Mountain top experiences, no matter how valuable, are not where we live our daily lives, and so in the wilderness, as in life, the most important lessons are often learned in the daily grind.
And so it was with us.
That next day, an exhausted group rose for another push, this time towards home. No wilderness lectures could have prepared us for what would become the real challenge. In short…
One of the leaders with a severe bee allergy was stung and had no epipen. Because there was no phone service, the other leader ran with the satellite phone to a clearing to contact rangers for an emergency boat evacuation.
A nurse participant administered what antihistamine was available in our medical kit to provide short term stabilization.
All of the items in the injured leader’s backpack, which were considerable, were split up and given to all of us to now carry in our already burdensome packs.
We did a forced high speed hike while the nurse and healthy leader half carried the injured instructor to the boat ramp several miles ahead.
When we finally rounded a corner to a dock, rangers were there to boat her to an ambulance and then gave us permission to sleep out on a spit a small distance away in our sleeping bags, as the hike-in campsites were full. Our much anticipated solo overnight journey would not happen this trip. With only one leader to complete the trip, no more risks could be taken.
As the sky darkened, it became apparent that the “uninhabited” spit where we lay our sleeping bags on the highest ground was actually home to another large group of established occupants awaiting the night sky. First one solitary croak and then another and then a full watery chorus of frogs began their questioning, and the air exploded in sound for what seemed like hours. I hid my head inside the sleeping bag in an attempt to drown out the cacophony.
If the Milky Way lit up the sky that night I didn’t notice.
The next morning was to be our last push out. Putting my newly learned lesson about “self” sufficiency to work, I asked one of the elders to walk with me and tell me her story. Every step had become so painful that I feared I would collapse, and I hoped listening to her life’s journey would take my mind off my own.
It did. Mile after mile after mile.
Arriving exhausted, sitting at our last campfire as we contemplated making dinner, we heard a familiar hello and were shocked to find our injured leader had hiked in a considerable distance with spaghetti take out dinners, having been released from the hospital after spending the night.
As we sat around the fire savoring our first “real food” in a week, she asked each person to think about their greatest lesson on the trail. Flames from the fire lit the exhausted faces huddled there. One by one we shared our struggles and our epiphanies. The last to speak was She Who Needs to be First.
Honestly, I did not expect a self-reflective answer from her. I think none of us did. Her distain for her teammates had been palpable, and I, in particular, expected another attack. When she finally spoke she simply said,
I learned about the strength of older women.
And then she explained how, returning from the peak climb, she had been too exhausted to hardly even breathe, and how she could think of nothing but her own exhaustion. And then she had looked up at a group of women much older and more more exhausted than she and watched as they set up camp and cooked and took care of everyone.
I couldn’t believe it, she said.
The surprise at the statement was evident in the silent eye contact that went around the elders in the circle. Ah, grasshopper…you learned something.
But we had all learned something. And the next morning, with only yards to completion of our hike out, we came to a bridge that crossed Ruby Creek which would lead us to an awaiting bus. Before crossing, our leaders took out ten Outward Bound pins. They would wait in the center of the bridge while each of us contemplated why we deserved our pin. Then we would meet them in the center of the bridge when ready, and declare to them, the world, but most importantly to ourselves, why we were worthy of wearing it.
I collapsed under a tree by the side of the trail, a week of memories flooding over me. I began to weep and could not stop. One by one my trail mates crossed the bridge as I contemplated my place among them.
I had been the weakest link.
I lengthened every physical task by my lack of preparation and lack of stamina.
I seriously underestimated my ability to lead,
and I was a never ending source of frustration to She Who Needs to be First.
Finally I rose and walked to the center of the bridge.
I deserve this because I never gave up.
Many times since then I have been in a difficult place, feeling hopeless and struggling to make sense of my circumstances. Many times since then, I have found myself confused by the culture around me. And many times since then, I have overestimated my abilities and focused simply on my need for adventure, consequences be damned.
But in every one of those circumstances, at my lowest point, I have remembered the lessons of Desolation Peak.
I can do hard things.
I can weather the storm.
And both are only possible if I ask for help.