Journey up the white mountain

PART ONE: DARKNESS TO DAWN

The moon was a glowing oval high overhead, a streetlamp casting clarity on Mt. Diablo’s North Peak. I looked out my driver’s-side window. A mile away, the north ridge of Perkin’s Canyon descended like a waterfall of tarnished silver. Below, shielded from the moon, the canyon was dark. Above, the peak’s ragged mass took me in tow.

Many who make the pre-dawn drive from Brentwood to Clayton along Marsh Creek Road have seen North Peak lit by the moon. This was different. The previous night’s rain had crossed paths with low mercury. The two had danced a drowsy samba in a late-night club named Diablo, dusted the place white. In the darkness an hour before sunrise, the moon was shining. And the mountain was shining back.

Diablo gets dusted nearly every winter, but rarely has the mountain’s Junction Weather Station deemed a snowfall deep enough to record. By dawn on Saturday, February 18, 2006 the unofficial mark was three to four inches at the summit, decreasing to a trace at the 1,500-foot level. The best news: the storm had passed. When at 5:30 a.m. I stepped outside to defrost the car and saw Jupiter burning in a scrubbed sky, I knew that we in Contra Costa County would be given a rare treat: a Saturday to play in the snow of our own back yard.

As I rolled into Clayton and looked left, low above the slope of North Peak a light was escaping from a small hole punctured into the sheet metal of night, as if heaven were blazing behind it. Were the puncture larger, this light, this Venus, would have blinded all who looked on it.

I left the car, dropped down a gully and headed south into Donner Canyon and the mountain’s northern approach. Broad ribbons of clouds, high and thin, tinged pink along their eastern edges, cut diagonally across Diablo’s silhouette, motionless. The stillness drifted down and settling into the canyon like a presence. The silence of expectancy.

An hour earlier, lacing up my hiking boots, I’d wondered about the condition of the trail. The lower elevations had shipped water a few hours earlier. This could be a sloppy climb. As I entered the canyon I smiled – glazing the trail was the thinnest layer of frost, a billion crystalline surfaces reflecting the paling sky. Magical footing.

I left the wide road trail and hopped onto the single-file Hetherington Trail, crossed a wood-slat footbridge spanning Donner Creek and began the ascent toward the snow. At the tips of long, tender needles of white pine hugging the path hung single drops of water like miniature Christmas tree ornaments. One more fording of the creek – this time by hopscotching the rocks – and I found myself loping, racing against the clock. The sun would be rising soon.

I hooked up with the Donner Canyon Road trail again and then Meridian Ridge Road, hoofing it, hoping to get a clear view of North Peak at the moment of incandescent truth. A quarter mile past Meridian Point, at the 1,600-foot level, I reached the snow line.

Then I saw them. Embossed in the deepening snow were two sets of coyote track alongside the track of a single deer, all created a few hours earlier after the snowfall had ended. They tattooed the steepening trail for a couple hundred yards. Then, at the 2,200-foot level, something had happened. The deer, perhaps sensing danger, had hooked sharply left up into the dense sage and chamise, and was gone. One coyote had peeled off and followed. The other had kept to the road trail. Were the predators working as a team? Whatever drama of flight or fight occurred up here would not be mine to know.

Ahead in the west, like a balloon about to be popped, the argent Moon was sinking into a cluster of dead manzanita branches. Without warning, the snow on the branches turned the color of Moon. I wheeled on my heel and there it was: sunlight setting afire the mountain’s crown.

PART TWO: FARTHER UP, FURTHER IN

I had my trail and the moon had hers. When she rose in the east, a pearlescent snail inching up her stalk of sky, I was preparing for bed. Eight hours later, as I climbed Mt. Diablo’s Meridian Ridge at the cusp of darkness and dawn, I saw that she had crossed the balance point of her stalk. It had bent under her weight, lowering her toward the hills in the west.

Unlike the moon, I’d yet to reach my zenith. Starting at 530 feet above sea level in Clayton, less than an hour before sunrise, I’d climbed to 2,200 feet. My goal was North Peak, 3,557. If half the elevation was behind me, ahead was the hardest half – and the most fun. The mountain was covered with snow.

Sunlight was beginning to spill over the brim of Prospector’s Gap and flood the snow-streaked crest of Eagle Peak, the western citadel of the Diablo massif. Earlier in the week I had climbed the peak on a green and glowing afternoon, full of the promise of spring, and found a cluster of violet blossoms called “naked broomrape” growing out of the rocks at the pinnacle. Now, clad in warm layers, gazing at the peak clad in snow, I wondered if the flowers would survive.

At Murchio Gap I cut back toward the sun and began the trudge up Bald Ridge. Now came the serious part: narrow, steep and rocky in places, with deepening snow. I pulled the hard rubber cap off the end of my walking stick and inspected the five-toothed metal tip beneath. Good to go.

From a distance, Bald Ridge seems to live up to its name. Up close, you discover that the ridge has hair. This morning the hair – chamise, sage and ceanothus – was as white as my grandfather’s. I smiled at the sight of ceanothus, hoping it would entertain later hikers. Ceanothus is a chest-high shrub that puts out a profusion of tightly-packed spherical clusters of flowers. White flowers. When the snow melted off, the ceanothus would masquerade as snow.

The sun wouldn’t be melting down Bald Ridge anytime soon. Every branch crowding the trail was topped with a high crest of snow, flake on flake forming a crystalline house of cards. Running those gauntlets was an exercise in ducking down, fending off obstructing branches – and getting doused. There was more snow on my back than on my shoes.

After Bald Ridge, on the way up North Peak, I drank in the receding ripples of Morgan Territory, Los Vaqueros and Del Valle to the southeast, greens and blues bleached in the sun’s low light. Behind me spread Napa, Solano and Marin counties and a view of hundreds of thousands of people waking up to a view of me standing on the mountain’s white battlements.

It’s strange how the original goal – the peak experience – can pale in significance to the journey to the peak. Or the journey back. On my way down, on Middle Trail, clumps of melting snow were falling off a million limbs, branches, stems, twigs. I stopped and closed my eyes. I could have been at the ocean listening to the seethe of receding surf. I could have been caught under a squall line listening to the hiss of the gentlest of hailstorms. I had gone up the mountain to see. What I’ll remember forever is what I heard.

Farther down, below the snow line, I heard another sound. In that place it was as strange as the music of the melting snow: human voices. Ten minutes later I saw a string of children followed by herding parents coming my way. Five kids, four adults. One of the men was carrying a saucer sled. I stepped off the narrow trail to let them through. 

“How far to the snow?” the man asked.

I made a quick calculation based on the little ones’ strides. “About 30 minutes,” I said. “And you’ll have some good snowball fights up there. Perfect packing.”

“All right!” he said.

And I thought: yes – up there, down here, all around us. All right.