Looking and Seeing

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Your head’s down but you know you’ll pick it up in a few minutes to look around, because that’s what you do. And when you do look up you’ll count; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. It’s something you’ve done so often and for so long, you sometimes don’t even know you’re doing it. It’s like blinking, it’s automatic. And as you look back down to move the lid off the pot, you think “good, they’re all here”.

To anyone else you’re just cooking, if boiling water is in any way epicurean, but you’re also counting and that’s the important thing. Your buddy Brad is doing the same thing—counting that is, and there’s a level of comfort in knowing that, because two sets of eyes are better than one.  You’re both also listening for any aberrant noise; anything out of the ordinary that you might need to deal with; the sound of danger, the sound of fear, or the worst sound of all, the sound of no sound. Mothers are familiar with the first two, anyone who’s spent time in the woods or the jungle understands the last one. So, for you, looking and listening will be two of the most important things you do for the next five days; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and a quick glance over to your partner to give and hopefully get, the “everything is okay” look. You’re comfortable but vigilant because after years of working together, the two of you function symbiotically and that’s a powerful asset to have in the high-risk business of experiential education.

You both learned how to look around, or I guess more accurately “view the landscape” a long time ago as lifeguards, when you were charged with protecting people from drowning or some other self-inflicted calamity, because of the way humans behave around water.

As a lifeguard you counted often, usually every three minutes or so, because you understood that someone floundering around in the water for more than three minutes, usually drowns. Your tools of the trade then where simple; a whistle, zinc oxide, a hat, and one of the biggest assets of all, your sunglasses. Sunglasses were your friend, allowing you to look right past the people with the need to chat, those who assumed you were simply standing around doing nothing. Those deep green, reflective lenses, allowed you to look right past someone, and with the slightest turn of your head, do your job; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten…you get the picture.  

Now though things are different. You’re just below the tree-line along a ridge trail in the White Mountains; sunglasses aren’t that important, and you’re counting less often; at ten or fifteen-minute intervals, because the calamity you fear the most in this situation is a fall. You count less often because you believe although falsely, that you have more control over this situation than the inherent danger associated with water, however wilderness backpacking and mountain climbing are just as dangerous, and probably doubly-so when herding a group of emotionally disturbed young adults who suffer with attention deficit disorders and by default, a misunderstanding of the importance of purposefully placing one foot in front of the other.

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The ugliest fact about falling down is that there are two types; little ones where someone can break a leg, and big ones that we think about all the time but don’t talk about. Small falls can change a trip’s itinerary, big ones are nothing less than tragic. We strive for neither. Our biggest problem whenever we stop after a day of hiking is the feeling of liberation our motley crew experiences after shedding the backpacks they wore for seven or eight hours. With a burst of energy and a false sense of security they run around like dogs after a bone.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and this time you look over at your buddy and shake your head; it’s time to slow this party down. We expect these moments and always have a plan for them. This time we’ll engage the young lads in something they probably aren’t interested in doing, like pushups. The smart ones will get the message quickly, the others will do a lot of ground touching with their nose before they start to understand.

Our biggest concern when the sun goes down, is counting because you can’t count heads in the dark, and its pitch dark in the mountains at night, so we’ll be listening because even though we send our charges to bed, it doesn’t mean they won’t decide to prowl around. Our job then, will be to make them more afraid of running into one of us than falling off a cliff, and trust me, if they’re up and out in the darkness, they’ll run into one or both of us, long before they get the chance to exit into the abyss, and when we do meet, they’ll fear for their lives in a different way than ever before, which is a story for another time.

 

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Cold and Dark

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Excerpt from walking softly in the wilderness Sierra.

For winter travel you will have to make some changes in your gear—some substitutions, even more additions. Your summer hiking boots may or may not do for winter because winter is another world. So different are its rules, so special its demands, that what you almost need is a different manual.

The great reality is that, snow is cold. Never underestimate it and never take your situation for granted. You may or may not feel warm in your sleeping bag, usually not, but the times in between are rarely comfortable. Fingers get cold and become disobedient. Bare metal can be so frigid that it stings bare flesh. Flashlights balk, cameras jam, and water freezes solid in canteens. Everything you do takes longer—and there is more to do; more gear to deal with, more fixing, more finding, more figuring, and more rigging to be done (just check out our tent in the picture). You also need to perform all these duties in bulkier clothes that are more restrictive, and to add to it all there is less daylight to do it in.

 Backtracking, trying to find the trail in the northern Presidential Mountains.

Backtracking, trying to find the trail in the northern Presidential Mountains.

Flame On

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I did most of the cooking, and I can remember reading the manual when we bought our first mountain stoves. They were these little blue, metal boxes, with; a tank, heat shield, needle valve, and small foldable arms to hold the pot in place. I hated those things because they seemed to have only two settings; off and full throttle, and the tank was less than an inch from the flame. It also didn’t help that we often misplaced the heat shield.

We each carried one—Brad and I that is, and we each carried a metal container of white gas—you know, the stuff they talk about on those big highway signs, that you aren’t allowed to have in your car when you're on a ferry, or going into a tunnel, or over a bridge, etc.

Over the years we tried different stoves, none that I really cared for, and anyway there were other more important factors to think about, like weight. Anything with lots of built-in safety, probably weighed a ton.

We never let the “Rangers” use the stoves because of the following instructional information.

In operating a white gas stove there are two possible hazards to understand and avoid.

First, white gas must not be spilled near flame. White gas ignites easily and burns fiercely. Probably three-quarters of all stove accidents result from spillage of fuel. Good to know, I guess.

Second, the fuel tank must not be allowed to overheat. For the stove to run properly, the fuel tank must be warm, even moderately hot, but if it grows too hot to touch, vapor pressure inside will build to dangerous levels. Should the pressure become extreme, it will force open a spring-loaded safety valve in the tank lid and send a stream of vapor into the air. This stream is more than likely to catch fire from the burner, turning your stove into something like a blowtorch. (So why do they call it a “safety valve”? Because without it, the stove will explode; a blowtorch is much easier to handle than a bomb.)

Hot Tuna

When it came to the food we carried on mountain climbing trips, weight was the only real issue we needed to deal with. Eating was all about resupplying our bodies with calories and we really weren’t concerned too much about “cuisine”—Julie Child or the Galloping Gourmet, we were not. For us it came down to how much could we carry with the least amount of weight, so we had lots of macaroni and cheese, instant oatmeal, and a dry cereal-nuts-M&Ms-pretzel combination we called GORP that we bagged and carried. We went with hot breakfast, cold lunch, and hot dinner.

Eating in the mountains is also a little different than eating at a campground. There aren’t any chairs, and there’s no table. We cooked one-pot meals on small little Primus stoves and served the food into a bowl that each person ate with his spoon. The only utensils we carried were; our spoons, a small can opener called a P-38, and our Camillus Ranger knife. We use the knife for everything you couldn't do with a spoon; cut wood, stir food, scrape boots, dig holes, etc. It worked like a charm.  

The exception to the weight rule on mountain climbing trips was the first night's dinner. We always had “Hot Tuna”. This was something we dreamed up, or probably created accidentally, I don’t remember, but it consisted of the following;

5 cans tuna fish in oil

3 cans cut carrots

3 cans peas

4 cans boiled potatoes

Instructions: Mix together, Heat, and eat.

 

It was impossible to screw up hot tuna although we once screwed up breakfast because of it, I should say I did because it was my bright idea. We had some hot tuna left over and I thought it might make sense to mix it into our oatmeal the following morning. We ended up making something that was a cross between wallpaper past and concrete. That morning we ate a cold breakfast.

Sundance

Well, this was a new problem we hadn’t encountered before. Brad and I were both looking down at Steve, one of our climbers, who was flopping around on the ground and twitching in a classic grand mal seizure. We knew Steve was an epileptic but he was usually pretty stable when on his medication so we needed to figure out what the hell was going on— this was his fifth seizure of the morning.

There’s two phases to a grand mal seizure; the tonic phase when the person loses consciousness and the muscles contract usually causing the person to fall over, followed by the Clonic phase that includes muscle contractions and convulsions. Steve was in the Clonic phase so we just squatted and watched. There are misconceptions about what to do when someone’s having a seizure. You don’t stick things in their mouth, because seizure victims aren't going to swallow their tongue, you also don’t try to restrain them. You simply roll them on their side, maybe place something under their head to protect it from the convulsions and wait, and that’s what we were doing.

There was still a lot of snow on the ground at higher elevations on this spring climb in the White Mountains, and we’d been encountering large snow fields all morning like the one we were on now. But snow wasn’t our problem, Steve was our problem. So we told everyone else to take a break while we put on our doctor’s hats and tried to figure out what to do, and our Doctor Dan and Doctor Brad consultation went something like this;

“What the hell? Did we miss his meds this morning?”

“Nope, I just checked.”

“Okay, so what’s the problem?”

  “How do I know? Pull out his paperwork and see what it says.”

 Okay, so now I’m reading all his medical info. We read it before the trip but only as a briefing so now it’s time to read it in earnest, and then we spot it. His seizures are triggered by lighting, like the “strobeaffect of fluorescent light cycles.

“Okay, so Brad, maybe it’s the sun reflecting off all this ice and snow.”

“I don’t know, maybe he’s burning his meds up too fast with all this exertion.”

“Yah, and maybe it’s both.”

“Maybe”

"What do you think we need to do?"

"Shit, .................we could just sit here for the rest of the week."

"Yah, that would work."

"Well......whatever we do, we need to do it soon because we need to move."

"Okay, then let's be creative."

Long, long, long pause where neither of us say anything.

“Okay, how about we do this Brad. Let’s give him half a pill more. I just read the cautions and that’s not going to kill him, and hell, it can’t be any worse than having five seizures this morning.”

“Okay, but let’s have him wear your glacier glasses (the ones with the leather on the sides and around the bridge of the nose), and see if that helps block out some of the light.”

“Yah, and lets do this too. Let’s put his watch cap on and duct tape the glasses and the hat together and plug every gap we can find, at least until we get away from these snow fields or the sun goes in.”

"Yah, and lets stick his helmet on too just for the hell of it."

"Good idea."

So that’s what we did. When Steve came out of his fog, we joked around with him a little. Asked him if he knew what was going on, and told him what we thought we’d do to solve his little problem. Steve was a quiet kid anyway so he just sort of nodded and after he had something to drink, took his half pill and ate something, we duct taped him up and continued on the climb. He looked a little like a giant ant-man but he didn’t have any more grand mal seizures on the trip. He may have had some petit mals but who knows. As a precaution during any questionable climbing sections we roped everyone together in ten foot intervals so Steve wouldn’t be taking a ride down the mountain on his own. He also finally got his nickname. Kids begged us for nicknames and we always told them the same thing. "You’ll get one when you get one." They were coveted prizes for anyone who went out with us. From that day forward Steve was never Steve to us again. After that day he would forever be known, as the Sundance Kid.

Are You Willing to Do What I Do?

I remember the day one of the other teachers said; “Wow, you guys are really arrogant”. I just smiled and replied that actually I was tired, and if he knew what I knew about the past week, he might understand where I was coming from, although truth be told I probably said something like, “Get out of my face, I’m too tired to listen to your crap”. Oh well.

I’d just rejected the schools request to let him go on our next trip, which was supposed to be some sort of reward for his hard work in the classroom. What did he think this was, Club Med? The school’s owner didn’t even want this program in the first place and on the advice of friends—one a lawyer and the other a judge, had told us we’d need to take full responsibility for anything bad that happened. In the simplest of terms she was saying; "You can run "your" program, but listen carefully, I don't have your back". We had to actually sign-off on this or there wouldn’t be a program. We explained that all parents of participants would sign permission slips, but the schools attorney informed us they’d be useless, and wouldn’t afford us any real protection. This left Brad and me with few options if we wanted to develop and run, a high-impact wilderness experiential education program, to help affect real change in these troubled adolescents.

So we signed off on taking full responsibility, used the permission slips to start our campfires, and worked hard at developing and running a safe program.

I suppose I could have been a kinder and gentler person to the staff member that day who accused the two of us of being arrogant, and maybe he was right, but he wasn’t asking me to let him go to lunch with us, or let him go to the beach and make sand castles. He was asking us to do one of two things; to either let him be part of the solution on our next trip, or part of the problem.  

 I was once told by a trainer in a different field that “The purpose of arrogance is to let those whom you do not really value anyway know that you are better than them at a certain activity or in character. Acting arrogant he said, is a straightforward solution that has an almost immediate effect. Although it is of course, antithetical to the point of getting along with your fellow human beings, but it is a choice you sometimes need to make”. This for me, said it all.

I was a lot nicer to him the following week when I found myself in the principal’s office with him, and our chat went a little like this;

Do you know what hypothermia looks like?

Do you understand, if we hike two days into the wilderness and someone breaks their leg, it will still take at least two days to walk back out?

Can you function on three or four hours sleep and still help run a safe program?

Can you live in the same clothes for a week, because you’ll be required to make room in you backpack for a lot of team gear?

Are you willing to carry an 80lb. pack without complaining?

When a kid “looses it” in the mountains, are you willing to do whatever it takes to get him to “unloose it”?

Can you deal with these snot-nosed rangers 24/7 and enjoy it?

Can you live for a week with no personal time?

Do you know how to cross a ridgeline when the wind's howling, the map notation says, "dangerous in high winds, crossing not recommended" we can't stay where we are, and we can't go back?

Are you willing to cross that ridgeline?

Will you be able to handle being stuck in a lightning storm with no place to hide?

Are you willing and able to deal with any emergency that comes along, so we can exit the woods at the end of the trip with the same number of kids we entered with?

And lastly, would you be willing to sign on the dotted line that you’ll be held responsible and liable, for anything that might happen, just like Brad and I have signed off ?

The answers to all the questions, was yes except for the last one, and that was the last time I was asked if I’d let another staff member go, or as I put it, allow another staff member to put their money where their mouth was, to go “a romping” thru the woods with us. However, we did have to agree to run a staff trip, and guess what, that particular staff member decided not to go. I rest my case.

The Gear We Carried

When we went into the mountains everything, and I mean everything, was carried on our backs. Back then, there were no cell phones, pagers, personal computers or GPS, and the internet hadn’t been built yet, so the only thing online for us or anyone else at that time, was laundry. We talked about taking some sort of communications device with us but the best available was military, heavy, and probably had limited functionality in the back country. This meant any communication device we carried was probably going to be dead weight, and we hated carrying anything just for the hell of it, especially when we figured it wouldn’t work.

Our merry band of snot-nosed rangers carried about 30 to 35 pounds of gear and it was divided between personal gear like clothing, and team gear like food, cooking equipment and tents. Brad and I carried considerably more since we were responsible for the lives of the kids in our care, and our pack’s weight usually hovered in the 100 plus or minus ten or fifteen pounds range.

Brad carried 600 feet of Mammut Kernmantle climbing rope, a dynamic rope that has stretch built in, so when someone falls the force is reduced on the gear and the falling climbers. He also usually carried our two-man mountain tent. I carried the first-aid kit that included everything imaginable including a couple inflatable body splints ( one arm splint, and one leg). We each carried two canteens (water is the heaviest thing a person carries in the mountains), two stoves, and fuel containers. We really didn’t think it was a smart idea for one of the kids to carry gasoline in his pack so that was part of our kit. I carried two cameras and five lenses. Photography was a big component of our program and we needed pictures. Along with the cameras, I carried a light meter, ten roles of 35 mm color slide film and 20 rolls of black and white film (ten of Plus-X 125 and ten of Tri-X 400). If I was a glutton for punishment I'd sometimes carry a tri-pod . We also carried an entrenching tool, poncho, zero degree mummy bag, ensolite pad, flashlight, headlamp, Camillus Ranger knife, gloves, mittens, rain pants, duct tape, snow seal, gaiters, survival saw, vest, anorak, repelling and belaying gear, carabiners, webbing, harnesses, boot grease, repair rope, additional food, extra laces, toilet paper, halzone tablets, cooking equipment, bug repellant, candles, waterproof matches, head cover, and our personal clothing. We carried more clothing than we needed because somebody’s gear almost always got wet and they’d end up in our extra stuff.

We also carried medication, lots of it. Most of the SNR’s were taking some form of prescription medication and we carried all of it as part of maintaining safety and order. When I think back it was pretty comical when we prepped the meds. Before we left on a trip, Brad and I sat across from each other and packed every kids meds in individual dose envelopes and labelled them by day and time-of-day to avoid mix ups. We checked, and then double-checked each envelope before we packed it all up. On any climbing day we could have twenty-five or thirty envelopes of meds in the pockets of our fatigues that needed to be distributed that day. A phenomenon that reared its ugly head from time-to-time was that some medications didn’t work the way they were supposed to when an individual was strenuously exerting himself, burning thousands of calories and changing his metabolism out in the mountains. But that’s a story for another day.

I aint moving and you can't make me Mista!

I'm ain't moving, and you got nothing to say, mista.

Climbing in the White Mountains.

In a different universe, I worked with emotionally disturbed young adults in a program my buddy Brad and I developed. We sorta thought of it as Real World 101, meaning "Everything you do, matters". The message we tried to get across to these young adults was that if they acted in the "real world" the way they acted in the classroom, they'd become a greasy spot in the middle of, the road of life.

Since our Philosophy was, "Welcome to the Real World", we'll skip all the labels that school systems and society put on Bob and just deal with the reality of this life moment. And on this day, in that place the conversation went something like this.

"Get up Bob, it's time to go."

"I ain't movin mista."
"Come on Bob, if you stay on this rock you're going to die."

"I ain't movin mista, and you can't make me."

"Okay, don't move. But make sure you stay right here, so I can tell your parents were to find your body."

Huh?

Yah, the rest of us are leaving. Did you actually think the rest of us were going to sit down just because you did?"

At this point Brad and the other eleven guys leave adding to the reality of what it's going to feel like to be sitting there alone.

Maybe I should think some more, you mista you."

"Yah, maybe you should rethink this Bob, because as soon as John and I get our packs on, we're outa here."

"You can't leave me here."

"Bob, there's a difference between me leaving you here and you staying here."

"Okay, maybe I'll change my mind."

"Nope. There aren't any maybes when it comes to life and death. So stay here and die or get up and get moving. You need to make a decision."

"Okay, I change my mind."

"Good choice Bob. Now get your sorry butt off the ground and get ready to move".

"Why you, mista!"
 

And for anyone wondering, the answer is no, We wouldn't have left him. The hat you wear when you take kids into the wilderness is; doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, and babysitter, nurse, friend, father, instructor, ass kicker and a few other things.