It wasn’t muggy anymore like it had been in the forest. It smelled like water, like the grey glacier that was just far enough away from me that I couldn’t feel the cold. It smelled like the several dispersed streams flowing over the sand and rocks around us, never a big flow but branching out into uncountable trickles across the large, sandy shelf between perfectly round pebbles and small tufts of moss.
The smell of vibrant forest plants and dark dirt still existed as a memory in my nose, under my fingernails, and in the little scratches on my shins.
I only just noticed the scratches in the cool of evening. My legs tingled as the flush in my cheeks subsided and my toes cooled down, the subtle body shifts that occur when you stop climbing a hill. The descent down the sand a moment ago had coated my legs and lungs with dust, but now the air felt crisp and clear.
Accompanying the sounds of the glacial runoff was the whipping of the blue and grey pyramid tarp tent we’d set up for the four of us, wrapping strings around rocks. It was disproportionately affected by the wind, twisting into a whimsical bent triangle shape. It was comically loud sometimes as it gyrated like a subdued circus tent in a stormy nightmare.
The sky was also blue and grey. Maybe it’s never truly sunny in the Pickets, but we had patches of blue sky. The clouds were far enough away not to block our view, but the sky still swirled in a shifting white marble texture.
There were a few colors in the predominantly grey landscape: some modest flowers, patches of grass, and my friends’ sickly yellow-green backpacks and other gear as they mulled about camp, but my mind was flooded with the dullness of rock, ice, sky. Behind me, the way we had come, were some grey-brown ridges and dark steep towers. Down low, some of the dirt was a sandy color. Dominating my field of view was the southern Pickets. It’s not an especially big range, but it is steep and wild-feeling. It gives the entire area the air of being impassable. The left is made up of several impossibly pointy spires. Below them is a glacier peeling off the steep slopes and scrunched up into small snowfields interspersed with intricate networks of cracks. There were no gaping blue crevasses, just the abstract work of someone with a fine dark pencil on a very white page. Below that, grey and black striped and mottled slabs, some with dark streams of water coming from the glacier above.
To the right, snow-free except a small, disintegrating steep couloir near the top, was the friendliest-looking peak. McMillan looked like someone leaning to the side with one arm reaching overhead, as if they were stretching the left side of their body. At one point, the tent contorted into a similar position in the light wind. It looked for a moment like the whole scene had been flung here rapidly from the right at warp speed. But then the wind left again, and I noticed again the sound of the tranquil streams, the gentle breezes in the grasses, and the evidence of decades of patient movement in the glacier’s shape.
My aluminum flask wasn’t even cold coming out of my pack, but it didn’t matter. The smoky taste of the whiskey was enough to render temperature meaningless. Instead the sensation was dominated by the warmth it brought to my stomach, and eventually to my fingers and toes, counteracting the cooling down of my limbs after we had finished the approach. My skin was dry, and my lips were chapped. The alcohol stung, and the sun came out from behind a cloud for a moment.