at it easily, now it was dark flickering yellow. There was only one thing to do. Both Daddy and the flashlight needed a rest. We turned it off, and were more helpless than we already had been–absolutely at the mercy of snow and wind and losing the trail and spirits and ghosts and cold and darkness. We rested–“anyway we’ve found the trail,” we said.
When we turned the light on we were greatly relieved to find it bright again. We hastened to use it, but could not make much progress because the trail was quite rough. Daddy was leading, Daddy held the light. We had to move in relays, however much we wanted to use the light as fast as our legs could carry us. Daddy would move three or four steps down a difficult place, then he would turn back the light at me, and I would carefully crawl down–for it was more important to keep legs and ankles perfect than anything else at that time. It seemed eternities we were crawling down that trail. At last, looking down into the valley below us, we saw little flickering lights. We thought: “Maybe that’s the cabin, and there are people there, and they’ve built a fire, and have wood stowed in.” We would have been willing to go all that way, if that was true. Although usually I would have hoped to have the cabin to ourselves, tonight I hoped that we would have company and dry wood. Daddy said: “It’s not the kind of shelter where dry wood is left–it’s even a simpler place than that.” Dry wood? That was now my chief anxiety. How could Daddy, as he was, in the dark, in the cold snow, wield a hatchet and haul in wood? How? All we could do was to hope that some kind-hearted fellow had left wood enough for the supper. But I had terrible doubts.
Suddenly we both realized that those lights were much too far down to be the cabin–we broke out in a little open place where there was a scrap of light, then the sharp angle of the shelter roof was outlined sharply against the dull blue sky–sharply, and right by us! We had reached it! It seems incredible to me now, but we had–reached it!
Up the three high steps on to the ledge we pulled ourselves–and had hardly strength to do it. We were there! Trembling from head to feet I peered into the cabin. Trembling Daddy lifted the light–the awful moment had come–the awful moment of doubt. In the corners of the cabin was a goodly stack for the evening–and smaller stuff for kindling, too. It was the greatest relief I ever experienced–together we sank down on the remains of old balsam beds left by many climbers.
But not for long! Daddy lit a candle, then he went out to get water from the little cold spring just behind the cabin, while I got the food-bags out of the pack, and hung the blankets up, ready for use. We soon had boiling cocoa in pint mugs–cocoa and hot fried biscuit. And then we spread out the blankets and were lost in slumber until morning.