The air was calm…and red.
“Here come the goats,” said Jen.
I looked to her voice and saw a herd of mountain goats marching down the moraine in front of our camp, dropping from the high-high country to the high-country, a place with some protection, a place with some stunted trees to huddle next to.
It was dusk and I was in an alpine meadow filled with lupine, taking photos of thunderstorm cells that were streaking by to the south.
Looking behind me, I saw thunderheads that weren’t there ten minutes before.
Oh shit, I thought. This might be a wild ride.
NOAA had predicted a 20% chance of thunderstorms on Thursday, 40% on Friday; acceptable odds for a quick summer backpacking trip in the southern Cascades. But sometime between Thursday afternoon and Friday night, sometime when we were tramping around on the flanks of Mt. Adams out of cell service, unplugged from the world, NOAA issued a severe weather statement that was so dire that the local radio stations played it on air.
Obviously, we didn’t get the memo.
We were camped at timberline, right around 6,400′. We tucked into a little tree copse, but there wasn’t anything else around our little island but dirt, rocks, flowers, and that pack of mountain goats. We weren’t the highest thing around, but we weren’t fully protected either. I walked back to camp and started anchoring things down: anything that could blow away, would. I checked the tarp tent stakes, gave all the guylines a good yank, and climbed inside just as giant raindrops started to fall.
I can’t explain in words or show in pictures how the next three hours went. You’d only really understand if you have been caught in a violent thunder and lightning storm, at night, a little higher and a little more exposed than you’d like to be, with a dog who doesn’t like loud noises and a brand new backpacking partner, in an untested tent, at the mercy of something much, much larger than yourself.
It was thrilling, tense, a little scary at times; but it was also cozy, unbelievable, and one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I laughed, I trembled, I squeezed my eyes shut and plugged my ears, I held my dog tight until he eventually calmed and went to sleep on my chest.
The rain and wind stopped at midnight. I climbed out of the tent to see the clouds parting to reveal Mt. Adams in the moonlight and thousands of stars. The storm continued to rage to the west, the silhouette of Mt. Rainier defined by each crack of lighting. I grabbed my camera and set it on a wet log, taking some long exposures to see if I could catch a lightening cluster. Photos can’t do it justice – my photos, at least. It was the feeling that caught me and shook me. Bearing witness to this incredible beauty and rage. The feeling of being small and feeling grateful.