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.