Terry Gifford is founding Director of the International Festival of Mountaineering Literature, Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester, UK, and Profesor Honorario at the University of Alicante, Spain. His books include The Unreliable Mushrooms: New and Selected Poems (Redbeck, 2003) and Reconnecting With John Muir (University of Georgia Press, 2006).
Climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon
—for Jeff McCarthy
It was how we came upon that canyon
resting between winter and spring,
snow late and deep in the shade,
sun working on the reddening rocks
farside, rising to Utah heat innocent
as yet on edges that cut summer shimmers.
No handcarts, no tablets we’d own to yet,
although we shared something unspoken
to even be here, post-holing off the road,
"first this season" to our rock route,
you said, in Little Cottenwood Canyon
stepping off snow to a cold, sharp ridge.
Happy for you to lead, I fisted perfect cracks
in the Promised Land I’d heard about
in England, looked out across the canyon
deepening pitch by pitch until I, too,
was a member of the choir in that tabernacle
pioneered by legendary elders with names like
Royal Robbins, George Lowe, Mark McQuarrie.
When McQuarrie fell, the rock cut his rope,
unforgiving as it ever was and will be lest
we lose our respect for this land and its laws.
"He died near the door of the Mormon Archives"
I read in one of the books of our archives.
Even next day in Big Cottonwood Canyon,
when I was too fat, frankly, to get off the ground,
first route, something easier was found
for the sinner losing respect for his body
but welcomed into this light-hearted community
that would deny it was any kind of a religion.
Watching Bald Eagles on my 59th Birthday
—for Michael and Valerie Cohen
was present enough
leaving the cabin
high on hope,
the bird hunter
a year older
low on ambition
up the needle slope
firm on the friction
of the bald dome.
the old eagle
on its white snag
postage stamp still
with eye and
it throws back
its shaggy head
beak open, emits
four needle stabs,
spaced icy cries
echoing over the lake.
Then, see, the lake
is green now,
not night blue,
in its glacial bowl
moraine boulder blocked
spotted with pines.
More reveals more:
the redwing blackbird
pings its three bells.
Above cars coming
into the wooden town
plays its xylophone
up the scale
and human voices
share this birthday,
rising from the still lake:
families boat fishing.
Even the dead juniper
mimes its many armed
while lodgepole pines
smoke their pollen
on a new breeze.
So many gifts
unwrapping each other