I had already logged ten miles since leaving the trailhead at noon. First up, then down, then up again. And again. And again. Even with the breeze it was hotter than I expected and I had begun to wonder whether my plan to make it to Little Five Lakes by nightfall might have been too ambitious. When it came to backpacking, I had always prided myself on my endurance and the desire to see what was just beyond the next bend. And although my pack was heavier than it had to be – it was always heavier than it had to be – I hadn’t quite anticipated the 4,000 foot climb to the top of the Great Western Divide, aka Black Rock Pass, would be this grueling.
I took a moment to catch my breath and swig from my water bottle. Glancing upward, I followed the trail as it snaked its way back and forth across the ridge. From the summit it’d be at least two more miles to the lakes on the other side. Worst-case scenario I’d be setting up camp in the dark. Not exactly the end of the world. But it wasn’t ideal either.
Just then a group of tiny figures emerged from a jagged outcropping that flanked the pass. That’s odd, I thought. The climb hadn’t been easy. And most of it was fairly exposed. As far I knew no one was in front of me, which meant I was either, a) considerably more tired than I thought and had missed them, or b) they’d been up there for some time. The figures turned to face me, hands pressed to foreheads to block the afternoon rays. I looked to see if some members of their group might be coming up behind me, but the trail was clear. Rather it seemed that it was me they were looking at – a lone figure grinding his way through a murderous incline just as they had done, albeit earlier. Perhaps they were looking out for my wellbeing, checking to make sure I made it to the 11,600 foot summit safely, a not entirely uncommon backpacking gesture. After all, if there’s one thing I’d learned in the backcountry it’s that fellow hikers tend to look out for one another. In the backcountry, safety is number one. In the backcountry, altruism reigns supreme.
I holstered my water bottle and pressed on. Coaxing my aching thighs as I churned through the last few switchbacks and made a push for the crest. The trail leveled off where the figures stood to greet me – three boys in their early teens and a man in his late 30s. I undid my straps and dropped my pack, half expecting cheers or at the very least, a congenial high-five. Yet no one said a word. I caught a glimpse of another boy being helped into a sleeping bag and asked what was wrong, though I was certain I knew the answer. The man stepped forward. “We have an emergency,” he said. “We think he has altitude sickness.”
Anyone who’s ever set foot in the backcountry knows how quickly things can go wrong. Injuries. Bad weather. Broken equipment. Even with proper preparation, it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. Shit happens whether we like it or not. And so we do our best to mitigate the risks, while putting our utmost faith in Mother Nature. We trust ability will get us through. Determined to persevere. For many of us, it’s what attracts us to wilderness adventure in the first place. We willfully venture into the unknown, trusting our experience will get us through.
The man gestured to the boy. “We’re not sure what happened. He had a concussion about nine months ago, but his doctor cleared him.” I felt a surge of adrenaline as the gravity of the situation became clear. At least now I understood why they’d been eyeing me from afar. They weren’t looking to help me. They needed me to help them. “Do you have any medical training?” I shook my head no. Aside from a CPR class I’d taken a half-decade earlier, I told him the best I could offer was ibuprofen and a packet of electrolytes. He explained that they’d left the trailhead the previous day and slept at 9,000 feet to adjust to the altitude. Although the boy had felt okay when they broke camp, he’d struggled for most of the day. By the time they’d reached the pass he’d begun to lose feeling in his extremities and could no longer stay on his feet. He could go no further. And no one, including the man in charge, had any idea what to do next.
I handed over the electrolytes and explained the best course of action would be to get him to a lower altitude. But with daylight in short supply and steep, rocky switchbacks on either side, there was little chance he’d make it to level ground safely before dark. Under the circumstances the group had no choice but to spend the night where they were. The man instructed the group to set up camp while I removed my trail map. I couldn’t see it from where I was standing, but somewhere in the trees below stood a ranger station. I informed them I’d go on ahead to make contact. With any luck, they might have a radio.
I fastened my pack and hurried my descent as the sun sunk below the horizon, weaving my way along the first lake before dipping into the trees and arriving at ranger’s quarters. A note in a Ziploc bag affixed to a stump announced his whereabouts and with it, came a lump in my throat. He was away on patrol with no date for return. The closest medical assistance, it made clear, was back at the trailhead.
I returned to find the boys’ chaperone collecting water at the lake and relayed the news. All we could do is hope the boy’s condition improved by morning. In the meantime I would set up camp nearby in case the ranger returned. If anything changed, they knew where to find me, and vice versa. The man nodded and shook my hand, thanking me for all my help. He hadn’t anticipated something like this might happen. Yet he’d managed to stay calm in front of the boys to keep them from panicking. Things hadn’t gone as planned. And now they had to make do.
It was well past ten o’clock by the time I’d unpacked my things and set up camp. I was much too tired to eat. The day’s events had drained me and I wanted nothing more than to crawl into my tent and drift off. I took one last glance toward the pass where the group had set up camp, watching a half-dozen headlamps dance lazily about the saddle. There were no frantic movements. No sign of panic or fear. I took it to mean the boy’s condition had improved to the point where they could finally enjoy themselves, just as they should.
Over the next few minutes, the lamps switched off one-by-one until only the flicker of stars remained. The boys had finally settled in for the night. And now thankfully, I could too.