Hope, Prayer, and a Whole Lot of Duct Tape

Busted Boots

Dear Will:

We were over 20 miles into a 50+ mile backpacking trip though the Golden Trout Wilderness in the High Sierras. With 35-40 pounds on our backs, we had completed the long, relentless slog up and over New Army Pass (12,300 feet) the day before, and somewhere on the backside of Guyot Pass (10,958 feet) my son, Seth, alerted me to a problem. My boot was coming apart.

I stared in disbelief. Clearly, the sole was detaching itself from the body of the boot, which seemed, upon reflection, sub-optimal to my purpose. I had come to climb Mt. Whitney—at 14,505 feet the highest peak in the contiguous United States—and the thought of doing so with half a left boot was untenable. As we tromped on, I kept rechecking the evidence (the way we do), as if on the fifth or eighth or tenth look I might discover that the previous nine had been an illusion. But a couple of dozen rechecks changed nothing. My foot was kaput.

When we set up camp in Upper Crabtree Meadow that evening, I considered my options, but not for long. The next day was Whitney, an all-day, 15-mile roundtrip requiring a 4,000-foot ascent, after which we would still be over 20 miles and three more mountain passes away from the trailhead. The manifest virtues of duct tape and hope (in that order) notwithstanding, the moment for prudence had clearly arrived. I tried to imagine it: Local Hiker Bags Whitney But Loses His Sole. With the welfare and safety of others directly affected by my actions, I just couldn’t take that chance.

There were 19 of us in total, six adults in various stages of middle-aged “fitness” along with 13 boys from 14 to 18 years old. I was by no means the leader of this expedition (outdoor competence being a necessary prerequisite), but I did feel responsible in a kind of paternal, ecclesiastical sense. And then of course there was Seth. Ten years ago I climbed Whitney with my oldest son, Luke, and while I can’t say that I relished the anticipation of the lung-shrinking climb to the summit, I did look forward to that trophy-shot of the two of us, hands on one another’s shoulders, the Sierra mountains stretching out behind us like a giant’s gnarled molars and bicuspids. Alas, it was not to be.

So the next morning the others began their climb to glory while I stayed behind supervising our campsite. I paced. I fidgeted. I fidgeted and paced. Anxiousness turned to worry as I tried to imagine my little group of intrepid alpinists. I knew, for example, that there are lightning showers every afternoon on Whitney, and if you don’t get off of the summit in time you may unwittingly become a Ben Franklin experiment. So you can imagine my state of mind as the hours passed and the afternoon rains came and my climbers were nowhere in sight. I quickly stowed our gear inside the tents, and then, with no other recourse available, I stowed myself inside as well, feeling helpless and useless as I imagined how I might report my experience later. (“How was your trip?” “In tents.”)

Seven hours. Eight hours. Nine hours passed. I lay in my tent, listening to the steady thrump of rain and praying for the safe return of my companions. Of my son. Finally, ten hours after their departure I heard the first voices. They straggled into camp, bedraggled and exhausted. Finally, over 11 hours after their 7am departure, the last of our group stumbled into camp.  I felt a surge of emotion that surprised me. We were safe. Together. At last.

I do not wish to overstate the significance of this experience for me. But I can tell you truthfully that what I felt that afternoon is not that different from the longing for togetherness—for homecoming—that I feel for you and every other member of the Santiago Creek Ward. I wait. Hoping to hear your voice. Praying for your safe return.

PW

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Please Don’t Tell the Ranger

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Dear Will:

“WARNING!,” the notice read. “EXTREME ALPINE CONDITIONS. The following MINIMUM equipment, experience, procedures and skills strongly recommended by the US Forest Service and County Sheriff’s Department Search & Rescue Teams.” The list included winter mountaineering training, map, ice axes, helmets, alpine boots, and crampons.

We had none of that. But when you agree to go hiking with Bryn, that sort of lack of preparation does not register even as a minor annoyance. “It’ll be fine,” she insisted. “Let’s do it.”

I suppose this is what I unwittingly signed up for 21 years ago when she was born, but it would have been nice in that moment to have come prepared with a suitably exotic Plan B that might have dissuaded her from her purpose. But here’s the thing: Her original intention was to climb Mt. San Gorgonio—alone—at night—so that she could be on the summit at sunrise. That we were intending to climb Mt. San Bernardino in the daytime was Plan B.

How often have we read about people who disregard expert advice and common sense and venture off where they do not belong, only to be airlifted to the hospital to have their frostbitten toes surgically removed? That was about to be us. Or to be more specific: me. Bryn is a fit and fearless dancer and world traveler. I spend my days building PowerPoint decks and hiking to the Men’s Room.

We weren’t even a third of the way to the 10,700-foot summit when the trail became mostly covered in icy snow. We had to rely on the footsteps of previous hikers to mark the way—footsteps gouged with the unmistakable stab-marks of crampons, I might add. It was about that time that we came upon another hiker—decked out in the sort of regalia that would have filled the Ranger with a frisson of joy—who had turned back, she said, because of faulty footwear. It was like one of those allegories you hear in Sunday School about the angel who comes along to warn the unsuspecting of imminent disaster.

(You saw this coming): Nevertheless, we hiked on. On one particularly treacherous side-slope I remember thinking that if I slipped I could very well end up luging all the way to Yucaipa—unless, that is,  I could MacGyver a handbrake out of my ChapStick and a protein bar. Fortunately for me (and my ChapStick) it never came to that. The first time I took a spill was while trying to cross a bunch of manzanita, so rather than becoming a human toboggan I merely sustained a puncture wound to the shoulder and several other bloody scrapes along my left side. That I could handle.

Eventually we lost the trail altogether. We made an earnest attempt to connect up with a different set of footprints in an adjacent gully, but the hiking there proved to be the most taxing of the entire adventure. When we could no longer confidently identify the peak we were supposedly climbing, the following words of Robert Frost passed through my mind:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And they never found my body.

Actually, I’m not sure about that closing line, but I guarantee you my friends would have paid a lot more attention in English class if Frost had written it that way. As it was, I knew that, although I had not reached the summit, I had reached my limit. I begged Bryn for mercy.

Reluctantly, she relented. We had fallen 1000 feet short of our goal, just as (apparently) others had before us. Now the only trick was to retrace our steps. I will skip the humiliating story of the spill I took on the way down that turned my sunglasses into safety goggles and my nose and forehead into hamburger. And on one other detail I will be appropriately brief: We spent most of the day hiking in sunshine across bright, white snow. We carried sunscreen every step of the way. We forgot to use it.

In all we covered over 16 miles of mountain on a difficult yet glorious day. And while my sunburned face seems to be decomposing like something out of that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I have it on good authority that the damage is not likely to be permanent. Except maybe for that gash on the bridge of my nose.

So what’s my point? I suppose that, in the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, you might select from any of these familiar aphorisms:

  1. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the near-death experiences along the journey.
  2. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—unless you forget the sunscreen.
  3. A journey of 1000 miles begins with the proper equipment.
  4. Nothing ventured, nothing broken.
  5. Just because you got away with it, doesn’t mean you’re not stupid.

To which I would add one other: It’s pretty great to be a dad.

PW

Must. Find. Water.

Dear Will:

When time and circumstance allow, I like to hike up, over, and around the hills in the area as a way to be alone with my thoughts. I keep a small daypack at the ready so that I can pretty much just grab it and go. I leave the pack stocked with a small variety of just-in-case essentials, including a small first aid kit, a tiny flashlight, a compact windbreaker, and a few fistfuls of trail food—most of which I never use and should not need while traversing familiar, local trails so close to home. The real purpose for the daypack is to carry my Camelbak hydration unit, which is a fancy way to say a 2-liter, over-the-shoulder canteen. That item I use every time.

If I were to hike in actual wilderness, I would surely pack more thoughtfully and carry a bigger pack, but even then the most critical item would be the water. Even if I found myself hopelessly lost, miles from the trailhead, I could blister up, break a bone, run out of food, and bivouac under a saguaro for weeks if I had to; but if I ran out of water I’d be in major trouble within hours regardless of how much moleskin and trail mix I had on hand.

Although I’m not exactly what anyone would consider a rugged outdoorsman, I am smart enough to know that if I were to head out on a distant trek I should carry plenty of water with me and ensure that I have a clear idea of where I can obtain more along the way—especially if know I will be wandering into unfamiliar lands without clearly marked trails. And I would not, under any circum­stances, forgo water unless compelled to do so. Water is perhaps the only essential. Water is life.

Now hold that thought as you consider the following: It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see mortality as the ultimate through-hike—a long-distance slog up, over, and around all kinds of hills and other obstacles. In that sense, Alma probably had it right when he called us “wanderers in a strange land” (Alma 13:23). Usually the trail is clearly marked, but certainly there are times when we amble off and suddenly find ourselves bushwhacking, unsure of where we’re headed. No matter how well-equipped we may think we are, eventually we may find ourselves tired, discouraged, and increasingly thirsty, muttering to ourselves through cracked and bleeding lips: Must. Find. Water.

And well we might ask: As we go along through the various peaks and valleys of life, when we wander off-trail, or when we stumble and find ourselves disoriented and unable to find our bearings, how long will our reserves hold out? What should we do if our canteens runs dry? Where, in this journey from birth to death, do we find water along the way?

The scriptures have the answer. In Jeremiah, Jehovah declares himself to be “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13)—a lesson reiterated and magnified by Jesus when He taught: “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). He is saying, in essence, that we cannot live without Him. Literally. When Jesus taught that He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), He further emphasized that point. Jesus = Water. Water = Life. Jesus = Life.

With Him, you will not thirst, you cannot run dry. So take it from one who knows: Should you feel inclined, now or at any time, to wander off the trail, please make sure you take Water along for the journey. You will surely need it.

PW