Lost in the Mountains

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In 1967, during the summer of “Sgt. Pepper,” I spent a month at a camp near Florissant, Colorado. When I arrived, from Kansas City, I sent my parents a brief postcard, addressed to “Occupant,” to let them know I hadn’t died en route. I was twelve. I lived in a tent with four other boys and a counsellor. One day, the smallest boy, called Moose, took off all his clothes, climbed to the top of the bunk bed in the center of the tent, and threw a hunting arrow at someone, for a reason I don’t recall. The arrow missed but made a hole in the canvas, a problem when it rained. We hung a gas mask from the tent’s frame, and one of us would put it on “whenever anyone cuts a phart,” I told my sister in a letter. Thanks to the extraordinarily detailed sex-education unit of my science class that year, I was able to explain to a group of campers what sixty-nine really is—not “six inches in, nine months to go,” as most of them believed. They responded with cries of incredulity and disgust, until a slightly older camper said that, although he hadn’t done the thing himself, he could confirm that my definition was correct.

Nowadays, the rare sixth grader who didn’t already know everything there is to know about sex positions would be able to go online and study video examples. And there are other differences between that era and this one. When the counsellor known as Nasty Ned made trips to the camp’s dump, three or four of us would climb in with the trash or hang from the back of his truck. I never called home, or thought of calling home. We used no hearing protection on the rifle range. When we rode horses, we wore cowboy hats, not helmets. The camp had a weekly newspaper, printed on paper, and I earned a five-cent “chit,” worth a pack of Sugar Babies in the camp store, for reporting on my tent’s activities. I went on an “ancient artifacts hunt” in an abandoned mining camp. “We searched some old cabins,” I wrote to my parents. “I found a lot of stuff but kept only a Collier’s Magazine of 1934, two farm magazines, a bunch of square nails, a postcard collection of 1910, and three books published in 1898.” We ate lunch on the mine’s heaped-up tailings, and a few of us crept into the mine’s entrance. Our trip’s leaders, who seemed almost as old as our parents but must have been college age, looked on, unconcerned.

I loved everything about camp, including the counsellor who lived in my tent. He lent me his heavily underlined copy of “The Prophet,” by Kahlil Gibran, and one afternoon he gave me and one of my tentmates a secret lesson in climbing, belaying, and rappelling, on an exposed rock face nearby. I imagined living alone in an alpine cabin filled with ropes, pitons, and carabiners, and surviving on plants I’d found with help from “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” In junior high school, I read and reread “The Mountain of My Fear,” by David Roberts. It described an ill-fated climbing expedition on Mt. Huntington, in Alaska, by four young men who had met through the Harvard Mountaineering Club. I yearned to go on an ill-fated climbing expedition of my own.

I returned to the same camp in 1968, this time for six weeks. One evening, we held a mock election, in the lodge. “Nixon was winning after the first ballot when all of a sudden a group burst into the room throwing candy & gum,” I wrote to my parents. “They wanted ‘Pops’ Jim Rector, a boy in my tent, for pres., and offered a Coke and a Frosted Malt for every vote. He got 168 out of 184 votes and is president of the U.S.” At the end of the same letter, almost parenthetically, I told my parents that, a few days earlier, a camper had disappeared during a climbing trip on Mount of the Holy Cross, a dozen miles southwest of Vail. “This will be his 4th night out,” I wrote. “I just heard an announcement about him on the radio. I’ll write you if I find out anything.”

Holy Cross is one of Colorado’s “fourteeners,” mountains with summits higher than fourteen thousand feet. It was named for two intersecting crevices in its northeast face: when snow fills them, they resemble an immense white cross. Longfellow mentions it in a sonnet that he wrote, in 1879, in memory of his wife, who had died eighteen years earlier, after her dress caught fire and he was unable to smother the flames:

There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast.

Christian pilgrims used to trek to a shelter on a nearby ridge in order to contemplate the cross. In 1980, Congress designated the mountain and the rugged country surrounding it a national wilderness.

The Mount of the Holy Cross.Photograph by William Henry Jackson / Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

The camp’s director, whose name was Sandy, wrote a newsy letter to parents every week. The one he sent on August 4th, five days after the boy disappeared, was also signed by his wife, Laura. They began with a couple of sentences about “exciting trips, creative programs in-camp, and plenty of fun.” Then, in the second paragraph, they discussed the missing camper. “The counsellors notified the camp at once and the search was begun immediately,” they wrote. “Since then the search has expanded to include as many as 140 highly qualified rescuers and up to five helicopters.” The lost boy, whose name was Bill, was sixteen years old. “We are baffled but no one has given up hope,” they continued. Bill was “resourceful” and had been “trained in hiking and survival techniques.” He had no sleeping bag or tent but was carrying a backpack that contained lunches for eight members of his climbing trip.

Being at camp at that time was exciting. A few programs were scaled back, and, because Sandy was feeding the searchers, our meals felt somewhat frugal. No one I knew complained, though. Most of us would have been happy to give up all our regular activities, and to eat nothing but Cheerios, if only Sandy had let us join the search. I didn’t know Bill, but I did know what he looked like: tall and slim, with short brown hair and glasses. Holy Cross was more than seventy miles from camp, but I kept my eyes peeled even if I was just walking down the hill from our tent to the bathhouse.

In my next letter home, I wrote, “This morning at breakfast, a helicopter came flying into camp and landed on the baseball diamond.” We all ran down to welcome Bill back, but the helicopter turned out to belong to a rich kid’s parents, who were paying a showoffy visit. I was one of a group of boys who surrounded the father and urged him to take off again, immediately, for Holy Cross. (He demurred.) “The searchers have found some tracks they think are Bill’s but nothing really important has turned up,” my letter continued.

As far as I know, no child was pulled from camp by angry, lawsuit-threatening parents, and no local-news crew showed up to ask us campers if we were concerned that our counsellors might lose us, too. Bill’s mother and father had come to Colorado from the East Coast to join the search, and they, the camp’s staff, and many other people must have been in a constant state of near desperation, but on the surface everyone I encountered seemed calm and composed. We hunted for treasure, saw a melodrama in Cripple Creek, and visited the chapel at the Air Force Academy. One of my tentmates and I, with help from our counsellor, conducted a midnight raid on the kitchen at the girls’ camp, a mile away. We stole ice cream, crackers, two boxes of cereal, and an ear of corn. Camp was still camp.

At two in the morning on August 6th, the counsellor in the tent next to mine, whose name was Terry, left to join the rescuers on Holy Cross. “Now they have 200 soldiers as well as 100 local people,” I wrote to my parents that evening. “They walk 15 ft. apart picking up every piece of paper, etc. They then radio in and ask if Bill had what they found.” I continued, “Some people think he may have run away or something like that. Another theory is that he is camping just outside of camp. . . . They’re going to start keeping a counsellor in the lodge at night in case he is sneaking in for food.”

On August 11th, when Bill had been missing for twelve days, I wrote to my parents that in the morning I would be leaving on a five-day climbing trip to—of all places—Mount of the Holy Cross. “We’re not a search party, or anything like that,” I told them, “but H.C. is supposed to be the most beautiful country in Colorado.” I added that if Bill hadn’t turned up by the end of the day the search was going to be called off. I don’t know whether that was true, but I do know that, in the area in which he had vanished, two weeks was a long time for even a resourceful sixteen-year-old to survive. “I’m glad to hear Nixon won the Republican Convention,” I concluded, “but Spiro T. Agnew?”

We had planned to begin our summit ascent at 4 A.M., but fresh snow fell on the mountain during the night, and we didn’t get off until seven-thirty. A blizzard hit when we were on the summit ridge, five hundred feet below the top. “You couldn’t see 20 ft. and the wind was blowing hard,” I wrote my parents later. We turned around. My hair froze into a helmet of ice, and I could barely feel my hands and feet. We got back to our base camp shortly before one-thirty, and discovered that most of our tents had blown over. My tentmate and I re-pitched ours, and zipped ourselves inside. The wind and rain made building a fire impossible, so for dinner we ate what we’d been going to have for lunch: American cheese, canned B. & M. brown bread, an orange, and a chocolate bar. I annoyed my tentmate by reciting all the lyrics I could remember of the Animals’ 1965 hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” We talked about Bill, and wondered how he was managing, assuming he was still alive.

The weather the next day was perfect, of course. We hiked back down below twelve thousand feet and camped near Hunky Dory Lake. In the morning, we returned to the spot where we’d left Fat Albert, the camp’s ancient school bus. A letter addressed to our counsellors was lying on the dashboard. It said that at two in the afternoon on Tuesday—the second day of our trip, two weeks after Bill had disappeared—a group of backpackers from Outward Bound had found him, and that he was alive. In a letter I wrote when we got back to camp, I told my parents that I had heard that when Bill saw Sandy he said, “Will this ruin my chances for coming back next year?”

I myself didn’t go back the next year; I worked as a counsellor at a day camp at home. But I never forgot about Bill. Not long ago, I ran into a member of the camp’s board, whose name is Jerry. He’d worked at camp when I was there, and he remembered the agony of those two weeks. Jerry agreed to put me in touch with Bill. Early last month, Bill called my cell phone.

We reminisced about camp, and caught each other up on our lives since 1968. He sent me a copy of a hundred-page account he had written, by hand in two spiral notebooks, not long after he was found. Using it and three topographical maps I’d ordered from the U.S. Geological Survey, along with clues from our conversation, I began to plot his route. He and three other campers reached the summit, late on the morning of July 30th, as thunderheads approached. They signed the summit scroll and took a few pictures. Rain was falling, and Bill worried about lightning. (Before our trip, a counsellor had told me that, if I felt my hair stand on end, I should drop to my knees and bend forward, because I was about to become a lightning rod.) They headed down the summit ridge, and at some point Bill, who was walking fast, got so far ahead of the others that he could no longer see them. “I thought I was lost then,” he told me, “but I ended up back where we’d camped out the night before.” He wondered if lightning had killed everyone else. Then a counsellor appeared, and asked if he would carry food farther down the mountain, to members of the group who had returned to a hut they had hiked past the previous day. Bill and the counsellor swapped backpacks.

Bill assumed, when he began his descent, that the creek he could see in the valley far below was the one that he knew ran past the hut. But it was actually a different creek, well to the west, in a different valley: he had gone left when he should have gone right, and ended up on the wrong side of the mountain. The slope was steep, and he had to negotiate boulders and rock faces that had been made doubly treacherous by rain and wet pine needles. When he reached the valley floor, his clothes and his boots were soaked, and he was shivering. The sun was going down. He shouted for help. He covered himself with a poncho from the counsellor’s pack. “It was the longest seven hours I’ve spent in my life,” he wrote in his account. He used a cigarette lighter, inside his improvised tent, as a space heater—a bad idea, he realized later, because when the fuel ran out he had no way to start a fire. (Rubbing sticks didn’t work. He made sparks with the lighter’s flint but couldn’t kindle anything.)

During the two weeks Bill was lost, he was never much more than a mile from the spot where he’d last spoken to his counsellor. He often saw helicopters; he would take off his shirt and wave it, but they were either too far away or flying too fast. He never saw any of the hundreds of people looking for him on foot. It seems likely that the searchers believed he had followed a different route down the mountain, and, therefore, concentrated their efforts in areas where they had no chance of finding him. One day, a single-engine airplane circled directly above. He stood in a clearing and waved, but the plane flew on. He tried to climb up the slope that he’d come down, but he fell from a ledge and believes he must have been knocked unconscious. (He remembered falling, but not landing.) He used fallen trees to make an arrow pointing to the spot where he slept for several nights, directly below a large boulder, and he turned two of his counsellor’s T-shirts and his compass case, which was bright red, into signal flags. But no one spotted his signs.

The food in Bill’s backpack consisted of the same lunch that my group had: a two-pound box of cheese, two one-pound cans of B. & M. brown bread, eight oranges, and twenty chocolate bars. (He also had two beef jerky strips, which he’d bought at a gas station during the drive to the mountain.) The entire supply didn’t add up to much more than ten thousand calories, and in two weeks he lost thirty-two pounds, almost a quarter of his body weight. He made a small opening in one of the cans by pounding it with a rock, and through the opening he was able to pick out bits of bread. He later found a board with a nail protruding from one end, and used it to fully open the can, by perforating the lid’s circumference. He allowed himself a small amount of bread and cheese each evening—a feast that he looked forward to. He found and ate watercress, mint, Indian paintbrush, dandelions, mosquitoes, and ants. He tested wild mushrooms by taking tiny bites and waiting to see if he got sick. He lost his canteen in a fall on the first day, and so drank from dixie cups in the pack and from a small plastic bottle that the group had used for liquid fire-starter. He prayed every day, and regretted all the times he’d skipped church. He constantly talked to himself, “as if my mouth & ears were 2 different persons,” he wrote in his journal. He fought tedium by memorizing information on a card that he had in his wallet—the U.S. Presidents, in order, plus their political parties and the years of their Inaugurations—and by studying the fine print on his driver’s license.

Every night, he dreamed of being saved: a father and son on a camping trip told him they’d take him back, then walked so fast that he couldn’t keep up; boys playing Ping-Pong behind a boulder told him that camp was just around the corner; an old woman promised him and a friend that if they helped her clean her house she would “beam” them back to camp; a counsellor appeared but was reluctant to help because he worried that Sandy would feel the money he’d spent on helicopters had been wasted. In an especially vivid dream, a helicopter landed silently in front of the place where he was sleeping. “Sandy got out, and I said, ‘Oh, Sandy, I’m lost!’ ” he told me. The pilot said that he could carry only one passenger at a time and would return for Bill at dawn. It was still dark when he woke from that one. He was so excited about his coming rescue that he began singing, and ate most of his remaining food. Only once the sun had fully risen did he realize that the encounter hadn’t happened.

On August 13th, his fourteenth day alone, he was walking along the creek, still hoping to find the hut. He heard a helicopter, and climbed to the top of a boulder in the water as it flew directly overhead, not far above the ground. “I waved and waved but it was no use,” he wrote later. At an old campsite on the far side of the water, he found a discarded plastic sheet about twenty feet square, and decided that if he rolled it up he could carry it to the top of a ridge and use it as a signal. He was so weak by then that he had to rest frequently. That afternoon, when he still had a long way to climb, he heard voices above him. He shouted feebly, and tried to run up the slope. “Suddenly, I saw a group of guys come stampeding down the mt. at breakneck speed,” he wrote. They were backpackers from Outward Bound, based in Marble, Colorado, doing an orienteering exercise. They asked him, “Are you the kid?”

“That was the end of it,” Bill told me. “But it wasn’t the end of it, because my life really took a downward turn after that.” He did well in high school, both academically and athletically, but was deeply unhappy. “And that just continued to get worse over the years,” he said. He graduated from medical school, and completed a fellowship in clinical pharmacology. He got married. But he was miserable, and at one point he was hospitalized for depression. He later recognized that his troubles as an adult were related to his experience in Colorado. “Because I had turned my back on God,” he told me. “That’s how I can interpret it now.”

The critical moment, he said, occurred on the tenth or eleventh day, when he had become so weak that he wondered if he was going to die. He said a brief, silent prayer, in which he promised that if he was rescued he would dedicate his life to God. Almost the moment he finished, he saw a white helicopter flying along the valley from his left. “It wasn’t a hallucination,” he told me. “I asked my dad later if there really was a white helicopter, and he said yes, it was a Bell Huey, hired for the search.” Bill felt certain that God was answering his prayer—and at the same moment, in a panic, he took back his promise. “When you’re in the presence of God, you can’t lie,” he said. “It was like my whole heart was exposed to myself. I was a hypocrite. I realized that I didn’t want to serve Him, and the helicopter flew past.”

In the account he wrote immediately after he was found, he fudged the part about changing his mind. In 1988, when he was thirty-five and working at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, he began attending church with two colleagues, both pharmacists. “I’d watch people go up to the altar and accept Christ, and I’d think, I don’t really believe any of this,” he told me. One Sunday, though, he suddenly felt God take him back to Holy Cross, and to his moment of denial. “I didn’t hear any voice, but what I felt was that God was telling me, ‘I’m still saying yes. How about you?’ ” The transformation of his life began at that moment. “I was spiritually dead, but God gave me a second chance,” he said. In 2011, he retired from medicine and spent four years earning a degree in theology, at a seminary outside Philadelphia. As he thinks of it today, he was lost in the mountains and rescued twice, almost twenty years apart, the second time for good.

In the summer of 1971, when I was the same age Bill had been when he got lost, I spent two weeks backpacking and climbing in southwestern Colorado, with a group that modelled itself on Outward Bound. During the second week of our trip, our leaders spread us out along a mountain stream, for a three-day “survival solo.” We were allowed a few supplies—sleeping bag, twenty matches, pocketknife, notebook, pen—but no food. I was over six feet tall and probably didn’t weigh a hundred and fifteen pounds. Before the first day was over, I was so hungry that I began filling my notebook with the names of things I yearned to eat, eventually including even foods I hated: sweet potatoes, Hungarian goulash, corn fritters, figs. Almost worse than the hunger was the isolation. “I am beginning to realize that I cannot take complete solitude,” I wrote, when my solo was less than twelve hours old. On the second morning, I staggered fifty feet from my sleeping bag to the stream, to get a drink of water, and was so done in that before I got halfway back I had to lie down for half an hour. If I’d been carrying lunch for eight people, I might have eaten it all then.

When Bill and I spoke on the phone, I told him that, if he would let me read the journal he wrote in 1968, I would let him read the one I wrote in 1971. I skimmed mine before sending it, though, and changed my mind; almost every paragraph embarrassed me. Bill’s was different. He kept his head, and, even in the immediate aftermath of his ordeal, his love for the mountains was undiminished. “The Colorado Rockies are in my blood,” he wrote on the last page. “I have admired them, been threatened by them, and have now, by God’s good grace, conquered them.”

In 2014, Bill returned to Holy Cross with his daughter. They didn’t hike all the way to the area in which he’d been lost, but they did climb Half Moon Pass, three miles northeast of the summit, and from there they had a good view of the mountain. He told me that his daughter was overwhelmed by the scale of the landscape, as lifelong Easterners almost always are: mountains in Colorado aren’t like mountains in New Hampshire. On Google Earth, the entire area looks like scenery for a model-train set—you use your cursor to hover around the summit of Holy Cross and wonder how anyone could disappear even for a day—but the terrain looks nothing like that when you’re in it. “It was very, very emotional for me, to have her see that and to experience being there again,” Bill said. And, once they’d taken it all in, he called his wife, on his cell phone, right there from the trail. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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