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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

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.

Updated: Aug 29

I may be spontaneous but I am not foolish. I research things. Important things. Like what is the best backpack and what is the lightest sleeping bag. And most importantly what are the

best hiking boots to buy when you haven’t hiked in ten years and only have a week to wear them in

Spoiler alert. There are none

But in all my research, which by the way required only “a positive mental attitude and not necessarily good physical condition,” I never checked out the details of our peak climb. If I had, I would have encountered this factoid:

This entire trail is 100% relentless uphill. For comparison, hiking from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the rim via Bright Angel is 5000ft of elevation change over 10 miles. Desolation Peak is 4500ft of elevation change over 4.7 miles.

No amount of positive mental attitude could compensate for this reality.

However, I was unencumbered with the burden of this knowledge, and as the sun rose casting rays across the lake, I remembered the night before, when alone with one of our guides, I had confessed that I didn’t know what I was supposed to be learning on the journey up the mountain. She looked at me directly and quietly said,

The mountain will teach you what you need to know.

Eager to learn that lesson, when we broke camp I announced I wanted to take leadership for this part of the journey, at least for a little while, so I could practice being a turtle. This was a mountain I would conquer at a slow and steady peace and not burn out before the top. Turning to the trail from the East Bank, I was shocked at the steepness of the trail’s beginning. After a scant ten yards or so, I was already winded.

Less than a half hour in, She Who Needed to Be First called a team meeting. She announced right from the start, “My needs are not being met,” and then launched into an attack of my leadership style. Surprised at the drama, which involved convoluted explanations and further attacks, I simply said, “The lead is yours.” No big deal. I had had my moment in the sun.

Turtle was tired.

Again, I will spare you the nitty gritty of this trek, but about 200 yards from the top, I hit “The Wall,” which I had read about but never experienced. As I painfully took each step, I was flooded with memories of my brother Will’s unsuccessful battle with cancer in his forties. I thought of how every breath he took was so laborious. I thought of his courage and his determination.

If he could fight that battle with so much grace, I could do this.

Not sure of how I could keep going, I took my sight off the trail and gazed upward towards the summit. I was not alone. Another teammate was working her way down the trail after summiting. She looked me over with great compassion and no judgement,

You look tired. Let me take your pack.

It was a statement of commitment and not a request. For once, I did not have the energy to brush off the offer as I would have done in the past, simply to prove I was competent and could do it alone.

I simply thanked her and began to weep.

I wept with every step of those last few hundred yards. I wept when I summited and gazed over the expanse of beauty too wide and too deep to fathom. And then I collapsed on a rocky point and wept again until I thought not a single tear remained.

I missed my brother.

Over the years my childhood tormentor had become an encourager, a fellow explorer of ideas, and, in the end, a friend. The image of him lying on his deathbed in the middle of the night begging me to “Get him out of here,” and calling me by my childhood name had haunted me all these years.

Oh, how I missed him.

One of the instructors came over and quietly asked me if I needed anything.

No. I just need to weep.

And I did. For most of the way down. Every step of the journey down was as excruciating as the journey up. Somewhere about half way down, my knees gave out and my feet lost feeling. And still we journeyed down.

When we arrived exhausted back at camp, the leaders told us not to bother about cooking meals or setting up our tents. First to collapse was She Who Needs to Be First. Several other younger women joined her.

But not the elders. We had all been taking care of the young for years. In our exhaustion and yearning for rest, we did what all mothers do…

We took care of the young.

Several women set up the tents while a few of us started a fire and made dinner. Two of the elders took bandanas and made makeshift napkins and set what would be considered a formal table in the flickering light.

And when it was all done, the younger women hobbled over for our makeshift feast and one of the elders said a prayer of thanksgiving over the meal. I sang a song. Such a tribal feat required a celebration. The elders knew this. And they knew something else as well:

There is no rest until the work of love is complete,

and love, real love, requires community.

All of my life, I had valued my solitary competence above all other attributes. Like a two year old insisting on putting on her own shoes, I had lived a personal mantra of “I can do this all by myself, thank you. No assistance required.”

But self-sufficiency is an illusion.

And what I learned that day on the mountain was that being “self” sufficient does not mean doing it alone. It requires a tribe of encouragers, in this realm and in the next, who see your unspoken needs and extend the right amount of help at just the right time to get you through.

That night it seemed even the stars shone brighter. On my back, choosing to sleep underneath those flickering star lights, my body felt heavy as stone, incapable of the slightest movement.

The Turtle had survived. Slow and steady. One step at a time. Tomorrow would be another day, and fears of what damage had been done to my body this day started to crowd my brain.

But then, as the sky deepened, the Milky Way began to appear once again across the entirety of the sky. Choosing sleep over worry, I remembered,

Tomorrow will bring enough trouble of its own.

And that trouble would not discriminate between the turtle and the hare, the leader and the follower, the plan and the unexpected journey.

The honeymoon ended before the second day dawned.

By the time day one was over, I discovered I was allergic to iodine tablets used to purify the lake water, I had developed heat stroke rowing across the lake to Big Beaver Creek, and I had crossed over into weakest link status in less than 24 hours.

So proud.

Having met so many milestones in such it short time, day two, it seemed to me, would have to be an improvement. Trying to repair my battered image, I volunteered to be first for the canoe rescue training, though my water phobia was still in full bloom at this time.

The goal was simple. Row out into the lake, deliberately flip your canoe, and then, after righting the canoe, put one leg into your canoe and one into the rescue canoe and maneuver yourself back in using the second canoe for support. Voila!

Please keep in mind my admitted lack of physical prowess as you imagine the scene. Canoe flipped. Check. Canoe righted. Check. One leg hoisted into my canoe. Check. One leg in rescue canoe. Check.

What was supposed to be a quick maneuver failed as my lack of upper body strength prevented me from hoisting my then ample form back into my canoe. Despite the cheering from onshore and my desperate need to reclaim some dignity, every attempt resulted in my falling back into the water with my upper body while my legs remained in two separate canoes.

And then the canoes began to drift apart. I will spare you the blow by blow battle, but when I finally completed the task, exhausted, and returned to shore, I dubbed the maneuver “The Gynecologist,” which, given the crowd, did not have to be explained.

Because women understand these things,

and women are different.

The difference became glaringly apparent after our lake crossing when the summer sun was high and brutal. Upon landing, our fearless leaders declared they had a task. We were led to a dirt clearing and after following instructions to form a circle, we were told to cover our eyes with a bandana. Then the instructors wound a rope in an irregular pattern through our hands and told us to find a way to unwrap ourselves.

Voices wove in and out of the task, trying one thing, then another. Time passed. No progress. We were given permission to use our hands to remove the blindfolds. Still no progress. And, as luck would have it, our extended presence on the dirt clearing had caught the attention of the hoards of ants under whose control it lay. And, as luck would have it, they were finding the bare skin on our legs too tantalizing to ignore.

Frustrations mounted as ideas flew in the increased ant activity until finally one of the younger members, a woman from India, suddenly snapped and forcefully grabbed the reins of the task. We were all admonished to be quiet. In only a few moments, she had untangled us logically, and grateful, we broke ranks to set up for the night.

Later that night, we asked our leaders why we had to endure that task.

It’s because none of you were willing to take leadership.

Normally, in a mixed group, those who want to be leaders emerge quickly, they explained. My guess was they were mostly male. But in our group, they noted we kept acquiescing leadership to others and being continually helpful and putting others’ needs first. So they had put us in crisis mode to force leadership to the surface.

As we sat and watched the flames die out, I couldn’t help but ponder the attributes of my new tribe.


Not demanding of leadership

Putting others’ needs first.

Sure, it was not a recipe for a quick escape from an anthill, but from my vantage point, these were strengths.

In the flickering flames I could discern the face of She Who Needs to be First and wondered what lessons she had gleaned in the hot sun.

Had I known I would provide her next lesson, I might have tapped out of the experience. But hind sight is 20-20, and the beauty of the Milky Way painted the night sky with a false sense of peace as I nestled into my sleeping bag to contemplate the challenge of the mountain waiting for us at the dawn’s first light.

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