ROCKPORT — On a moonlit October morning, Rose Freeman is a quarter of the way up a 5,541-foot mountain when she pauses to ask: “Did I forget my dress?”
She drops her monstrous backpack. Out comes a Yamaha digital piano with 76 keys. Freeman roots around in the pack by headlamp. She definitely remembers grabbing her coat back at the car, she says. But she’s used to packing at home, instead of shoving in the keyboard at the trailhead; and with a 3 a.m. alarm, the dress wasn’t the first thing on her mind.
“Oh, OK, here it is! We’re good!”
Twenty-six switchbacks twist up the west face of Sauk Mountain, a well-worn trail to a spiny steeple of rock a mile above the Skagit River valley. This is the shortest, easiest hike Freeman, 26, and her friend Anastasia Allison, 37, have done together. On the summit the two of them will shed their hiking clothes behind a tall rock, change into recital attire, and make music for a massive audience. Among those on the guest list are Baker, Blum, Jack, Watson, Whitehorse and the Pickets.
In daylight you can see the crags of Sauk from the parking lot, but sunrise isn’t for another hour. An orange, egg-shaped harvest moon sinks toward the distant lights of Concrete in the valley. A white mist traces the chilly Skagit River, as it wanders the blue-green forest and farmland. It’s a perfect, clear day.
Freeman lugs the pack onto her shoulders again. Jutting 7 feet above the ground is the Yamaha Piaggero, “a grand piano you can take wherever you go,” “ultra-portable” at just under 13 pounds, according to the ad copy. In all, Freeman hauls 45 pounds on her back — a keyboard stand, a sustain pedal, the bulky camera gear and the usual essentials — about the weight she carried on a climb of Mount Baker in summer.
Allison, of Everett, brings a violin that belonged to her grandmother, a pianist from Long Island. Her name was Rose, too. Allison played duets with her grandma until strokes robbed her of her memory and musical abilities. The last tune they played together was a folk song, “Ashokan Farewell.” It was the first song Allison played on a mountain with Freeman.
This is the fourth time the pair has packed their instruments up to a peak. Each adventure has brought its own challenges. Strings go out of tune fast in cool, thin air. On Mount Dickerman, blustery winds blew around their sheet music and long skirts. On another summit the breeze was light, but bugs took advantage and swarmed Freeman’s face. She tried to swat elegantly as she played, because they were recording a video for YouTube. She later counted 30 bites, some in her eyelids.
“My face swelled up like a balloon,” Freeman says.
“She sent me a picture the next day,” Allison says, “and her eyes were barely even open.”
The Musical Mountaineers don’t announce where they’re going. They arrive at trailheads before sunrise on weekdays. Other than a family member or a reporter, they’ve never had a live audience. A few times when Freeman has been descending the trail, a hiker asked if the keyboard stand on her back is an ironing board, as if it makes more sense to go into the woods at sunrise on a Thursday to do a little ironing.
Freeman, a music teacher from Bothell, makes her own schedule. She’s one of the lucky few who can day-hike on weekday mornings with regularity. Allison has free time, too. She left her job and an $80,000 salary a few months ago, she says, when she decided she could make a living as an adventure guide, blogger, podcast host and outdoor clothing designer. Her husband is a trainmaster and he can support both of them, but she says she still questions her sanity about 400,000 times a day.
“When you jump off into something like this, you have to have a level of belief and faith in yourself that is so unshakable, and it took me a long time to get there,” Allison said. “When I started this, I only saw what I was giving up. It got to the point where it was scarier to not do what I love.”
On the way to the summit she tells stories from her past lives as a park ranger and a railroad cop. Allison worked for years at Twanoh State Park north of Olympia. A state budget crunch cost her that dream job. She signed up as a police officer for Burlington Northern, patrolling the railways from Tacoma to Mount Vernon. Sixteen times, she says, she helped to clean up the scene of a horrifying, messy death, when someone got hit by a train. That’s not what led her to quit, though.
In January she went snowshoeing with her mom and her husband near Stevens Pass. On the drive home, her truck hit black ice on an otherwise bare road. The truck fishtailed and spun into the path of an oncoming semi. Allison could not stop. She felt sure they would all die. But the semi whooshed past, inches away. That night Allison broke down in tears.
“It was a sign that I was playing small, and I knew it, and it was a message, a very, very clear message to me, that life is short, it could be gone tomorrow,” Allison says on one of her podcasts, where she has the tone of a motivational speaker. “Are you really, really doing what you want to do in this life? Are you contributing in a way that feels meaningful to you?”
This is the last chance for an easy ascent of Sauk. In two days the route will be dangerous, a few inches deep in slushy ice and snow, with constant exposure for a long fall. Years ago the panoramic foothills of Mount Baker and Glacier Peak were monitored from a fire lookout here. It succumbed to disrepair in the early ’90s, and the Forest Service burned it down. In its flat dirt footprint, the musicians pick a good spot, break out their instruments and set up cameras to catch the show from every angle. It’s impossible to find a bad angle when the sunlight breaks over Whitehorse Mountain like this.
Allison pulls on a pair of embroidered, fingerless gloves. She gently bows the opening melody of Leonard Cohen’s classic, “Hallelujah,” as Freeman arpeggiates the chords on piano. They’re lifelong musicians with classical training. The tunes they play for the mountains are simple. Hymns. “Amazing Grace.” Pop songs with strings.
“Music and the wilderness,” Allison says, “are the two things that really speak to everybody, and can give people hope, even when they feel like they don’t have it. It’s such a powerful expression of who we are, who Rose and I are, as people. It’s a way to connect to other people in a meaningful way, and to share something positive. And it’s something so simple. Yeah, there’s effort in doing this, but it’s just so simple.”
Yet it’s hard to put the meaning of it into words.
“I mean, it’s vulnerable to do something like this,” Freeman says. “Maybe it will encourage other people to listen to who they are, and express themselves in a way that’s unique to them.”
They play for less than an hour. On the drive home they talk about what’s next. Christmas carols in the snow? Or what about playing on the glaciated summit of a 10,000-foot volcano, like Baker or Adams?
Freeman laughs, but Allison is deadpan.
“I’ve thought about it.”
“Have you?” Freeman asks, realizing Allison is serious. “I’d have to get a tinier keyboard.”
They start to make plans. You’d need perfect weather. You’d want a couple of climbers to join the party, to split the weight of ice axes, tents, sleeping pads, and so on.
“Well,” Freeman says, “if you think about it, glacier gear’s not that heavy … ”
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.