Mountains are massive. If you are standing at the base of a mountain, the odds are that you cannot see the top of it. There is too much mountain in your sightline to see that far up, and the physical straining of your back and neck to attempt the view of the top is uncomfortably demanding. To even think of climbing to the top of a mountain is a challenge, and actually climbing to the top is daunting. Simply to get to the first foothill is hard. It would take a village to consider making it to the top of a mountain.
I was leading a group of 18 teenagers in California, 9 teens from the US and 9 international teens. We were on a month long excursion to explore the mountains, ocean and deserts of California. Our first stop was Sequoia National Park. Our goal was to hike to Eagles Crest, a plateau on an escarpment between 2 basins resting at about 10,500 feet. Our plan was to start at 7000’ and hike up above timberline, and traverse the dry rocky terrain to gain a sweeping vista of the High Sierra.
We assembled our backpacks, packed our gear and food, and were in our vans on the road to our destination, Cold Creek Campground. The campground was a few miles from the trailhead. There we would acclimate to the elevation and do our last minute preparations before the hike. That night the sounds in the campsite were of coyote calls, the crackle of the campfire, laughter, the clang of dishes, then silence as everyone fell asleep wondering what the next day would bring.
In the morning we loaded our gear into the vans, drove to the trailhead and unloaded. We took the prerequisite pre-hike pictures, said a prayer and broke for the trail. The sun was brilliant with not a cloud in the sky and the mountains were gorgeous; it was going to be perfect.
Our first push was a series of switchbacks to get us out of the valley. A switchback is used to help flatten out a trail that would normally go straight up a hill or mountain. Instead of hiking straight up the hillside, switchbacks cause the trail to go up at a more gentle angle. The trail then makes a 150ish degree turn and continues up the mountain (think of tacking if you are a sailor sailing up wind). The trail repeats this as many times as needed to ascend the hill or mountain. There can be as few as 1-2 switch backs to go up a small bump, or as many as 20+ switch backs to go up 1000 or more feet of steep terrain.
The group had finished the second of what would be many switchbacks for the hike. We had been hiking up hill for about 30 minutes at a decent grade, not flat, but not steep. I decided we could take a short, 5-minute break to do a quick check in. We could see our vans in the parking lot a few hundred feet below and had hiked perhaps a mile. This was when one of our teens, a boy named Max, approached me. Max was 6 feet tall, broad shouldered and had a big frame. Likely he weighed more then me. He was not fat, but thick. Max was aloof from the group; he was not one of the popular teens. He was quiet and a little subdued. He was not smiling when he came to me, nor was he unhappy. He wore the look of any other disaffected teen.
“Can I have the keys to the van?” Max asked me. I almost fell over. What chutzpah! What insolence! For what reason did he want the keys to the van, I inquired. “This is too hard for me, I don’t think I can make it. I’ll just go hang out in the van for the next three days” was his response. I was still reeling at the request and considered my possible responses. “Are you out of your @#$%?! mind!” was the response that I suppressed. Instead I mustered my diplomatic voice and responded with a measured leaders’ response. “Max, let’s try for a bit longer. We have barely started this hike. I think you will find your groove and feel much better going up.”
In the application form for this program it was clearly stated that there was intense hiking involved. I clearly stated that participants should train before the program to ensure their comfort, physical fitness, and to enable them to participate fully. I bolded this section and put it in CAPS. This, I thought, would guarantee that the program would attract rough-and-tumble, in-shape and ready to zip-along-the-trail types. I was rather angry, too. I knew that this was just the start of a long and difficult hike. If Max, or anyone, was having discomfort and doubt at this point of the trail, it was a bad omen.
Max agreed to give it another go. Yes! I thought, that was not so bad. I could motivate Max, and the rest of the group, up this mountain. “Mount up!” I yelled to my pack of frisky hikers, we were on the move! At this point the switchbacks were taking us up one side of the valley. Each switchback was about 1/4 to 1/2 a mile long. We completed another 2 switchbacks and I was feeling confident. I decided to take another break, this one longer. I told the crew to take off their packs as we would take about a 10-minute break and everyone was feeling a bit worked.
To new hikers (newbies), putting on a backpack fully loaded with food, water, sleeping bag and other needed equipment, can be daunting. But the newbie tries their backpack on in REI and “hikes” up and down the stairs of the store a few times and realizes it’s not that bad. “Hey, I can definitely climb to the top of this-or-that peak!” one says to oneself. However, once on the trail, hiking uphill with that same fully loaded backpack, one’s shoulders, hips, neck and calves get a chance to chime in on the activity. Inside REI the brain is in full control and shunts the voices of the other body parts. But the trail amplifies those voices and they say, “we did not agree to this and we are letting you know that we ache. And we will not stop aching until you stop this ridiculous activity. Going up hill with a backpack strapped to your back! Geez, what do you think you are doing and who do you think you are?!”
The first time a backpack comes off a newbies back after the start an uphill hike, it is pure joy! The angels are singing “XXXXXXX.” (This is true for experienced hikers and novices alike,) The backpacker rubs her shoulders and stretches the neck, it feels great and it is reasoned that if it feels like this after every time the pack comes off, then why not do 20 miles today?!
When the group set their packs on the ground I felt a sense of relief. My relief, however, was short lived. Max walked to me again. “Can I have the keys to the van? I need to go down.” Max said. At this point Max seemed down and tired. I asked him what was going on. His body ached, and he knew that this was just the beginning. He remembered the trail map and knew that this was just the start of the hike.
I asked Max if it was his backpack that was bothering him. It was. I suggested that perhaps his fellow hikers could take some of the weight from his pack. I feared his friends might mutiny, as they all had aching shoulders too (yes, even at 16 years old!).
The group had, before leaving on the trip, been part of team building activities to help form them into a community and give them some shared experiences and familiarity with each other. Low and high ropes elements combined with problem solving and building activities gave them a chance to build and deepen their relationships. But group-building activities in a controlled setting are one thing; taking weight out of someone’s pack and adding it to your own on a tough uphill trail is something else entirely.
To my relief many of Max’s co hikers volunteered to take items from him and put them in their own packs. Max felt good about this as his pack would be lighter, but I feel he sensed he was well cared for and that his community, literally, had his back. We started hiking again and made it another few switchbacks up before Max approached me. Again he asked if he could go down and just be in the van.
I sensed a panic in Max’s voice. I needed other tools and good reasons to get Max to keep moving. My first attempt, however valid, was not forceful enough. I said, “Max, I can’t legally give you the keys to the van.” Max had a great response. “Oh, I get it, o.k. I’ll head down and hang out by the van. I can just sleep under the van, I don’t need the keys.” Oh boy, I thought. This is going to be challenging. We went through the motions of redistributing more weight from his backpack into the other’s backpacks. And again, Max gave it go of making it up a few more switchbacks. But on the next stop he again came to me.
Desperation was what I saw on Max’s face. He was not doing well, though I could see and sense that he was worried and not yet physically exhausted. He had never been pushed or pushed himself very far or hard, or at least I surmised. We redistributed ALL the weight from his pack. Now even the group leaders were carrying some of his weight. All he was carrying was his backpack and one of his water bottles. But Max was not motivated to try again. Desperation calls for desperate measures. I dove in.
“Max. If you need to go down, then we can go down. But I can’t split the group up or legally send you down alone. If you go down, the whole group also needs to go down. If you want to try going up, I will hike up with and we will find a good pace for you. We can meet the group later at another trail junction.” The wheels started to turn in Max’s mind and I could read his thoughts through his eyes. He was weighing his own resolve and physical discomfiture verses bringing the whole group down the mountain and changing the trip for the next 3 days, and invariably, for the next 3 weeks. Max did not want to change the group’s plans. He said that he wanted to try to continue up.
I asked Max to point to the first tree along the trail that he thought he could hike to. He pointed to a tree that was about 100 feet up trail. The group walked there with Max in the front of the group to control the speed and to help motivate him. This was going to be a tough slog. We arrived at the tree and rested. I could not hike the group at this speed as I had already stopped them too many times and I heard rumblings of unhappiness about the slow pace. Stopping, taking off and putting on a backpack, and walking exceedingly slow is much more difficult than hiking at a moderate pace and keeping one’s momentum moving. The other group leaders and I decided to meet at the next trail junction, about 3 miles up. In the interim we could communicate via 2-way radio. The group took off. Max and I were left on the trail with hundreds of trees as our beacons forward. We hiked to the tree Max had pointed to. There we rested.
After a few minutes at the tree, I again asked Max were he could walk to next. He pointed to a different tree about 100’ up the trail. We set off. I am not a speed hiker, but the slow pace was challenging for me. At this point in my outdoor career I had logged many 100’s of miles of backpacking. I had spent time in Nepal hiking many miles at more severe elevations. I had not hiked this slowly since my first backpacking trip more then 10 years before (and likely not even then). We arrived at the tree Max had specified. We took a few minutes to breath and rest. Max and I could still see the van at the bottom of the valley, but the rest of the group was out of site.
Max pointed to the next tree he could walk to. We slowly clamored towards it. For the next 3 hours Max and I hiked from tree to tree, into the mountains. It was trying for me to hike at his speed, and I guessed it was extremely challenging for Max. But up we went; slowly, very slowly.
When we finally encountered the rest of our group at the trail junction, near a river, they had been waiting for over an hour and were itching to start walking again. Max and I refilled and purified our water bottles. He was drinking copious amount of water as the sun was hot and the work was hard. We started hiking with the group a few minutes later. Within about 5 minutes the group was again out of sight and Max and I continued to climb at the pace of a tree. We were going to meet the group at the campsite, a place called Mosquito Lakes.
It took Max and I another 3 hours to reach our campsite. By this time Max was on his last leg. The group had arrived almost 2 hours before and had cooked dinner. Max ate, drank and crawled into his sleeping bag for the night. It was an early night for everyone as it had been a hard day’s hike. I can only imagine that few people slept as hard as he did that night.
We were awakened early the next morning by swarms of; you likely already guessed it, mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were so bad that we tried to hide in our sleeping bags and zip them closed. The problem was that the sun was up early and it was hot, even at the high elevation. The choice was stifling heat or the buzz of hundreds of mosquitoes attacking. Not the best start to another tough day.
We broke camp quickly without breakfast and hiked a mile or more away from the lake and the hungry hordes. The group was rested with plenty of sleep and energy after the hard day before, and the mosquitoes were enough to motivate even Max to hike with purpose. We stopped for food and water and to discuss the plan for the day: Hike uphill until we got to the saddle and overlook. Max groaned, and so did I.
We were above timberline with were no trees for Max to use as beacons. Instead he picked boulders to mark his destinations. Again we fell behind by an hour. But at this point we were approaching the saddle between two huge mountains and the terrain was much less vertical. It was easier hiking then the day before. We found the group waiting for us before the final ascent.
Max was spent. He was physically and emotionally exhausted. The last ¼ mile was hand over foot hiking, straight up the side of the mountain. Max had taken off his backpack and I was carrying it. When the trail allowed, he borrowed my hiking poles to use upper body strength to propel him forwards. His legs were rubber. But Max pushed himself hard, and I helped push him too. I was (and still am) confident that this was the most physically demanding activity that Max had ever done. Extreme physical demands mean extreme mental demands: his mind ached at having to demand that his body respond to it’s commands. Every step was difficult for Max, for every step required thinking about hand holds, foot holds and a coordinated surge to make it to the next resting zone on the rock.
We were 100 feet from the top and moving slowly and with great effort. We could see the group ahead of us topping the trail and rejoicing at their accomplishment. At this point I was angry at Max for preventing me from being part of the celebration. Max was likely too exhausted to be thinking about much except for the next placement of his hands and feet.
Then we were 50 feet and Max could almost taste his accomplishment. 25 feet. A few times I thought Max was going to fall backward onto me and I prepared for that possibility. Max was not the only one exhausted; I was too. I could not wait to get to the top so I could take a break. Every step was now accompanied by me giving Max a pep talk; “Max, you are doing great! We are so close. At the top we can rest…” I was giving myself a pep talk too.
Finally we were only a few feet from the top. With a last surge of strength Max was on the top rock and I followed quickly behind him. The views were simply stunning. Hundreds of miles of rugged mountains, snow capped peaks, basins with clear lakes, all under a blue sky that stretched forever. It was the pictures of high-gloss sports magazines, but the real thing. It was unbelievable. I joined the group who were now eating and drinking to replace the water and carbohydrates they had spent getting up. We were all grinning from ear to ear. Except Max.
Max did not join the group. He was hunched over and holding himself, not looking or noticing the beauty around him. My immediate thought was that he had injured himself. I went to check on him. He looked up at me through tears. He was crying.
Tears of pain? Tears of joy? I don’t know to this day. What happened next influenced my career path and my life.
It is necessary to state here that Max was not the most popular kid in the group. It was hard helping him. Max added extra weight, literally, to the group. He caused the group to be slower on the trail and therefor sacrifice some of their free time. The people in the group had to cook for him and clean for him, and he was not very helpful in the other chores (filtering water, carrying the trash, etc.) because he was exhausted. On top of this Max was not adding much to the group experience; he did not take part in discussions, did not help in making decisions, nor was he making a lot of friends. In the end, Max was not pulling his weight.
Despite all this, the other teens noticed Max crying. The entire group surrounded Max inquiring of him what was wrong. He began sobbing uncontrollably. There was nothing to do, as there was nothing physically wrong with Max. Somehow the group knew just what to do. They embraced Max. This simple gesture emboldened Max, and he embraced them back. The embrace lasted a long time. And by the end of the group embrace, this group of disparate kids, teens from across the planet, had formed a tightknit village. Max looked up. It was as if he saw the beauty for the first time. He started to laugh, and his village laughed with him.
The mountains changed Max that summer. Max came alone, likely a bit scared and ill prepared for the challenge of climbing a mountain. When he left that first mountain, Max was not alone; he was part of a village. As we know, mountains are massive. They are hard to climb. It can take a village to climb a mountain. And sometimes, mountains can create a village for you.