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The Shadow's Edge

Posted on: September 20, 2019


[This story first appeared in Alpinist 67, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

The Lines Between. Watercolor on paper. Selkirk Mountains, British Columbia. [Artwork] Claire GiordanoThe Lines Between. 18" x 30". Watercolor on paper. Selkirk Mountains, British Columbia. [Artwork] Claire Giordano

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THE EMPTY PAPER is a smooth snowfield over a crevasse: terrifying and exhilarating. I lower the tip of my brush into the paint and watch the deep blue pigment wick into the hairs like the cold wind that rises from ice. I release the breath I didn't realize I was holding, and I touch the brush delicately to the page. Guided by memories of crampons on snow and light-filled suncups at my feet, I start to paint. The landscape begins to take shape.

When I reach for a soft rosy hue, a memory stirs, and my hand moves to a vivid scarlet instead. I slide the bristles through thick paint that glistens like the wings of a beetle. An angry red streak races between the swaths of slate-blue sky and the grey of snow-filled clouds. The mess of color on my paper is the bloody nose that I had at 13,000 feet four years ago and the red spider vein that coiled beneath my eye when I was a child. The violent shade eddies into a puddle that reminds me of how my cheeks flushed when kids teased me about the vein. I never tried to explain that the blood vessel broke while I was vomiting on the way to the hospital for the third time that year. I knew auto-immune disorder was too big a word for them.

Silhouettes. Watercolor on paper. Imagined landscape. [Artwork] Claire GiordanoSilhouettes. 14" x 11". Watercolor on paper. Imagined landscape. [Artwork] Claire Giordano

Doubt / Resilience. Watercolor on paper. North Cascades, Washington. [Artwork] Claire GiordanoDoubt / Resilience. 19" x 25". Watercolor on paper. North Cascades, Washington. [Artwork] Claire Giordano

AT TIMES, painting feels like those rides to the ER—an experience on the edge of what can be controlled. I reach for my largest brush. Laden with vermillion, the bristles sweep soundlessly across my page. A sunrise of yellows and reds blooms on the horizon. The blue shadow of a mountain dapples on clouds far below. It is the sky I saw from my first summit, where I marveled at colors while the wind chilled a sliver of skin beneath my goggles. The cold air felt as sharp as the laser that erased the mark from my cheek.

As I grew up, my health got better. The doctors don't know why, despite twelve years of tests and many hospital stays. Sometimes when I'm climbing, I imagine the footprints of my childhood friends. Many of them never got to leave behind the walls of the hospital, and as I step off a summit, my boot dislodges a chunk of snow the size of one of their tumors. When I paint, tendrils of pigment spread like cancer on the barely damp paper, stopping only at the border of the page.

Layers of ice now emerge behind three figures lightly sketched in pencil, balanced on the crest of a dark ridge. Their thin rope is a sharp line against shattered blue fractures. On every glacier, my gaze is drawn into the crevasses. Amid the rays of indigo and bone black that weave the air between the walls, I recognize an inky peace. I know what is down there, near the bottom, where the shadows feel like velvet. I have been close before, pulled out by the snaking lines of an IV. Now I paint each rope carefully. Lifelines.

I wonder if the climbers in my watercolor notice the land around them teetering on the edge. As they take rest steps toward the summit, do they see the crusts of exposed ice like scabs on the flanks of the upper mountain? Do they understand that the widening bergschrund is the wound of a dying glacier?

I MET A MORTAL GLACIER for the first time nine years ago. Cradling a soggy painting, I felt a sense of loss seep through my wet gloves: hundreds of feet above me, the terminus was a wavering line that I'd painted with a shivering hand. As clouds drifted over the ice, rain spattered the hues on my page and blurred the stunted trees into rocks. Amid the barely recognizable splotches of color, I realized I would outlive the massive expanse of ice.

While I create, I am a witness to a changing landscape. With paper balanced on my knees and a brush in my hand, my vision narrowsto the interplay of light and dark. In a mix of burnt orange and granulating black, I notice the rocky bones of a glacier emerging under a crumbling shelf of blue ice. A small drop of green is a four-inch-tall tree that growson a disintegrating moraine. Eight years ago, this place was buried under meters of snow. A startled blue line becomes the cobalt shadow of an iceberg grinding through a fjord. One of the relics of a melting ice cap, the iceberg will drift inexorably away. Its rumbling movement reverberates in my chest.

When a painting dries, the shadowed abdomen of a cloud or the neutral grey of exposed bedrock is indelible. Miniscule particles of paint settle permanently into the surface of paper that has the same texture as my skin. The pigment could be smeared with the swipe of a damp brush, but it can never be removed fully. The page warps as the fractal patterns resolve into rock and the moisture transfers invisibly from the last remnant of blue ice to the empty air.

In the watery lines of a receding glacier, I feel the weight of hugging my friends at the hospital goodbye. I knew it might be the last time I saw them. The landscape seems to pulse with the same beat as the blood that moves through my hands. I am often reluctant to leave.

Seeking. Watercolor on paper. Mt. Baker (10,780'), North Cascades. [Artwork] Claire GiordanoSeeking. 8" x 10". Watercolor on paper. Mt. Baker (10,780'), North Cascades. [Artwork] Claire Giordano

A Mountain Presence. Watercolor on paper. Mt. Baker. [Artwork] Claire GiordanoA Mountain Presence. 8" x 10". Watercolor on paper. Mt. Baker. [Artwork] Claire Giordano

OFTEN the silhouetted figures are the final pieces I paint. The precise lines of their bodies are vulnerable—easily smudged by a careless stroke meant to depict a crevasse. The tiny hairs of my smallest brush are saturated in an undiluted black. I slow my breathing as human forms emerge: each rounded edge and smooth line is critical. I see memories of lost friends, past climbs and past selves. But the figures could be anyone: we are all connected to each other by lifelines as we navigate the remnants of vanishing worlds. We walk the line between shadow and light, and we slowly move forward. Into the uncertainty beyond the frame. And this gives me hope.

Lifelines. Watercolor on paper. Khumbu Icefall, Nepal Himalaya. [Artwork] Claire GiordanoLifelines. 27" x 21". Watercolor on paper. Khumbu Icefall, Nepal Himalaya. [Artwork] Claire Giordano

[1 of 2] Mt. Rainier, 1890 vs. 2018. The artist recounts: These paintings illustrate the recession of the Nisqually Glacier from 1890 to 2018. The 1890 painting is based on an image found in a photographic analysis by Fred Veatch. According to geomorphologist Paul Kennard, the Nisqually Glacier is losing up to a quarter mile of length each year. [Artwork] Claire Giordano[1 of 2] Mt. Rainier, 1890 vs. 2018. 20" x 16". The artist recounts: "These paintings illustrate the recession of the Nisqually Glacier from 1890 to 2018. The 1890 painting is based on an image found in a photographic analysis by Fred Veatch. According to geomorphologist Paul Kennard, the Nisqually Glacier is losing up to a quarter mile of length each year." [Artwork] Claire Giordano

[2 of 2] Mt. Rainier, 1890 vs. 2018. The artist recounts: These paintings illustrate the recession of the Nisqually Glacier from 1890 to 2018. The 1890 painting is based on an image found in a photographic analysis by Fred Veatch. According to geomorphologist Paul Kennard, the Nisqually Glacier is losing up to a quarter mile of length each year. [Artwork] Claire Giordano[2 of 2] Mt. Rainier, 1890 vs. 2018. 20" x 16". The artist recounts: "These paintings illustrate the recession of the Nisqually Glacier from 1890 to 2018. The 1890 painting is based on an image found in a photographic analysis by Fred Veatch. According to geomorphologist Paul Kennard, the Nisqually Glacier is losing up to a quarter mile of length each year." [Artwork] Claire Giordano

Icefall. Ingraham Glacier, Mt. Rainier (14,410'), Cascades, Washington. The artist would like to thank Dallas Glass, Jason Hummel and Casey Sullivan for sharing reference imagery for some of the paintings in the essay. [Artwork] Claire GiordanoIcefall. 18" x 30". Ingraham Glacier, Mt. Rainier (14,410'), Cascades, Washington. The artist would like to thank Dallas Glass, Jason Hummel and Casey Sullivan for sharing reference imagery for some of the paintings in the essay. [Artwork] Claire Giordano

[This story first appeared in Alpinist 67, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 67 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

This story has been posted as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign.This story has been posted as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign.

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