I’m not sure how to even put today into words.
I’ve talked it out with a few key people, and I’ve replayed it in my head enough times: it’s not a problem of recollection. This time, I’m unsure how to adequately describe how my day unfolded, and I want to make sure I’m honouring and respecting all involved.
It’s like writer block, I guess, but so much deeper.
I want to do the story, but mostly the people, justice.
And I think I’m still slightly in shock.
Here’s a nice picture of my morning walk, to get us started:
This funky mood I’ve had swirling around?
It’s not cool.
And it’s totally selfish.
I realised just as much, when I was whining to God: “Why am I here? What’s the purpose of all this? When do I get my breakthroughs and prayers answered and me me me me me”.
Perspective is one of my big ‘things’. When you tweak your perspective, the situation may not change, but everything else does – how it affects you, how you react to it, your responses, your memories.
So I tweaked my perspective: “My bad, Lord. I’m sorry I’m being a brat and only focusing on what I can get out of this. How about instead of telling me why I’m here, can You show me who I might be here for? Let me be a blessing today.”
I wouldn’t realise just how powerful of a prayer that was until later.
A couple hours down the trail, I saw most of HBG sitting around in some camp chairs by the road. Three dudes that had been camping over the weekend became our personal trail angels without realising it! Dean, Mike and Dom had had some extra food and beer, and had started chatting with my mates as they walked past. What started with a quick “Hey!” turned into Nemo, Pickle, J$ and I sitting with them for the better part of two hours. They fed us mushrooms and onion fried in butter, supeeerbly barbecued steaks, potato salad, beers and soda, and we taught them our gang’s token card game: Stupid Head.
I can’t tell you if we were more stoked to have met them, or they us, but it was a win win either way.
We waltzed onward, the boys fighting with light sabres (aka. hiking poles) and us girls giggling and singing and skipping along.
And this is where I’m not too sure of how to continue the story…
Out of respect for everyone, I think maybe not going into too much detail is the best way to go. Part of the joy of this blog is that I love painting a picture with words; telling a story with detail that [hopefully!] draws you into it with me. I enjoy details and specifics and having readers be able to live vicariously. On that note, I apologise for holding back all the details here*. It was a big afternoon, and I know I could write for hours about all the ins and outs, but I don’t feel like that’s the way to go with this one.
I had hung back from the others to answer nature’s call, and heard shouts echoing throughout the valley. In all honesty, I thought it was HBG just having a go at me for taking a few extra minutes. When I glimpsed a sheriff running past me through the trees with a huge kit on his back and heard the helicopter come overhead, gears turned quickly and I knew instantly those shouts were not jovial.
My biggest fear was that my friends were in trouble.
I gathered myself and raced after the sheriff. We came around a corner to Nemo pointing up a boulder field, telling us that he could see a lady at the foot of the cliff face up there waving and shouting,
“S O S ! C P R !”
Without thinking it completely through, I threw off my pack and told the sheriff to give me his so he could climb up faster. The dude has gotta be 6’5”, but is all muscle and had legged it 3mi from the road already. He was running out of steam. He declined, got up one or two of the big rocks and I insisted: “Mate, I’ve walked here from Mexico, I’m used to a heavy freaking pack, give me yours and we can all get up there faster!”
In hindsight, I’m a little surprised he agreed. I’m probably half his body weight, and that pack – complete with full medical kit, emergency supplies, defibrillator, oxygen tank and who knows what else – must have weighed close to 30kgs. Together, high on adrenaline, we did move fast.
I shared the load with Nemo; we quickly divided some of the weight between us and kept climbing.
I don’t like heights.
I remember thanking the angels that carried me up that boulder field, and specifically thinking that getting back down after whatever greeted us up top would not be fun… But I’d worry about that later. I also remember thinking that I had to keep going. With the gradient of some of these boulders, it was sheer momentum that kept me moving up – if I slowed, or stopped, I’d start sliding backwards. It was scary.
Pickle and J$ had gone a little further ahead, but stopped when they saw the helicopter and heard shouting. Apparently, they could see us scaling the rocks and climbing up. Pickle even took some photos of it from their vantage point below.
What greeted us up the top was nothing I could have expected or been ready for.
This morning’s prayer to be here for someone, however, was answered.
A couple had been climbing with their friend.
They had finished for the day: ropes, helmets, gear was off. The men were edging around a big boulder on a ledge maybe 20ft high to get some food and water before heading all the way down.
The boulder was not attached to the mountain, and came crashing down – taking their friend with it.
When we arrived, there was just the couple and a day hiker, who had all been taking turns giving CPR and keeping him going.
The couple were both physicians: they have seen their fair share of trauma having worked in hospitals, and had jumped into action straight away. One would perform CPR for ten minutes while the other stood up higher and shouted out that “SOS” we had heard, and then they’d swap.
The day hiker working on him when we arrived turned out to be an army surgeon: it was his job to be dropped from helicopters to do emergency field surgery.
And while neither Nemo nor I have had any significant medical training past your basic first aid, we have been conditioned over the past 1,700km with strong legs and backs: able, at least, to help get the necessary equipment where it needed to be much quicker than if the sheriff has hauled it up alone. And when the helicopter dropped off more supplies adjacent to us – including a stretcher – we were able to run across, grab it, and run it back to the team on ground.
Everyone that was there seemed divinely selected. One could not have hoped to be surrounded by more qualified or trained people under those circumstances.
It was the ‘best case scenario’, if there could really be any such thing in such a moment.
At one point, I was called upon to help hold the mask to his face as we continued pumping breath into his lungs.
Apart from try and balance the pressure of keeping a good seal around his mouth and not pressing too hard and suffocating him, all I could do was pray.
All hands were on deck to lift him onto the stretcher and attach it to the cables hanging from the helicopter. With three people to each side, Nemo and I were opposite each other at his head and shoulders.
It would take nearly all the hot water in the South Lake Tahoe hostel later that night to scrub the blood from under my fingernails.
And despite having the best people on scene, people who had trained for moments such as this, who acted quickly and knew what they were doing; despite everyone’s best efforts, he didn’t make it.
His lunch had been shared around earlier, with some lighthearted joking that he wouldn’t need it to try and take the edge off. I felt sick for having eaten it.
We (Nemo and I) were thanked profusely and repeatedly for having jumped in to help. We were asked if there was anything that could be done to help us.
Having spent a good portion on three hours up there, I was done. I didn’t have it in me to walk another 30km that afternoon. And more importantly, I knew I needed to phone home as soon as possible to process and pray and simply speak to my Mum and Dad after such a day. For the first time in my life, I got to ride in a sheriff’s car.
We stayed up top a little while after the helicopter left: helping with clean up, helping find spatter and deciphering exactly where he’d fallen for official photos and records, helping gather belongings that needed to be brought back down.
I found a book, and brought it over to the wife.
“Is this yours?” I asked her gently.
It’s a Christian devotional called Becoming a Woman of Strength.
She smiled sadly, and nodded. “I had finished the very last chapter, and just read the last line – Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ – as I looked up to see him fall.”
How do you even respond to something like that?
I gave her a long, fierce hug, and told her I know Jesus too, and had been praying relentlessly since getting there.
She is a woman full of grace and strength indeed, and told me she was grateful I had been there today.
Being here – on trail – is not just about me.
I’ve known it on and off across the journey, of course, but today rammed it home. I’m here for all sorts of growing and lessons and adventuring. I’m also here for all sorts of people and experiences and to be an example, to help, to make a difference.
It’s a lot bigger than little old me.
* Names are something I highly value remembering – and I do remember the names of each person that was there. However, out of respect and the privacy of everyone involved, I’ve chosen to keep them anonymous here. Thanks for bearing with me, even if it seems a little cold.
* Just to address any potential confusion: the ‘husband and wife’ are the friends of the man. His wife was not present.