Brigadoon

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour. (William Blake)

For better and worse, Gothic is no longer the Brigadoon of the West Elk Mountains. Located in the Scottish Highlands, an enchantment froze the original Brigadoon in time, rendering it invisible and protecting it from change. The mists lifted once a century. Visitors were allowed in, but departures would cause the village to disappear forever.

Decades ago, the number of visitors passing beyond Gothic for an entire winter could be counted in the tens. Now, on sunny days with no avalanche hazard, the track to Gothic is a skiers’ highway, with upwards of a hundred individuals daily. However, a visit to Gothic in winter still involves piercing a veil of snow to reach the edge of a hidden world. Inaccessible by car and largely closed to snowmobiles, the journey can be as simple as a 45-minute ski along a well-trodden track. But when the big storms roll in, Gothic recedes, and the journey extends.

Drifting through the atmospheric boundary layer, individually snowflakes are harmless and beautiful. But until they settle and bond with earlier snow layers, those quaint snowflakes can collectively turn into a seething mass, rushing downhill at speeds up to hundreds of miles an hour and sweeping away all in their path. So some journeys to Gothic start with days of waiting. And once you get started in fresh snow, it is slow going. No glide on the flats. No slide on the downhills. Rather, you punch one foot in front of another, displacing pounds of snow with each step.

The snowpack approaches 10 feet deep in Gothic. You are grateful if there is an easy path into the cabins. It becomes clear why some of the older cabins have outdoor stairs to the second floor. The value of placing building entrances away from where snow slides off roofs becomes obvious as does the futility of constantly replacing cabin decks subject to continual roof avalanches.

Arrival in Gothic is just the start of peering into the hidden world. The next stage is learning to see. Approach the willow cautiously; the ptarmigan will kick their feet, slowly disappearing in the snow, to avoid being seen. Those slide paths in fresh snow on the cabin roofs? Pine martens enjoying first tracks on a powder day, taking some time away from terrorizing squirrels. That bouncing black dot? The black tip of an otherwise all-white weasel on the hunt for voles navigating the thermal layers of the snowpack.

The adjoining article captures how professor Dr. Pat Magee has regularly introduced classes from Western Colorado University to this hidden world. With generous support of our donors, and assistance from the National Science Foundation, RMBL has created a human outpost – cabins supporting up to 40 scientists, students, and staff, along with running water, internet, and most importantly, a knowledge and practice of safe passage into this world of snow.

The irony of being an explorer is that our success destroys that which draws us; our arrival lifts the veil of the unknown. Decades ago, the world had the luxury of a hidden Gothic. But as the importance of understanding and managing the world has become ever more critical, the importance of Gothic as an outpost for students and scientists in a world of snow has emerged. The mists have lifted. Surrounded by a protected landscape that will never be open to convenient travel, arrival in Gothic will always involve a journey. And the lifting of the mists is an enchantment that brings environmental knowledge to the world, acting on individuals as a snowflake floating to earth. But collectively those individuals, the next generation of environmental leaders and scientists, are an avalanche that is transforming how we see and manage the world.

To learn more about Gothic in winter, click on the link for the video of billy barr as The Snow Guardian.