Meet the Musical Mountaineers, Serenaders of Wilderness
You can listen, but you probably can’t find these Sasquatch-esque troubadours
Rose Freeman and Anastasia Allison think nothing of waking up in the dead of night and hauling a violin and a piano up a snowy mountain. Once they find the right spot for a serenade, they each change into full-length recital gowns and break the solemn silence by beginning to play just as the sun appears. The two women call themselves the Musical Mountaineers, and they perform in remote wilderness settings for the sheer joy of it all.
Skilled hikers and mountain climbers as well as classically trained musicians, Freeman, 27, and Allison, 38, both live in the Seattle area, although they only met recently. “I was a former park ranger who had become a railroad police officer for BNSF railway, and a lifelong musician who’s always had a dream of pursuing an adventure-inspired life but was very afraid to do so,” explains Allison. She did, however, know that she loved playing her violin outdoors. As a ranger at Washington’s Twanoh State Park, “I used to patrol the campground with my violin, and I would go from campsite to campsite playing simple hymns and fiddle songs,” she says. “I found that [campers] were much more likely to be quiet at night and behave.”
Anastasia Allison | Photo courtesy of Rose Freeman
Following a near-fatal car accident, Allison began taking stock of her life, which led to a revelation: “I was lying in bed one night, and I had this vision come into my head from nowhere, and it just said: Go play your violin on the summit of a mountain.”
Not too far away, Freeman was also nurturing a fantasy of making music in the wilderness. She had grown up camping with her family, developing a strong connection to nature that became intertwined with music. “When I took piano lessons as a child, I loved to open the back door and hear the birds sing,” she recalls. Studying piano in college entailed long days sequestered in the practice room. “I suffered from migraines, and they were so bad that I ended up in the hospital a couple of times,” Freeman says. “I found a lot of relief from mental and physical ailments through being outside.” After graduation, she decided to become a piano teacher and also found time to join a mountaineering club, picking up skills in rock and glacier climbing.
Rose Freeman | Photo courtesy of Anastasia Allison
When the pair met, they were amazed to discover they essentially shared the same dream. “Rose and I were sort of on parallel journeys simultaneously,” Allison says. “It felt like a lightning-bolt moment.” Freeman agrees: “I’d always wanted to play piano outside, but I never wanted to do it on my own, and I didn’t think it would be possible to play on a summit,” she says. “When Anastasia and I met, I realized that I could buy a 76-key keyboard and put it in my backpack.” Together, they chose a suitable location (in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest area of the North Cascades) and set off on September 1, 2017, for their first dawn performance.
“We were perched on these granite rocks at sunrise, overlooking this valley, and we both had gowns on, and it felt like something out of a dream,” Allison remembers. “But then the reality of it is we were in the backcountry, and we were by this partially frozen lake, and the bugs were outlandish.” Freeman adds, “It was a blend of emotions—an overwhelming gratefulness to be able to play my piano out there at over 5,000 feet in the wilderness, but also very uncomfortable—my eyelids swelled shut the following day because of how many bites I had on my face.”
The duo had no particular intention to repeat the experience. “It was really just a one-day kind of idea,” Freeman explains. “I actually told Anastasia on the way down, ‘I’m never doing this again,’ because the backpack was upwards of 50 pounds and it was just so painful.” But that first concert had fulfilled their shared aspiration and made for a powerful emotional moment for both women. “I got home that day on a high, and I just couldn’t stop crying,” Allison recalls.
When Freeman and Allison posted the video of their concert online, they were overwhelmed by the response. “Within the first several weeks, we had people reach out to us who had listened to it while coping with intense grief,” Allison says. Viewers reported that the performance had triggered intense feelings of peace, healing, or happiness. The musicians quickly understood the profound transformative power—both within themselves and upon others—of the wilderness concert experience they had created.
Photo courtesy of Skye Stoury
Since then, they’ve performed in 32 different backcountry locations in the Pacific Northwest and California. By now they have a routine: After a careful check of the weather and the avalanche conditions, they pack all their gear the night before each concert—sheet music, instruments, piano, stand, cameras, batteries, food, water, and the 3D binaural microphone they’ve dubbed “Ludwig.” (In winter they add snowshoes and mittens.) The pair then switch on their head lamps and start hiking—usually eight to 10 miles round-trip, but they’ve gone as far as 12, with a 4,000-foot elevation gain—to reach just the right spot for a concert before daybreak.
Then, they pay tribute to the brand-new day with a song. “We’ll often choose a piece based on the feel of the environment and let that landscape shape the music that’s played,” Allison explains. “We do a lot of improvisation now, and we have these incredible original compositions that almost feel like a collaboration with nature.” She means that literally: The two musicians embrace the happy accident of ambient sounds—wind, rain, or the chirp of pikas, birds, or marmots.
By design, their concerts are unannounced and seldom have an audience. The musicians adhere to a strict “leave no trace” ethic, with only the echoes of their songs lingering. “You probably won’t find us,” Allison says. “We joke that it’s akin to finding Sasquatch in the wilderness.” Freeman and Allison usually only encounter fellow hikers (and the occasional curious bear) once they’re packed up and heading back down the mountain.
<>In sharing videos of their powerful yet ephemeral performances, the Musical Mountaineers hope to encourage others to pursue whatever their own personal “music” happens to be. “Sunrises and music are a universal language,” Allison says. “Our mission is to use that combination to bring more light into the world, and to encourage other people to follow their heart and blaze their own trail.”