Hempton wakes me from an afternoon nap later that day, noting that the birds and insects have gotten louder. “I think we might have a break in the weather,” he says, smiling from under his red and white umbrella. We hike up the trail to a small creek running into Upper Palisades Lake, which Hempton noted as having remarkable tuning.
He equips me with a set of earphones and two microphones on a portable stand, positioned to mimic the distance between my two ears.
“Have fun,” he says. “Just experiment.” I head off to create my own sound portrait—the audio equivalent of a photo essay.
The scrape of my raingear screams in my ears as I walk toward the small creek, and I immediately understand why Hempton—dressed in a pair of brown canvas pants, an army-green cotton vest, and cotton layers—wears all natural fibers, no matter the weather. Even his equipment bag and backpack are heavy cotton canvas.
Carefully, I poke the microphones into crevices and hollows between mossy rocks. I am transfixed by all of the intricacies I’ve never heard. Every inch of the creek carries its own distinct sounds: whooshing, flushing, crisp rat-a-tats, hollow plunkings. I continue downhill, and the creek grows louder, losing some of its delicate finesse as the angle steepens. I stop, muddy and smiling, at the lake. As a professional mountain guide and climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, I spend more than half of my year in the backcountry. I’ve appreciated the thrumming of a sage grouse and the tinkle of aspen leaves shaken by the breeze. But this is an awakening.
“How long do you think that took?” asks Hempton.
“Thirty minutes?” I guess.
“More than an hour,” he says. Losing sense of time is one of the reasons Hempton always records alone, not tied to anyone else’s schedule.
“If you’ve only got two hours, forget it,” he says. “That’s like saying, ‘Honey, I’ve got two minutes, let’s make love.’”
Back at camp, over tea, we recount some of the creek sounds (and the frequent interruption of airplanes). The gurgling water and rustling wind I recorded today are obviously anything but silent. “You’re right,” Hempton says. There is no such thing as true silence. The whole world vibrates.”
But the absence of sound isn’t really the goal. While “silence” makes a great buzzword, what Hempton really wants might best be described as sound preserves, places where you can listen to nature’s vibrations without interruption.
“Man-made noise is an emission that’s being dumped into the most sensitive areas in the country,” he says.
For Hempton, the solution is simply a matter of getting people to tune into the wilderness and recognize that what they hear should be treated like endangered species. “Hikers know the serenity this brings better than anybody,” he says.
The sky clears on our last night, and before going to bed, Hempton predicts, “Dawn should bring a wonderful listening opportunity. It’ll be clear, and the birds will have a pent-up need to reestablish territories.” That’s a need Hempton can appreciate.
Visit Mt. Rainier’s silent side. >> Get there From Enumclaw, take WA 40 33 miles southeast to the White River Entrance Station. Go 10.5 miles up the winding road to the parking lot for Sunrise Point. >> Permit Required (free for walk-ups, $20 reserved). Pick up at the White River Entrance Station or Sunrise Visitor Center. Make reservations from March 15 through September 30 (see contact). >> Guidebook and map Day Hiking Mount Rainier, by Dan A. Nelson and Alan L. Bauer ($17, mountaineersbooks.org); Trails Illustrated Mount Rainer National Park #217 ($12, natgeomaps.com) >> Access On October 14, the road closes at the junction with WA 410. It typically reopens by July 1. >> Bears Pack bear-bag gear and hang food 10 feet off the ground and four feet from the tree. >> Contact (360) 569-6575; nps.gov/mora