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Adventures on the Turtle's Back

Posted on: June 13, 2018


[This Wired story first appeared in Alpinist 62, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.—Ed.]

Twin Peaks, Doug Peak, and Sawtooth Peak rise amid the peaks of the Wal'wa-maXs. [Photo] Joe WhittleTwin Peaks, Doug Peak, and Sawtooth Peak rise amid the peaks of the Wal'wa-maXs. [Photo] Joe Whittle

IT'S NOT LIKELY any Native people ever died of summit fever, and we're not gonna be the first, I thought as I dropped my pack underneath a monumental Douglas fir. It's time to turn around. I stood catching my breath high on Doug Peak, just below the twisted whitebark krummholz that marks the transition to the alpine zone. Dark o'clock was in twenty minutes. The wet, sloppy snow beneath my boots might continue for another 1,700 feet to the top. As Kanim and Len approached, they saw my pack down and open, and they looked relieved. Really, what are three Native Americans with novice to moderate climbing skills doing on the side of this mountain in the worst possible winter conditions? I asked myself. With darkness falling and 2,500 feet down to the trailhead, no less?

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TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION, I suppose I go back to my beginnings. I'm an enrolled member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and a descendant of the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma (culturally I am Hasinai and Lenape). My family roamed our tribal homelands for at least 13,000 years. What is today called "wilderness"—small fragments of land preserved or restored in "primeval character"—we simply called home; and it composed the entire continent we call Turtle Island.

I didn't grow up in my tribal community, although my siblings and I share a tribal land allotment there, and I try to visit for cultural events when I can. Neither of my tribes is originally from Oklahoma. The Caddo came from what is now called Texas, a name derived from our word for friend. The Delaware were forced halfway across the continent by westward-moving settlers and by the US government, like so many other Eastern Woodland tribes.

Instead, I spent my childhood in Wallowa County, the occupied land of the Wallowa Band Nez Perce (Nimi'ipuu) in Northeastern Oregon, the home of the legendary Chief Joseph, and the site of one of the most tragic and well-known Indian wars in American history.

Len Necefer and Mia Ritter-Whittle enter Inenensaqan (Joseph Canyon), which had long served as a winter residence for Nez Perce people before their forced removal from their traditional lands in Oregon. [Photo] Joe WhittleLen Necefer and Mia Ritter-Whittle enter Inenensaqan (Joseph Canyon), which had long served as a winter residence for Nez Perce people before their forced removal from their traditional lands in Oregon. [Photo] Joe Whittle

When I was born, my Caddo/Delaware father named me Joseph to pay respect and to show gratitude for our presence as guests in Nimi'ipuu country. My dad had moved from Oklahoma to the Bay Area of California as a child in the 1950s during the Indian Relocation Era—when US government officials enacted policies to compel Native Americans to relocate to urban centers, in addition to continuing other tactics of assimilation, such as forcing children into residential schools, where teachers punished them for practicing their culture and often sexually abused them; adopting orphans to white families; terminating tribal sovereignty and even outlawing Native religious practices. Lured by promises of compensation and the possibility of living the American Dream, many Indigenous families left their reservations for a life in the city. Often those promises went unfulfilled, as did the hopes of well-paying jobs. Separated from their tribal communities, many felt their cultural ties slip away.

According to an analysis published in 2015 by the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, about 70 percent of Native Americans live in urban or suburban environments today. Data from the 2016 American Community Survey revealed that Native Americans suffer more than twice the poverty rate as non-Hispanic whites. Geographic and economic barriers can add to challenges some Indigenous people face in accessing and experiencing wild lands.

My own urban Native father never once climbed a mountain. That history of dispossession and erasure of identity led to a disconnection from the relationship his family had with the land since time immemorial. He grew up surviving the streets of Richmond, California, where asphalt and concrete long ago paved over the earth and the medicine that sustained Ohlone people there. His traumas played into his struggles with alcohol and his long absences from his children's lives. My parents divorced when I was four, and my father returned to California. Meanwhile, my Irish-American mother, a former hippie, joined the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Enterprise, Oregon, which promoted outdoor recreation as part of a healthy lifestyle. In September 1981, when I was six, she took me backpacking for the first time. With my twelve-year-old brother, we spent the night by a high lake and ventured up Sawtooth Peak from its western flank.

And thus, my relationship with wild places didn't originate with my Hasinai/Lenape father. Instead, it started with my white mother and our white family friends. And it began on the slopes of the Wal'wa-maXs (Wallowa Mountains), a range that contains nineteen peaks over 9,000 feet. Here, you can stand on top of a snow-capped mountain surrounded by over a half million acres of designated wilderness and about 3 million acres of National Forest, and stare into the depths of the continent's deepest gorge, found inside the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. With only two "year-round" roads prone to mudslides and ice storms, this region is considered one of the most remote, unpopulated and rugged places left in the Lower 48.

Justin Sullivan on Dragon's Tail Ridge (Class 4-5) on Sacajawea Peak (2999m), Wal'wa-maXs, Oregon. [Photo] Joe WhittleJustin Sullivan on Dragon's Tail Ridge (Class 4-5) on Sacajawea Peak (2999m), Wal'wa-maXs, Oregon. [Photo] Joe Whittle

DURING OUR DESCENT from Sawtooth Peak, my brother glissaded down a snowfield, not realizing there was a ten-foot drop at its bottom. He sailed off the cliff into a boulder field. Unable to carry my brother and his severely sprained ankle, my mother found a somewhat sheltered spot to leave us near treeline so she could go for help. Without a fire, we shivered through the cold mountain night. After a long hike in the dark, my mother reached a phone and called the sheriff's office. Search and rescue members wouldn't set out until daylight when they could bring their horses, so she began calling friends. My brother and I awoke in the predawn hours to three signal gunshots on invisible slopes above. We shouted our location at the top of our lungs. One of the outdoorsmen who rescued us later became my stepfather.

That icy, beautiful morning served as an awakening of who I am as a Human Being and who I am as a Hasinai and Lenape child of Turtle Island. Carried on the backs of our rescuers, my brother and I watched the starlight fade into azure skies and the magenta hues creep over the crests of the Wal'wa-maXs, and I understood there is nothing inherent to fear in the darkness of the wild, or in the precipitous slopes of peaks. They are as Creator made them to be. Mountains have much to teach us about developing a relationship with our mortality and maximizing joy in our fragile existence.

After thirty-six years and countless other summits and failed attempts, my feet have never stopped taking me to the wild. These journeys led to a career in outdoor photography, writing, education—and eventually to a job as a US Forest Service seasonal wilderness ranger, patrolling the Eagle Cap and Hells Canyon backcountry. I once imagined I'd climb Chomolungma (Everest) or Denali someday. Fatherhood at age twenty-one and single fatherhood at twenty-five changed my priorities. By the time I turned forty-two, any desire for personal achievement had faded from my adventures outdoors. It's not that I wouldn't have loved to invest the time and money to learn to be an expert alpinist, but I was never able to afford all the gear. And I knew I didn't need cutting-edge skills for what I sought: there is no more goal attached to my efforts on cliffs or mountains than there is on a trip home for a holiday. The purpose is simply to be with your relatives and to be present. That relationship with the land was already inside me; I only had to keep giving it room to breathe.

Kanim Moses-Conner is the great-great-great grandnephew of the legendary Chief Joseph, who led his people across the Rocky Mountains in an attempted escape to Canada in 1877. Whittle camped with Moses-Conner, 140 years later, by the Imnaha River, part of the Wallowa Band Nez Perce people's original homeland. In a 2015 Guardian article, Whittle quoted Onondaga chief Oren Lyons on public land use: We don't call a tree a resource. We don't call the fish a resource.... We call them our relatives. [Photo] Joe Whittle Kanim Moses-Conner is the great-great-great grandnephew of the legendary Chief Joseph, who led his people across the Rocky Mountains in an attempted escape to Canada in 1877. Whittle camped with Moses-Conner, 140 years later, by the Imnaha River, part of the Wallowa Band Nez Perce people's original homeland. In a 2015 Guardian article, Whittle quoted Onondaga chief Oren Lyons on public land use: "We don't call a tree a resource. We don't call the fish a resource.... We call them our relatives." [Photo] Joe Whittle

MY FRIEND KANIM MOSES-CONNER is Chief Joseph's great-great-great grandnephew.

Kanim's direct ancestor, Ollokot, was War Chief of the Wallowa Band Nez Perce during the infamous Nez Perce War of 1877, when the US Army forced the Wallowa Band from their homeland. Kanim lives on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) near Pendleton, Oregon. Last year he told me he'd like to accompany me backpacking. It took him three months of setting aside money to purchase the basic equipment.

In the autumn of 2017, we hiked toward the headwaters of the Imnaha River in the center of the Wallowa Mountains. Because of its gradual decline from the Wallowas to Hells Canyon, and from the alpine regions to the desert, this was an important river in the "seasonal round" of the Wallowa Band Nimi'ipuu. Most Indigenous cultures possess some form of cyclical adaptation to the changing seasons and food sources of local ecologies. The original laws of all Indigenous peoples teach us how to mold ourselves to nature, instead of forcing nature to mold to us. Kanim's family traveled up and down the corridor of the Imnaha River for 10,000 years as a native species of those ecological cycles. Until 1877, it seemed they could have gone on doing so in perpetuity.

The Wilderness Act came close to the truth when it recognized the need to "assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas... leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition." Where it failed is at the point that it proclaimed wilderness as a place "where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Such language ensconced the myth that this continent was raw and untouched by humans when the first colonists arrived, a second Garden of Eden for white Christians to claim. The presence of millions of human beings already living there was an inconvenience to perpetuating that lie.

By the time Chief Joseph's people traveled through Yellowstone on their 1,200-mile running fight for freedom in 1877, park officials had already begun efforts to remove the last resident peoples within the park. During the following decade, soldiers occupied the national park as military "rangers" to evict and exclude local Native inhabitants. Across the US, parks enshrined the idea that Indigenous people would eventually (and conveniently) disappear into the mists of time. By the early twentieth century, extirpated tribal members were paid a meager fee to display their "vanishing race" (photographer Edward S. Curtis's term for staged portraits of Native Americans) in "human zoos" at Yellowstone and Yosemite. In 1901 one of the founding fathers of the National Park System, John Muir claimed, "As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence."

The erasure of Indigenous people from the history of North American mountaineering likewise supported the illusion of a terra incognita. There's hardly a piece of ground in the United States that wasn't first mapped with the help of Native American guides. During the rise of outdoor recreation in the nineteenth century, Native people led hunters, fishermen and climbers into wild ranges in the US and Canada. Numerous mountaintops across the continent, including technical ones, contain traces of Indigenous passage. Nimi'ipuu hunters roamed the basins and crags of the Wal'wa-maXs in search of Bighorn sheep for millennia. US Forest Service archaeology teams have documented evidence of early spiritual sites on some of the summits there, and I've found arrowheads above 9,000 feet. Yet the role of Indigenous mountaineers and their knowledge of "unclimbed" terrain is largely invisible in mainstream accounts—acknowledging it would mean admitting the farce in the idea of "American wilderness."

"I FEEL LIKE ANYWHERE I walk in this country I am walking where my ancestors have before," Kanim said, as we sat by a campfire between the North and South Fork confluence of the Imnaha River. We were tired yet abuzz with the glowing autumn wonder of October in the Wal'wa-maXs. Moonlight glittered across frosty tent flies. Rushing water echoed through giant limbs of 700+ year-old tamaracks, and we talked of ancient things. There is no doubt that his family had used this location for thousands of years. With no impassable waterfalls on its main stem, this was one of the most frequently fished waterways flowing from the Wallowas. I asked Kanim why he'd never gone backpacking before. "A good portion of my family hunts and day hikes. Or picks and gathers," he said. "But no one really does any backpacking. There weren't people in my family teaching me or trying to get me interested in it."

Native people have long recreated on the land in a wide variety of ways. But the idea of wild places as merely a playground is not that different than the false concept that their sole purpose is for resource extraction. It makes no sense for us to "escape" to an environment that we're so close to that it's already part of us and we are part of it. The claiming of a first ascent or the planting of a flag on a mountain that we view as a sacred relative resembles any other flag that colonists have planted on Turtle Island. We have held these spaces as places of worship since the beginnings of human history, even as others have arrived to try to establish ownership over them.

According to government studies released in 2009 and 2013, roughly 1 percent of visitors in National Parks and 2.4 percent in National Forests are Native American, versus 80 percent and 95 percent white, respectively. Most national parks don't honor subsistence hunting treaty rights, which are an integral and sustainable part of our health and cultural identity. And conservation laws have historically ignored the prior existence of the original laws of tribal peoples, which long protected ecological systems with such rules as forbidding anyone from taking more than they can use, requiring each person to leave something for those who come next and to plant back what is gathered. How do Native people repair bonds that have been lost between some of us and the land, and reinforce the ones still in place? How do we reclaim our place in the discussion of land use?

A conversation about the land is a conversation about Indigenous people. To speak of the land is to speak of our Mother, our family and our selves. Growing up in the 1980s, however, as I flipped through pages of gear catalogues and outdoor magazines that belonged to my mother and stepfather, I rarely saw any faces of color. Articles about "bold" adventurers in "raw" and "desolate" landscapes generally left out the cultural legacies and ongoing existence of Indigenous inhabitants. Outdoor enthusiasts at times joined conservation groups to try to prevent the return of ancestral territory to Native people—as if echoing John Muir's belief in Mountains of California that original residents of the Sierra "seemed to have no right place in the landscape." Over the years, recognition of Indigenous rights on public land has increased to a certain extent, yet often in just a token sense. For instance, the National Park Service has asked for a voluntary ban on climbing during the month of June at Bear Lodge (aka: "Devils Tower") so tribal members can perform ceremonies in peace. But some climbers continue to ignore even this request.

Although coalitions of conservationists and mountaineers have frequently protected wild lands from industrial extraction of "natural resources," they have also, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuated the extraction of Native people—a sad irony since Indigenous participation in management of public lands could help return more sustainable and equitable relationships between human beings and Turtle Island. The oil pipeline resistance at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and the resistance to the repeal of protections at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, are just two examples of Native-led movements that are beginning to drive a powerful shift in environmental activism. As our visibility increases, the value of our voices and leadership starts to gain more recognition.

Last year, Len Necefer founded Natives Outdoors, a company focusing on soft-goods and apparel designed by Indigenous artists and athletes. The company also consults in matters related to the intersection of tribes, public lands and outdoor recreation. Len is now working directly with tribal and state governments and community groups to increase resources and opportunities for Native people within the outdoor industry. Ninety percent of national parks are within 100 miles of an Indian Reservation, he points out; outdoor recreation, redirected into ways that are sustainable for the environment and sensitive to Indigenous cultures, could also provide much-needed economic opportunities for members of tribes. "Climbing is a very deliberate (and sometimes contrived) way of interacting with the land," Len said. "I enjoy the adrenaline, but more importantly, I am enjoying seeing how this sport could be a vehicle for connecting young people to the land and their cultural traditions." Among Len's Navajo (Dine) people, many sheepherders and farmers still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, connected to the rhythms of the land. "My parents couldn't afford to take me skiing or on backpacking trips," Len explained. "However, they did make it a point for me to spend as much time as possible with my grandparents in Red Valley, and in the Chuska Mountains at sheep camp. We would go and pitch tents 500 yards from camp and hang out there. But we'd still go back over to camp and eat when our grandma cooked. Moving to Colorado, it felt like I was having to play catch-up with all the things I only dreamed about doing outside. I've been taking it a step at a time."

THIS WINTER, KANIM, LEN and I planned another adventure: we'd descend into the desert depths of Joseph Canyon, dropping 2,600 feet in 2.5 miles, and then head up Doug Peak, so our travel would illustrate the seasonal round. This would be Kanim's first attempt at an alpine summit. Doug Peak (a colloquial name) is actually a sub-peak of the 9,179-foot Sawtooth Peak, the mountain where I first became aware of my sacred connection to Turtle Island. My daughter Mia, home from college, would join us for the canyon hike, along with two tribal members whom Kanim grew up with: young parents Bobby Fossek and Brosnan Spencer.

Joseph Canyon is named for Kanim's famous uncle, born in a cave near its mouth. The traditional name was Inenensaqan, "long, rough, canyon." At its head, the Wallowa Band placed their highest altitude permanent village site. In 1996 the Nez Perce tribe was able to purchase 10,000 acres in the lower canyon, which has since grown to 30,000. The tribe now manages the area—Hetewisniix Wetes, or "Precious Land"—as a wildlife refuge open to the public and to tribal members exercising their hunting, fishing and gathering rights, and taking part in a long-awaited homecoming.

Clouds rose into scales of grey and drifted over the canyon, quieting the land, as we hiked into Inenensaqan. We spoke in hushed tones: we were entering our church, and the hymns of the landscape sang in the bunchgrasses at our feet. None of us had been on a wilderness backpacking trip with an all-Indigenous group before: the experience of knowing we were all connected to Turtle Island for thousands of years—that our very existence was tied to that relationship—wove us to those yellow leaves of grass, and to the soft red earth that would soon paint them green again.

As the bottom of the canyon opened up below, each of us imagined what it might have looked like 150 years prior. We saw tipis scattered throughout the canyon floor, children playing with their dogs, men pulling fish from the stream, and women smoking them on racks. Echoes of laughter rose up the walls with the breeze. I felt as if all those ancestors would be waiting there for us when we arrived, with a warm fire and a story, as if we'd stroll into camp and right into the cycle of life sustained throughout human memory of this place.

I recognized a sense of familiarity in the comfortable stance of Kanim's body on the canyonside. At the same time, a profound sense of new awareness appeared on his face. "I am very humbled when I am out here on the land that my people fought so hard for," Kanim said, "You realize why they did. It was beautiful. It was their beautiful home."

Moses-Conner, Bobby Fossek, Brosnan Spencer and Ritter-Whittle in Inenensaqan. [Photo] Joe WhittleMoses-Conner, Bobby Fossek, Brosnan Spencer and Ritter-Whittle in Inenensaqan. [Photo] Joe Whittle

EVEN WHEN WE TRAVEL upon ground that is new to us, feelings of recognition, humility and remembrance mark our time in wild places—rather than fantasies of "discovery" and "conquest." There was always an interconnected awareness between regions of Turtle Island via trade and travel, facilitated by that close relationship with the land all Indigenous people share. In the 1820s, after another tribal removal, my great-great-great grandfather, Delaware Chief John Conner, felt an intense desire to see an ocean, and he knew he couldn't go back to our homelands. So he grabbed his rifle and his bandolier bag and set out on foot from Indiana to the Oregon Coast. From there, he walked to Durango, Mexico, where he lived for a time before returning to his people. A Nez Perce elder, Allen Pinkham, once recounted to me a story he'd heard about Navajos who ran all the way from the Southwest desert to Cleveland during the early 1800s to investigate rumors of expanding white settlements—long before "trail running" became a trendy sport.

In Travels in the Far Northwest 1839-1846, the explorer Thomas Farnham wrote of an anonymous Delaware trapper he encountered on his journeys, a man who had been educated at Dartmouth (originally established to educate Native students) and who had climbed with astonishing swiftness over many high peaks and crags:

I inquired the reason of his leaving civilized life for a precarious livelihood in the wilderness. "For reasons found in the nature of my race," he replied. "The Indian's eye cannot be satisfied with a description of things.... For neither the periods of burning eloquence, nor the mighty and beautiful creations of the imagination, can unbosom the treasures and realities as they live in their own native magnificence on the eternal mountains.... Red men often acquire and love the Sciences. But with the nature which the Great Spirit has given them, what are all their truths to them? Would an Indian ever measure the height of a mountain that he could climb?... The legends of his tribe tell him nothing about quadrants, and base lines and angles. Their old braves, however, have for ages watched from the cliffs, the green life in the spring, and the yellow death in the autumn, of their holy forests.... Science, it is true, can tell the times and seasons of their coming; but the Indian...looks through nature, without the aid of science, up to its cause.... I must range the hills, I must always be able to out-travel my horses, I must always be able to strip my own wardrobe from the backs of the deer and buffalo, and to feed upon their rich loins...or I am no longer an Indian...."

Mountains which neither Indian nor white man dared attempt to scale...he has crossed. Angry streams, heavy and cold from the snows, and plunging and roaring among the girding caverns of the hills, he has swum; he has met the tempest as it groaned over the plains, and hung upon the trembling towers of the everlasting hills....

He says that he never intends again to visit the States, or any other part of the earth "which has been torn and spoiled by the slaves of agriculture."... "I shall live," said he, "and die in the wilderness." And assuredly he should thus live and die. The music of the rushing waters should be his requiem, and the Great Wilderness his tomb.

The loss of my own tribal homeland has been a burden I've carried with me in all the adventures I've had. As I shared those feelings, immersed in the beauty of Inenensaqan, I began to cry. I realized in my comfort with those tears what it meant to be in wild places with other children of Turtle Island. There's a safety in knowing that empathy exists without question for the pain woven into my DNA—it felt like the difference between recovering from a sickness alone, or with the solace of family and loved ones. Here, we were carrying each other's burdens, just as tribal people have always done.

We spent much of our time in the canyon absorbing the medicine of our togetherness with each other and the land. Kanim and Bobby cast lines in Joseph Creek and pulled three trout from its water. While the rest of us cooked the fish on a flat rock atop a bed of coals, Bobby took Len on a walk to find some biscuit roots, or "cous," a staple root food of the region. Sitting around the fire, we admired the cragged and striated sculptings of millions of years of geology around us. "I feel like we are in the earth's library," Brosnan said.

I asked Kanim how many of his ancestors he thought had sat around a fire in this canyon baking trout on a rock: "All of them?" he said. We passed around the plate of trout and a stew of roots, wild plants, corn and beans, as if it were holy communion. "The things that have held me back from these sorts of activities in the past are mainly the symptoms of disconnection from the natural world and original lifeway," Bobby said. "Reconnecting with the natural laws guiding us to take good care of this land has been tremendously healing."

"I just feel more real out here," Mia said. "Every time I come out here, I feel a clarity of mind, heart, and spirit. Man—and I do mean man—has built so much complicated stuff which is supposed to make our lives simpler. But really I think it makes us all more confused. Confused and hurt. Coming outside is like coming home. We came from the earth, and she longs for our return."

As a father, I hoped to offer Mia a connection to the land and to Native traditions that I didn't have when I was growing up. At age nineteen, she danced for the first time in one of our tribal dances in Oklahoma, in full traditional regalia—something that I myself haven't yet done. Last year she was given a Hasinai name for risking her safety as a Water Protector at Standing Rock, where she was shot at with rubber bullets while kneeling on the ground in prayer on Sioux treaty land. "The more I learn about my own cultures," she said. "the more I realize I've always been able to speak the language of my Indigeneity. I think because I've been really privileged to grow up close to our Ina-Wadut, our Mother Earth, in Nimi'ipuu territory. This land taught me how to be. That's a blessing I try really hard not to take for granted. I know just as my people have been removed from our lands, others have been pushed out of theirs too."

HIKING IN THE DEEP GORGES of Hells Canyon country is the opposite of alpinism—it's like climbing an inverted mountain. If you were to take the negative space of those ravines and fill it with land and flip it over, they'd make one of the most rugged mountain ranges on the continent. Nothing drives that point home quite so clearly as clambering back out of one of them. Airy thermals rose with us, and they seemed to carry the breath of the earth through our pores, cleansing the grime from our depths and lighting our souls aflame with the warmth of a long-awaited sunrise. The labor in our journey was made negligible by the intensity of the joy felt in every molecule of our beings—to be so blessed. We offered parting smiles as if we were leaving our Grandmother's house. This place will be there for us the next time we return, with open arms to envelop her weary, happy children.

Reaching the top was much like summiting any mountain, but with more oxygen in your lungs. As we loaded packs into cars, we felt a surreal acceptance of the civilized world; but it was met with the knowledge that we'd awakened something ancient during our experience—something meant to be passed down for the ages and waiting to be claimed in each of us. Our time together on the land was an answer to our ancestors' prayers. This medicine would carry us forward.

Necefer on Calypso Direct (5.8), Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. [Photo] Steve Crusher BartlettNecefer on Calypso Direct (5.8), Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. [Photo] Steve "Crusher" Bartlett

THE NEXT MORNING, Len, Kanim and I awoke to melting rain that turned to freezing rain and wet snow at higher elevations. Through faint dawning light, Doug Peak was buried under a thick mist, and my heart sank. Maybe we'll climb out of the clouds, I thought. We made it within 2.5 miles of the trailhead before pulling the car over. A constant stream ran down sheets of pure ice. Not even chains and four-wheel drive would do the trick. We'd have to start hiking from here. Under the relentless drizzle, we picked our way up the strip of snow along the border of the winding road. Len mumbled something about: "Well, at least we'll probably make the treeline." I let his words drift into thick wet air without response. I glanced back at Kanim. To my relief, he was moving confidently upward, smiling and undaunted.

On the lower section of the peak, the hard-packed trail had turned into more wet ice. Although Len and I had traction devices for our boots, Kanim had only trekking poles. Len also brought an ice axe. Under optimal conditions, this gear would have been enough. Now we slipped and struggled until we finally left the path and gained some relief on the windswept southward slope of the summit ridge. We stopped to put our hands on a massive Douglas fir that must've been at least 600 years old.

That ancient living relative has been standing sentinel high in the Wal'wa-maXs since before Turtle Island was "discovered" by European eyes. As I touched its weathered trunk, I felt the measure of how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same. The forest lives and breathes on a millennial scale. I shared with Kanim and Len descriptions of how scientists are beginning to understand more about the symbiotic relationships that sustain these woods. Stirred by traumatic events such as wildfires or logging, old-growth "mother trees" will return resources back to the earth; a network of fungus will redistribute some of this "legacy" (as researcher Suzanne Simard calls it) and communicate signals to other trees, helping the surrounding ecology recover. In much the same way, time spent in wild places can help us heal from the traumas of colonialism and rebuild our identities. Indeed, the wild offers medicine to all people who know how to receive it as a gift, rather than claim it as a possession. Which is why Native people ask permission to climb a mountain, dig a root or catch a fish.

When we broke through the first layer of clouds, another, higher, thicker layer of mist obscured the summit. The snow remained loose, and our feet gave way often. I knew the final stretch of steep ridgeline had 1,000 feet of air on either side; self-arrest would be by chance or miracle. A cold cobalt dusk closed in around us. We could sense a shift in the thinning of the air and in the feeling of elevated awareness gained in high places—including the added risk of each step forward. The trees behind us merged into shadow. The way ahead vanished into silent slopes and impending night. There was no debate in the decision to turn around. We laughed at the irony that I would be writing a story about this adventure for Alpinist, and we hadn't even stepped in to the alpine zone. In a way, that in itself is the story. I hope. Nothing about our time spent in the wild had any goal other than to be at home. We'd ascended 5,100 feet from the bottom of Joseph Canyon to our turnaround on Doug Peak—no achievement worthy of note among the annals of mountain conquests or extreme sports, but the breadth of that journey had given us a deeper understanding of the Sacred Circles that have spun with this land for eons; and thus a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

As we descended through deepening shades of blue into inky wet darkness, our words and steps fell close together. Our clothes were soggy, our muscles tense. We spoke of how nights on a mountainside—like the one I spent with my brother on this same peak—can teach us humility and acceptance of our role in the natural order. "The toxic elements of ego and self-aggrandizing behaviors that can exist within mountaineering (and other outdoor adventure sports) can be easily quelled by learning about the history and context of where it is occurring," Len said. "Placing yourself in the larger fabric of human history opens you to the fact that you are not likely the first to summit a peak or send a route. What matters more is how we protect these places."

By the time we reached the trailhead, freezing raindrops glinted in the narrow paths of our headlamps and bounced off shimmering ice. Crunching and slipping and occasionally grunting, I was filled with the joy of love well-received from relatives well-loved. I knew the others were too.

"I think the most important thing these trips mean to me is to be able to just be who I am," Kanim said, "a human being living with Mother Earth and all other beings." I remembered a quote from his famous uncle Chief Joseph Hinmatoowyalahtq'it (Thunder Rolling from the Mountain), one that might describe why his nephew and two other children of Turtle Island were here that night—and, why we would be coming back again. Joseph said: "The earth and myself are of one mind. The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same."

Necefer and Moses-Conner in deep discussion as darkness falls on Doug Peak. [Photo] Joe WhittleNecefer and Moses-Conner in deep discussion as darkness falls on Doug Peak. [Photo] Joe Whittle

[On June 1 (after we went to press), Yosemite National Park Superintendent Michael Reynolds signed an agreement that gave Native Americans permission to use a village site within the park that had been the location of the Valley's last ancestral village until 1969, when it was leveled. A news article about the new agreement can be found here. Our June 11 podcast episode, "Sisnaajini: Stories from White Shell Mountain," features Len Necefer, Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft, and Brody Leven learning about the Indigenous history of the mountain they attempt to climb. This Wired story first appeared in Alpinist 62, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.—Ed.]

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