Years of Sunsets

Posted on: June 4, 2021


[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 74, which is now available on some 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 74 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Sunset from the flanks of Mozodepowadso (Abenaki name for Mt. Mansfield), Green Mountains (Askaskwiwajoak), Vermont, Abenaki territory. [Photo] Katie IvesSunset from the flanks of Mozodepowadso (Abenaki name for Mt. Mansfield), Green Mountains (Askaskwiwajoak), Vermont, Abenaki territory. [Photo] Katie Ives

PARTWAY UP THE FROZEN WATERFALL, I pause to look out: beyond the blue shadows of the notch, the cast light of evening flares pink and purple across a single distant hill, growing brighter just before it fades. Then the wind picks up, and the cold air stings, and I continue up the pane of ice as the twilight deepens from blue to black. The alpenglow still burns in my mind. It is the real reason I'm here: another variation of dusk in a year of sunsets.

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I'VE ALWAYS BEEN CREPUSCULAR by nature—seeking instinctively, as certain animals do, those dimming hours when a sense of inchoate opportunities spreads like shadows across the woods and hills. At the start of the pandemic, my habit seems like a form of prudence, a way of roaming popular mountains after they empty of crowds. Soon, I begin timing my excursions to reach nearby vistas just as the evening hues become most intense. Surreal visions accumulate: the sun spills crimson fire across a distant summer lake; winter rime crystals bloom into innumerable petals of rose.

There's an urgency to these quests that startles me: a need to try to memorize each new display of light and color in the heights. In The Myth of Shangri-La, Peter Bishop describes how early travelers—before widespread photography—strove hard to capture views of mountains with pencils, paints or words. The most opulent passages of Victorian tales may reflect more than just a predilection for an ornate style: a thwarted longing to pinpoint the exact curve of a steepled peak or the precise tint of violet on a distant range, even as the original moments vanish beyond recall. Even now, in my camera's snapshots or in my own scrawled sentences, the real experiences elude me. And I can imagine why one response to that failure—to that desire to preserve something from the loss of time—would be an overflow of words.

FOR TWENTIETH-CENTURY BRITISH EXPLORER Eric Shipton, dusk-lit skylines reflected childhood fantasies of "vague dream worlds": faraway snowy peaks that glowed lilac, desert ranges that shivered gold. With each step he took, the light receded into the distance, like the fading vision of some unattainable, shining realm.

During late-autumn sunsets in Vermont, before the first snowfall, the bleak landscapes of greys and browns, of bare earth and dead grass quicken to a multitude of fiery, evanescent hues, suggesting the potential that everything could become illuminated, enchanted; the hope that change is still achievable in all manner of unexpected ways.

Classic mountaineering tales often portray evenings on high summits as encounters with forbidding, even dangerous, beauty: vivid colors remind climbers that these are the last rays of light and warmth before the onset of a long, icy alpine night. I face few hazards on these small New England mountainsides, though the association of benightment with risk remains in my mind—a recollection of human vulnerability, an awareness that I can't stay too long.

In the heart of the winter, temperatures drop too far below zero for my camera to work. I jot down notes even more frantically as soon as I get home: Pale orange ice fog, blowing fast. Opalescence across the hills—yellow, blue, purple—as the light shifts. Pink alpenglow deepening to violet. A forest of crystal: sharp points of evergreens still encrusted in thick white; maples and birches turned a hazy filigree of golden rime.

None of those words is right. Each twilit mountain is an ineffable place, seen once and never again in the same way, impossible to communicate to others. We all contain such cartographies of infinite, invisible worlds: secret lands of unspoken thoughts and unshared visions; realms of existence within our minds vaster than even we ourselves can know; dusky labyrinths of memory, fear, wonder, longing, dreams, imagination, love. With the end of any life, most of these worlds disappear from the earth. With the end of millions of lives, entire atlases of possibility vanish into thin air.

SOMETIMES, I TIME MY JOURNEYS wrong and emerge above tree line at the blue hour instead of at sunset, just as the last orange glint of the west extinguishes beyond cobalt hills. Then, countless shades of blue—too numerous for any language to hold—rise over the mountaintops. A sheen of silver wavers across the landscape, translucent as the mirage of a phantom range. I turn my headlamp on: shafts of ice light up like rays of moonlight. A threshold blurs: the line between day and night, one world and the next.

Years ago, when I was in college, I remember talking with a professor about ways that elaborate, nonlinear narratives can seem to tangle up a reader's sense of time, giving the impression of escaping chronology altogether. Still, he and I acknowledged, the story will end, the reader will close the book, and the illusion of transcendence will be gone. "But what you need to ask yourself," the professor said, with a sudden vehemence that surprised me, "is how many more sunsets will you see?" I didn't ask him, then, exactly what he meant, though much later, and in my own way, I have come to know the importance of the question.

There is one sunset, in particular, that glimmers in my mind with a greater intensity than the others, as if something of its radiance can survive the diminishments of memory, though I still can't capture it in words: an array of innumerable icicles backlit by the scarlet sun, a pale iridescence of blues and purples across distant snows—all that is only shorthand for what still burns within me. I cling to it as an article of faith, without need of interpretation, fleeting and eternal, eternal and fleeting. An inviolable realm, a recollection of witnessed glories that will persist long after I, too, am gone.

I am composed of all the sunsets I have seen.

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 74, which is now available on some 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 74 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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