This is my last week in Ecuador with the Kroka semester and we recently returned from our two week mountain expedition. We trekked out of Palugo farm to Antisana volcano and spent four days climbing at the Antisana glacier. I then followed a small group of my students at a distance for three days for their final ‘solo’ expedition through the páramo. These mountains are unforgiving teachers and unrelenting dreamers.Being in these mountains is like being at sea—the whipping, flooding, weathering, wetness, vastness, waves of lifting aloft and plunging in swells, buoyant abundance, slow progressing amidst constant undulation. We are ultimately enclosed here in something thicker and more permanent than fog, soupier and eerier. This is the everlasting home of deep mist, of the sliding fingers of cloud slanting up the yellow valley, inexorable but uncruel.
Places on earth make us older or younger and these mountains are ancient-making, emboldening and oldening, fingertips hardened in redness and newer wrinkles. I feel solid and rough here, my head cradled in a brown knit cap, faded pink hood and dusty buff. I am made older immediately, but old without wisdom or bearing, just weathered, swayed, held grasped by these gasping heights. The mountains announce themselves on the first night up high with granizo and nieve and icy rain flooding students’ tents and trepidation. The layers of this work continually astound me. The many things happening at once—translating a teenager’s life story into Spanish while cooking a meal for 17 on four alcohol stoves while holding up a tarp from blowing over in the storm. This is the night Mathias knew would come when I said how can we contrive more challenge and he said just wait. Wait for the mountains, because the mountains know just what you need.
In our little humility we forget so easily that what is undisclosed still exists. That Antisana still lords over us on clouded nights. We follow bearings and tales, which are something like faith, and ‘we walk into that which we cannot yet see.’ We arrive at a skinny watershed which upends my predictions of how the map will appear in the world. Do students need to know what they are looking for in order to find it?
In this porous landscape, dreams are more ready to come through us. The emerging of forms and re-merging of shroud are persistent reminders of how distant triangulations and clouded peaks lead us if we let them still live unseen. What is being present? we ask on the semester. How can dreaming also be being present? What else can I dream, here in the days when anything is still possible?
The day after the storm is a day of splendor and slowness. We pass high above Muertepungo (the gate of death), the matte glinting of the flat lake under slanting white sun and truenos secos, altos, revolving. The too-hot sun beats down as guayaba jelly’s spread for tortilla lunch and everything is too much here—altura, rainclouds, burning heat. The sun has its own word for too much—un solazo. But we’re just creatures of divined extremes—we ourselves create the too-muchness of the steep volcanic slope, the too-wetness of the floodplain otherwise barren. Thomas says that going to the mountain is going to the source—of minerals, of water, of whatever it is that is more than minerals and water. The mountain is alive—breathing, growing, shedding, dispensing, falling—at the scale of hundreds of millions of years. It takes a whole year for a single snowflake to become part of the glacier. We need to find a place where we and the mountain can meet, we need to slow down. If it takes us 40 minutes to put on crampons so they don’t fall off on the glacier, so be it. We live a miniature second of this mountain’s life, imagine formulating an idea of another person on that basis. What else moves inside us vaster and slower than our own perception?
We arrive at el filo del glaciar (the sharpness, the edge) through broken, moonscape moraine. This is the most unsurvivable place I have visited, every aspect of being contending with our presence. The glacier is a whitewater rapid moving at slow speed, and we climb with crampons and ice axes in the deep fissures of ice where it cracks over a changing gradient. This place could so easily make us nothing. This unbearable gleam, imperative motion.
‘Close your eyes and hear the light sing:
This day resounds in your inner ear.
Close your eyes and open them. There is no one, not even yourself. Whatever isn’t rock is light.’ (Octavio Paz, Piedra Nativa; trans. NS)
The task, through practice and persistent appearance, is to become someone amidst this environment; to enter into relation and not be taken. It’s a devastating cansansio espiritual returning to base camp below the moraine, and I can’t take for granted that a livable world will receive me below. In the evening, I crouch in the humid kitchen tent making egg drop soup with Hyim and Tikko, encountering again the ideas and excitements which make us more than bodies against ice. We create ourselves again in the evening, so made from rock flour water and circles of song.
On the second day of glacier school we form rope teams and traverse high on the snow field, sliding down and self-arresting and carving out a sample of snowpack to test for avalanche potential. This entrance feels graver than the play at the toe and I come into a dreamscape where frequently throughout these days I feel a vivid recollection that this life has been anticipated in dreams. Before dinner Tikko teaches a round: [They say that when we die, we go back to the mountain They say that when we die, we go back to the sea] [The mountain when it is not longer a mountain goes back to the sea.] [When the flesh dies, it goes to the mountain; when the sea dies it goes to the mountain.]
A good expedition requires us to become different. The experience demands that we be no longer the same. This was the threatening imperative that the mountain shared only by its presence and by my proximity to it. Behind cloud, the volcano’s apparent disappearance was nearly a relief.
On our layover day, we bathe naked in the milky, silty chill of Antisana’s frigid stream, in the slurping debris of rains millions of years old. This education is about developing will—the will to open our eyes and get out of bed, the will to step into the stream, the will to climb and climb and climb. To say that the sky is clearing, they say ‘sabe despejar’ (it knows how to clear), as if knowing how to do and doing were not so fraught. Through impelling and example, we lend our will force to students in the cultivation of their own. On the mountain, every slow activity—drinking water, pausing to pee, looking up from your feet—becomes a test to trench out the will.
‘Quiero un lugar difícil como la poesía’ (Cuadra, Inauguración de los Andes por Dios)/ ‘I want a place, hard, like poetry.’ I said to myself at first that, faced with the toe of the glacier, I would rather not forget a pen than an ice axe. But can poetry possibly be as difficult as this? Is poetry also just the most possible route between here and another (far, vast, improbable) place?
We spend one day preparing to retrieve the next, sleeping at 5 to wake at 10:30 for a push towards the summit. ‘The nights cut with frigid knife the splendor of the day—the day that is ours if we are there to retrieve it tomorrow.’ (Neruda, Fin de Fiesta XI, trans. NS)
With bellies of machica and upturned hot water bottles to prevent freezing, we hike through the dark moraine and warm subsuming fog. It’s clear at the toe that a rope team of students aren’t well enough to continue, and I turn back with them, tracking faint footprints for an hour through the midnight dust. When they duck into their tents, I feel vigilant of the night, witness to a quiet radio and occasional distant traces of lanterns on the mountain as heat lightning flashes over the Amazon on the jungle slopes of Antisana.
In the morning the group returns short of the col after finding unstable snow conditions. The languid next day, Griffin asks me for a blank of cherry wood I brought from New Hampshire and he carves a spoon. I write him a poem in return.
Ode to Griffin’s Spoon
This day is a spoon
shaved out of world’s earthness.
Found, like the morning,
and made, purposefully,
more practical, beautiful, and less
than it always might be.
Vast frozen waters press around us
pushing to flow through us.
Amidst hanging sheets and humbling heights
I thank whatever carries only so much,
whatever lets the waters of unimaginable mountains
overflow its slender oiled sides, saying—
this is what I have to hold.
I thank this spoon like I thank words
that can only say so much
and leave the rest in the bowl.
But sometimes we set down by our side
in the grass the spoon
of the day
with its quantity and routine
its wooden rootedness
without regard for darkness, ice, or the lip of capability
and grasp in our hands the bowl
of this earth’s impossible song
Copyright 2018 Honora Spicer
to drink from it straight. The difference now, looking at the glacier, is that it is no longer a sublime and mysterious snow cap, supreme representative of awe and inaccessibility. It is a place, possibly for me. This is education—allowing the inaccessible to become a place to enter into, allowing the mysterious to be a slate awaiting route- finding. What a task is route-finding—the ability first to imagine ourselves in a place other than where we are, to have faith in our means to get there, and (with something like hope) to visualize the way.
At best, there comes a time for instructors to follow behind students. On the first day of the small group solos, I have to climb high on a windy loma to track a group that followed a ravine into a farther valley. How can we be ready to find our students on routes we had never considered? Is teaching even about always being ready?
The paja of the páramo is completely consuming of whatever we don’t guard as our own. On the first mountain expedition a month ago, paja was the landscape of loss, el paisaje de la pérdida. The ciénaga (swamp) reminds me of ‘ciego’ (blindness), such life lost below my ankles. All plants are tough and low and lay bare normal tragedies—a contorted sheep skeleton with matted curls and a vacant grin, a leathery carcass of a toro paralyzed by a lightning bolt mid-gallop. This time we are also vultures in a place of recollection—we find patas de conejo, plumas de condor, bull horns, nipple-tipped hongos. I follow my student group with Tupak, who is called Gato because of his clear eyes. Crossing over an expansive saddle to find our group, Gato encounters trapped in the swamp the skeleton of a cow in the midst of parir (giving birth, becoming two). He says how quickly can one feel desolate here. When he returns to the tent it strikes me more how easily we enable each other to not be alone. This is what is real—this morning of my life sitting amidst misty páramo with Cotopaxi and Sincholagua refusing to be seen, chocolate caliente a la altura on the whisperlite stove, the day announcing itself as calm and forgiving. A day as quiet as we allow it to be.
At sea, Gato can see so far in the distance, can count 30 venado miles away and finds our student group inching as a black speck on yellow hills. This requires not only knowing what moves, but having looked close and long enough to know what is still. Looking hard into the distance is a skill. I realize that we so rarely ask our eyes (hearts) to look as far as they can possibly possibly see. Perhaps that is what this last dream-time of semester is for.