Before setting out on a multi-day hiking trip with a few of my friends, I was given a small orange notebook by my brother. As I started my frantic last-minute packing session, I threw the field notes booklet into my bag, along with my favorite writing utensil, an unassuming Bic #2 mechanical pencil. Among all the extras, I crammed into the 90 litters of packing space my bag afforded this notebook and pencil would become the most important. Without its 48 waterproofed synthetic pages, I would have no safe space to process and ultimately come to understand what I went through on that mountain. I honestly laughed and wept as I filled the pages of this little book.
Though my bag was packed with the evidence of my fear, in the fabric of social interaction, I wore a different suit. I wanted my friends and my family to think that I was fearless. That was as far from reality as I was from the peak that we would attempt to summit.
Little snippets from the first day still stand out to me. Rising early, we wanted to make it to the ranger station before anyone else. The young park ranger, probably in her early thirties, was friendly. She sipped her morning coffee as she explained what was expected of anyone who carried a back-country permit. After looking over the map with her, she slid a page which was absolutely packed with text to Josh. Being the de facto trail leader, Josh scanned the page. Being the de facto worry monger, I looked over his shoulder as I inwardly bit my fingernails. One section said, “I know the symptoms of altitude sickness and how to treat it.” I watched as Josh signed his name below. I thought I’m glad he knows what the symptoms are because I certainly don’t.
There was a velvety quiet, that sat on the ascending foot of the Rocky Mountains, as we took our first steps into the wild. The burgeoning orange of the sky was boasting of the adventure that awaited up the mountain where the air was thin, and the aspirations were high. I was accompanying Josh, an electrical engineer on weekdays and an adventure vender on the weekends, and Losha, a musician and tech expert who immigrated from Moldova years ago. We would be together for the 24-mile, three-day backpacking trip. My concern was nearly palpable as the gravel of the trail crunched underfoot. We would find our way up the route that other reviewers had labeled ‘advanced’ on a popular adventure site. Though my buddies were as fit as wild mountain goats, I was anything but advanced. Tonahutu trail would peak out on Flat Top mountain. Approximately eight miles a day through bear and mountain lion country would have us crest into the treeless expanse of alpine somewhere in the upper altitude of 13,000 feet.
I wore the marks of an inexperienced hiker all over. A month before the trip, my neighbor’s dog had stolen one of my hiking boots from my back porch. After chewing the ankle supporting high top off, the Alaskan husky left the lone shoe in the front yard where he had amassed a hoard of hot neighborhood items. After trespassing to relocate my gnarled footwear, I sewed it back together. My mom taught me to sew buttons on when I was in the third grade. My sewing skills never progressed any further. Consequently, my shoes looked like a mismatched pair of shark attack victims sustained only by surgery and prayer.
The bag I had precariously strapped to my back was a classic case of excessive overpacking. Ever since early childhood, I’ve been the cautionarion of any group I lock step with. “Are we sure we want to do this,” was my famous childhood motto. My danger-avoiding DNA drove me to fill every zippered pocket, pouch, and net crevice of my massive bag. For many of the unneeded and redundant items that weighed me down, I would later be lovingly chided.
Some of the more eccentric contents of my bag included a full 32 tablet container of chewable Tums with gas relief, a vast quantity of Vaseline such that I could keep a lubricant layer on all moving parts of my body, and enough bug spray to protect the entire Congolese army from malaria.
The vinyl straps bit hard at my waist and shoulders, probably being tested at the upper echelon of their 3000-pound tensile strength. The triple redundancy of flashlights, batteries, water purification, and about a dozen other supplies went unnoticed by my more experienced companions. They afforded me the dignity of not pre-checking my wilderness accouterments. A half dozen pill bottles acted as trail maracas that played in rhythm with every labored step. Needless to say, I was carrying the heaviest and most musical pack of all.
My buddies charged the trail with effervescent ease. As I laboriously lugged the combined contents of a mid-sized Walgreens. After a break on the first day of hiking, one of the guys went to lift my pack to help me strap it to my aching back. He groaned and struggled as he hoisted it to its unwelcome perch.
“Why is this so heavy,” he said, after exerting the kind of divine power reserved for extracting Excalibur from the stone.
“Uh, I just brought stuff I thought I’d need.” I went on to explain the kinds of things that I deemed as need worthy. Apparently bringing nine extra partially discharged batteries, an entire gallon of fluids, and three different Bibles was not his idea of responsible trail packing.
“On all future trips, I will be auditing the contents of your bag,” he said with a laugh. I strapped the cumulative mass of an anvil factory to my back, and we continued up the trail.
There is a kind of immeasurable beauty that lives out in the quiet corners beyond civilization. The gentle motion of a clear stream snaked through the valley between the mountains. It ran as cold as winter through the billowing green meadow, slowly carrying the season’s snow meltdown to the lakes below. The wind sang like a million-year melody as it massaged the waist-high grass bringing out notes of a high rustling timbre. Buttery sunbeams, unfettered by haze and smog, complimented the cool breeze which whispered through the valley where we rested before the great climb.
The inner peace that the scenery brought was balanced by the exterior turmoil I was feeling in my nether loins. Around the sixth mile, I began to notice an embarrassing discomfort in the skin covered by my sweaty underwear. I’m not as thin as I once was, which means that my thighs were forced to do a meet-and-greet every time they passed each other. The weight which seemed to buckle my knees sent my leg flesh sprawling ever inward in a kind of meaty slap. With each passing assault, all the moist flesh located north of my thighs was compressed awkwardly upward and forced to grind until everything that the sun didn’t shine upon was as raw as uncooked steak.
Luckily I had thought to pack an oversized jar of petroleum jelly. Only the Vaseline brand would do. I scooped massive palm fulls of that slimy relief into my sweat-soaked shorts when the guys weren’t looking. The pain would subside for a glorious nineteen seconds before I needed a fresh helping. This raises a question that even physicists could not likely answer. Where exactly does the Vaseline go? After applying a healthy fourteen pounds of the stuff, it takes only a few seconds for it to vanish into the cosmic ether. Does it evaporate? Does it liquify and soak into the skin? Why is there never enough? These kinds of deep mysteries kept my mind, so occupied much of the incredible scenery went unnoticed.
Toward the end of the first day, we topped out at an altitude that was slightly above the International Space Station. The air was as thin as a Parisian fashion model. The last quarter mile of our first day was like dragging a dead motorboat through quickly drying concrete. By the time I was in sight of the camp, the guys were already planning their afternoon jog up to nearby Granite Falls. I was busy charting my last 13 steps with optimistic thoughts like:
Step 13. Don’t trip here, or you’ll skewer your gut on that shattered pine stump.
Step 12. don’t blackout here, or you’ll fall and turn your skull into a soup bowl on that sharp rock.
Step 11. don’t die here, or the search and rescue team will have to go through your belongings for I.D. only to discover that you packed nine pairs of underwear, in case of emergency after emergency after emergency.
It didn’t help my morale to arrive at Camp looking like I needed quadruple bypass surgery. While my friends looked like two expert members of a Jacques Cousteau expedition. They already had the tents erected, camp laid out, and river water filtering. I plodded like a dying elephant into the patch of cleared forest where the tents were. The impact thundered through the trees as I dropped my three hundred ton backpack. I collapsed on the ground with all the rigidity of a wet towel.
The reward at the end of a long hike. I’m told, is a mountain house meal. It’s a freeze-dried gourmet dinner in a sealed bag. Just add boiling water, and you’re suddenly transported to an exceptional dining experience that can’t even be rivaled in Venice, Italy, or, so I’m told. We began to boil water. The guys read the side of their meal bags and discovered that each of theirs required two cups of water. They are read before you do kind of guys. I glanced at the instructions on the side of my chicken fried rice supper sack. I don’t know if it was my shaky hands. My blurry vision or the fact that the directions were as long as Homer’s Odyssey, but I gave them something less than a thorough reading.
The other guys did two cups of water. So that’s what I decided to do. It turns out that there are benefits to being a read before you do kind of guy. I flooded the freeze-dried contents with twice the amount of fluid required, making a watery pseudo-soup. My chicken fried rice only required a thimble full of water; I had poured the entirety of Lake mead over the rice. Effectively I turned a $10 gourmet dinner bag into a worthless sack of baby puke.
When our afternoon meal was done, the guys were off for another adventure. They wanted to see the falls. I wanted to fall asleep. After removing my sweat-filled boots, I crawled into the orange tent Josh had set up before I arrived. It was a comfortable 60 degrees outside, but in that nylon sarcophagus, it felt like a Ukrainian sauna. After a half-hour I couldn’t take it any longer.
I was surprised by the amount of effort it took to roll over. I fumbled with the zipper as I realized my coordination was less acute than usual. I slithered out from the smoldering tent like a dying reptile. I rolled across the needle covered ground until I found a shaded spot beneath the towering pines.
I stared at the cloud of mosquitoes that hovered above me. I probably looked to them like a cruise-ship buffet. It didn’t matter. Maybe a little bloodletting would do some good. I’m not sure how long I laid there, but it was long enough for my friends, Lewis and Clark, to explore the Continental Divide and report back to Jefferson in Washington. As I stared listlessly upward, the sky’s assembly line of clouds passed me by.
Like an uncouth amusement park guest, a rude realization shoved it’s way to the front of my mind. Though I’d been lying motionless in the dirt since the present epoch began, my heart rate had not decreased. It was beating way too fast. Palm to chest, the thumps reverberated with heavy rhythmic desperation. I was beginning to realize that I was not merely tired. Something was going wrong behind my ribs.
When the guys returned from the second hike of the day. I asked Losha, who had just hiked an extra two miles at a 10,000-foot elevation, “What is your pulse?” He checked.
“I don’t feel anything.” He said.
“Mine’s normal,” Josh added with finger to neck.
Trying to preserve a modicum of ego, I explained, “Weird. My heart rate seems slightly elevated, even though I’ve been lying here for over an hour.” Slightly elevated! I should have said, “My heart is kicking like a crack-addicted racehorse.” My blood pump was about to fracture one of my ribs, and all I could say was “weird.” I was beginning to get scared, but on the balances of manhood, ego still weighed heavier than vulnerability. I continued to pretend as if my flight equipment was nominal, but in reality, there was a fire in the cockpit, and my fellows would soon begin to see the smoke.
The sun drove west at a sluggish pace. The slender pines played an artifice of elastic dusky light, not easily revealing the true time of sunset. The night creeps upon the forested mountains more slowly than flatlanders are used to. “Get on with it,” I could have shouted at the amber skyline. Twilight was a taunt in shades of orange and red. With every deepening color came a dark forbode that tickled the nervous centers of my brain. With the dark came fear.
As we crawled into our sleeping bags. It wasn’t long before I could hear the shift in breathing, that shift that marked off the boundary between lucidity and peaceful dreaming for my companions. They slept like tired hikers ought. But for me, sleep wouldn’t, no, couldn’t come. I lay like a fallen and shattered statue. I was made of stone and stillness. No matter how motionless I remained, my heart continued to thump, like I was striding in mid-marathon.
How long can a heart race before exploding? I wondered. I could imagine my cardiac muscle popping like an overripe tomato in the dark hours of the early morning. In a restful night of sleep, your heart should beat about nineteen thousand times. My heart was going for an all-time record.
A little past two in the morning, I began to pray. Now I pray every day, but not like this. It started with pleading as I thought of the angelic faces of my kids. How would they respond to hearing their daddy had died on a mountain? What would their lives be like living without me?
“Lord, please help. I’m scared,” I said, simultaneously wondering if I could walk down the mountain in the dark. Sheesh. I could hardly walk across the campsite, while the sun was still up. There was no way. The deep stabbing anguish of fright blasted holes in the tissue paper of my mind.
“Lord, please comfort me. I don’t know what to do,” I continued praying, as I practiced heavy breathing. I started to think about my dad, who recently underwent surgery for an irregular and racing heart rate. What if the altitude has triggered the genetic heart condition that I’ve known runs in my family? This is what happens before a heart attack, I realized. The heart races wildly until it can’t go on. Is that chest pain I just felt? Is this the beginning of my last chapter.
Even if I woke up, my friends, with a scream of pain. It would be hours before either of them could get close enough to civilization to call for help. I began to wrestle with how incredibly exposed I felt. I was a five-hour walk from anything, and I possessed about five minutes’ worth of stamina. Walking down a mountain could exasperate whatever was happening to my heart.
Like a hammer blow square on the forehead, the realization hit me. I could die up here. There was nothing within my ability, nothing in my knowledge base, nothing within reach that could help. This was when my prayers began to shift.
“Lord, if this is your plan for me. If you want me to die, help me be okay with it,” I whispered into the cold night air. My breath swirled above me like the fragrant incense at a funeral. I didn’t want to be dragged, kicking and screaming into the presence of my Savior. I wanted to put my affairs in order and prepare for the inevitable.
Years earlier, I had believed in Jesus for the free gift he offers. Whether this heart kept ticking or not, I knew my life would never end. As soon as my eyes close in death, I will breathe in that sweet air of the Kingdom of Heaven. I will wake in that grand country beyond the sea. Knowing this is a separate matter than being ready to cross over. I set about the business of coming to peace with my own death.
“Lord, if it’s your plan to have me come meet you tonight. Please take me now,” I said it with utter conviction. Resigning myself to my own inability, I was attempting to surrender my body to the mysterious will of God.
Even as I write this, as my pencil scratches across the paper, I am crying. I have to take a long pause to let the tears abate.
After hours of wrestling with the divine, I eventually was able. I reluctantly whispered into the chilly night air.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
I felt those ancient words running over me like a refreshing waterfall dripping down into the cracks that my fear and shame and ego had rendered. Little by little, the mountain moved. The Colossus of rock and Earth, my doubt, and my worry my fear was cast into the sea, piece by piece. After hours of struggling. I am convinced that I was ready to die, somewhere between dark and Dawn. I drew a deep lungful of that thin mountain air as I entrusted my life into the unknown will of the one who gave it to me. It took whatever strength I had to let go.
“How’d you sleep,” my tent mate asked as he sat up at 5:03am.
“Not well,” I admitted, leaving out the excruciating details of the previous night. I gave only the surface facts. My heart was pounding all night. I couldn’t sleep. He began to gear up for the day as I crawled out of the tent, like a fish who’d never adjusted to living above the waterline. I got the cookstove lit in the dark, mainly because it was the only campsite chore I could do while sitting down. It poured out precious BTUs of heat, as I had a silent little chat with myself.
“Drop the ego Lucas, tell them how you feel.” It had been hard to wrestle with my mortality the night before. Apparently, I would live at least a bit longer. Now I had a new battle, one that I should have been fighting long ago. My pride, I realized, had led me here. I had been scared to take the trip, but I wanted my friends, my family, especially my wife, to think of me as a courageous mountain man, charging up every rocky crag with a fearless abandon.
In my most profound reality, I was still that same kid who found a false reason to excuse myself from the Boy Scouts canoe trip, the boy scouts hiking trip, the boy scouts ski trip. They all sounded frightening to me. I have been afraid all my life.
“You need to talk about what you were afraid of instead of pretending not to be scared,” I whispered to myself as I dumped the oatmeal into the metal pot. This time reading the side instructions. I stood up shakily as they devoured their breakfast. I could feel my heart thumping in my ears as my hands trembled lightly, and my knees felt weak. I could hardly eat any of the oatmeal. Seeing my weakness, Josh offered to wash the mostly full dish in the river.
The time had come to pack and plan for the day. We were supposed to ascend another 3000 feet, walking miles above Timberline. We were told by park rangers that it was crucial to make this day’s hike, certainly the hardest yet, at a fast pace. Urgent speed was critical because thunderstorms would roll in by noon, and the chance of being struck by lightning above the tree line is very high. All of this put a bigger knot in my stomach than my breakfast had. As we stood discussing the day, I finally let it out.
“You guys, I’m really scared. I know I can’t go up anymore. I thought I might have a heart attack last night. I thought I was going to die. I’ve got to go down.” I glanced the other way. I continued. “I want you guys to go on without me.”
Though this was true, I stopped short of expressing yet another fear. What if I started to descend only to find that my condition got worse. Then I would be alone with a heart like a dying star. I could hardly imagine the kind of terror I would face then. As I was considering this, Losha spoke up.
“No, we have to go down with you.”
“Yeah,” Josh added. “I want to make the summit, but it’s not worth it. We can’t take the risk. We need to go down together.” Again, I looked away because I didn’t want them to see the tears of relief I felt at their words.
“We need to take some of the weight off of your back,” Losha said. Whoa to the one who walks alone, that a cord of three is not easily broken. I could feel the deep meaning in those words. These men had been dreaming of this trip for months. They had summit fever. Josh called it the experience of a lifetime. They wanted to hit the Alpine so bad I could feel it. This was their bucket list trip. And here I was, a mouth breathing knuckle-dragging softy standing right in their path to the top. In an instant, they had taken all that excitement and drive and let it go.
These Christian brothers had me empty, the heavy items from my overstuffed pack. They took them up on their own shoulders. I can’t help but think of Apostle Paul’s words, “bear one another’s burdens.” In this case, they did it literally. Had they not been men of deep faith, and committed to Christ-like compassion, they would have probably taken me up on my offer of leaving to descend alone. They carried the consequence of my ignorant overpacking mistake down the mountain for me.
Even then, it felt overwhelming as I strapped my now lighter bag to my aching back. Nonetheless, I began to walk down the mountain. There was comfort in knowing that these brothers in the faith would literally carry me down if they had to. I don’t know if this is overstated. But I will tell you what I feel is true, their willingness to descend bearing most of my load could have saved my life.
When we got down, we stopped at the ranger station, after explaining what happened and that we were cutting our backcountry permit trip short and explained my symptoms the Ranger said, “You did the right thing. Thank you for not trying to go on.”
We found a campsite at the much lower altitude and set up camp there to allow me to recover. Within a day, my heart slowed, my strength returned, and a little Google research told me I had experienced a case of altitude sickness. Although some altitude sickness can be common, multiple types can be fatal. Judging by the fact that I’ve filled up this book while camping out in the valley tells me that I didn’t have the fatal kind.
Once they saw that I was okay, Josh and Losha went on to tackle Longs Peak, the most challenging climb in the national park. I can see it from where I’m sitting as I scribble my thoughts in this little book.
My experience on the mountain leaves me with so many thoughts, as I come to the last pages of this notebook. Someday maybe soon, I will once again face my own death, maybe by heart attack, perhaps by cancer, possibly by being hit by a runaway apple cart while riding a unicycle. I don’t know. The point is, I cannot imagine facing death without being certain of my eternal destiny.
Jesus promised eternal life to all those who believe in him. JOHN 3:16. Not only can I not imagine facing death without the promise of a Savior, but I can’t imagine facing the rest of my complicated life without the help and companionship of Christian friends and loved ones. God has designed us to bear one another’s burdens, most often when you feel like no one is carrying yours, it’s because you won’t let them.
I want to leave the last three pages for a few sketches of these amazing mountains and my mountain men friends. So here are my final three instructions. Number one, believe in Jesus for eternal life. You won’t regret it. Number two, let other believers help you bear your heavy load. And number three, never, ever overpack.