The living gallery of a summer sunrise

by Brett Keegan

Shortly after five in the morning, a sun still buried behind the hills threads a paper-thin line across a level horizon. It’s a hazy shade of red, fragile and alone in the black space spattered by stars. Four hikers—three high school students and a forester, a father to one member of the group—wait for it to finish its climb, as they watch from Mount Marcy’s summit. Hiking in the middle of summer, they nevertheless wear winter coats, long jeans, and wool hiking socks. Still, they shiver.

At 5,344 feet, the wind is ruthless. Around them, gusts and alpine climate blast plants into stubby patches, cracks sheltering roots and veins of frigid water. Slick lichen drink in clouds parting against the peak, and red and green patches of moss pockmark the clean gray granite. Here, air has a clean taste, faintly metallic—like a garden after a thunderstorm, when fire and rain have sterilized the air.

The sun continues its invisible ascent. The ruddy horizon line thickens.

Watching, the hikers recall the climb, rubbing their cold joints. Woken by an alarm at midnight, they groped in the darkness for headlamps. Fatigue lingered on their eyelids. The air burned with cold. No one wanted to leave his warm bag and brave the four-hour hike.

After a flutter of moments, their lights pierced the thick shadow, revealing the rough-hewn supports holding together their lean-to and the sprawling collection of gear they backpacked four miles in with.

“Good morning,” they whispered.

Within a few minutes, they hit the trail. Boulders and cobbles jutted from the slick mud, threatening to turn an ankle, snag a lace, or trip a careless step, especially in the limited light of their bouncing headlamps. This took them through the corridors of forest, until they hit slopes of granite, thick alpine moss, and dwarfed evergreens subsisting on thin soil, the end of the tree line.

When they passed their final larch—a struggling tree clawing across the ground—they lost the tree line’s guiding walls and had to leapfrog from one trail marker to another. One scouted ahead with a flashlight, while the other three waited. When the scout shouted back, the three moved forward to the next marker, following the light. Doing this, they snaked up the steep path, until they found shelter behind a boulder on the summit.

Besides the four hikers, the summit is bare. Mt. Marcy or “Cloud Splitter,” the tallest mountain in New York State, draws many summer visitors, but few brave a nocturnal climb and beat the sun’s rays to the summit. It’s hard enough: rocky, steep, and cold—marked off as an experts’ trail—but the hikers wanted more. Something about being the first to see the sun in New York State or being 5,000 feet closer to the clouds brought them. Just as one visits the Louvre in Paris or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, not content with photographs, the hikers needed to make the climb.

Along the horizon, the line grows into a ruddy brushstroke, its hue staining the space above it bruised green. The sky looks two-dimensional, a living Rothko drawn from the depths of a black canvas. The stars retreat. Points give way to layers of orange, and green, and black.

In time, light claws over the ground, liberated from its two-dimensional prison, and spreads. Distant mountaintops, cast like islands among the clouds, crawl from the darkness. Peaks scar the horizon, turned to silhouetted layers by valleys, a frozen sea for giants filled with arching waves of granite and savage crests of pointed peaks. Light and shadow dye the earth blue. Ghostly clouds and threads of steam braid the valleys like pools of foam.

With a caution that borders on stillness, a red point forms on the horizon. A mountain disturbs the lower portion, turning the sun into a downward-facing crescent. Dimmed by a layer of clouds, it shimmers like a flashlight through murky water. It picks itself up from the other side of the earth, transforming into a circle suspended between the jagged mountains and a level line of clouds.

It breaches this split horizon, and light fills the air. The moon sinks and dissolves. The wind continues to drag its icy body along the peak, but the sun counters its grip with a flood of new warmth. In silence, the hikers flash photographs as their limbs thaw. One stands, his back to the group, and joins the skyline as a silhouette—nothing above him, the world spread out below. It was worth the climb, they think, looking at the living gallery of nature.

5 replies »

  1. Neat. I’ve hiked at night exactly once (trying, and ultimately falling just short due to altitude sickness, to summit a Fourteener in Colorado), and it was hard. Luckily it was clear, the trail is well marked, and it was a full moon. It was also crowded, because the mountain in question is popular and everyone who summits in a single day tries to time it for the full moon. I think the next time I try (maybe this year) I’ll do it with less moon. But now I own a headlamp, and that should help quite a bit.

    Congrats to all who went up. Sounds like it was well worth the effort and early morning.

  2. Nice post, Brett. Like Brian, I’ve done it once. Meru, the mountain across from Kilimanjaro. It’s a trip.

    Some good writing skills evident here.

  3. Thanks for all the kind comments! Writing about it made we want to go again. I tend to miss the mountains if I don’t hike for a while. One of my friends who was on this trip just got back from Kilimanjaro. The pictures made me jealous.