"The good news," he said, patting my shoulder. "It's not a sheer drop-off."
"What's the Bad," I asked, not sure I wanted to know.
"Its pretty steep and about a thousand feet down."
Believe it or not, this bit of reassuring information came after I, and 14 of my friends had spent all night trapped on top of Pine Valley Mountain. This was the next morning. With the sun shining bright, we'd finally found what looked like the way down.If you've ever heard-"Its always darkest before the dawn." Then you've never spent any significant time in the dark. It's always the darkest when you think you're just a step away from the light. It's always darkest when your mind tells you its over only to open your eyes and find yourself right smack in the middle.
As I stood that morning, atop a 70 degree slope of boulders and drop-offs, I thought I was almost home-free.
But, I digress. Let me start over...
One gorgeous Friday in May, a whole group of my friends decided to hike over Pine Valley Mountain. There is a trail which begins on the North face and comes out at Oak Grove on the south side. May is a little early in the year for an excursion like this so we had our fearless leader, my brother Matt, check to make sure the weather and the mountain were without snow so we could go. The South face was clear so we set off. This hike normally takes about 8 hours. 4-6 hours up and 2-4 down the opposite side. We took off about 8 am, because my friend Wendy needed to be back for a wedding at 6 p.m. The group consisted of : guys, girls, one blind mascot (me), and a Japanese foreign exchange student named Yoshi. We all had knapsacks, water bottles and various other amenities. Yoshi brought a Japanese/English dictionary. My friend Ambra brought a bandanna, someone brought a roll of toilet paper, etc. etc. My brother Matt, brought everything he could think of. We all had little packs, he carried a full on backpackers pack. Thank heavens he did, or our 'trip' would have ended in a funeral.
Most of the hike on the way up was pleasant. We hiked, talked, flirted. You know; what most people in their early twenties do.
About 11 o'clock in the morning, we hadn't reached the top yet and the trail disappeared. It didn't so much vanish, as it was covered in about a foot and a half of snow. It turns out, the south face of the mountain was clear, but the North face had snow covering the top. Once again, we counted on my brother to lead us in the right direction based on marks the forest service left on the trunks of trees. We didn't think too much of it, until the snow got deeper. Soon we were trekking through drifts up to hour knees and thighs. One girl even wore shorts and was freezing.
I, of course was at the back of the group trying to navigate through the forest and the snow with minimal sight. I'd been blind about 15 months at this point. A hike with friends was totally doable. This was not "a hike with friends". This was survival 101. We finally emerged from our cold tundra at the rim of a U shaped cliff which dropped a few thousand feet. It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the sun was sinking in the west and my friend Wendy finally accepted she wasn't going to make it to the wedding. 'We' weren't going to make it off the mountain that night. After long discussions, a lot of prayers and some scouting, it became unanimous we had no choice but to spend the night.
My brother had been getting a hard time for carrying so much stuff over the mountain. Now, he saved our lives. He had waterproof matches, extra clothes, extra food, water and a first aid kit.
We gathered around a point on the mountain where we could be seen if our parents sent people looking. We could be seen because this part of the forest had burned in a fire a few years previous. Wood was scarce and the wind was a brutal knife cutting across our camping spot. Using the extra clothes Matt brought, we layered people up as much as possible. Mostly, we shivered and froze all night long. One guy actually melted the soles of his shoes trying to get them close enough to the fire to warm his toes. Another guy was allergic to the smoke and lost his voice. Everyone piled together at one point hoping the combined body heat would get us through the night.
The next morning, a trail down the mountain was found and we set off as soon as the sun came up.
Back at the top of the steep slope of boulders, now, it would finally be over. It had just begun.
The entire trip, I was escorted, supported, and guided by my friends. They led me through snow, over branches and roots, and now they literally held me up as we descended this boulder strewn slope. Our 15 person group scattered into smaller groups. My brother ran all the way down the mountain to get help. A group of girls got off the 'trail' and got stuck up on a cliff. 'The trail' wasn't one. We were making our way toward the forest service's official trail. In the process, I had to be helped because I had no depth perception and a fall would have been the end. Another girl had her ankle crushed by a falling boulder. She couldn't even walk.
At the bottom, my brother found parents, search and rescue, forest service and a man who brought horses up to get us down. Matt reported our various issues: sprained or broken ankle. trapped on cliff, blind, diabetic with no food.
A helicopter with paramedics was sent up to get me and fly me down along with the broken ankle. My brother came back up the trail to rescue the trapped girls and the horses started toward the rest of the party.
Food was left at various places along the trail as our rescuers found us; welcome relief for the people who were able to walk off the mountain.
However...It was about to get worse.
The slope we descended was too steep for the helicopter to land. Instead, a paramedic was sent down on a repelling line with a blood sugar meter and food for me. His line became entangled during his descent. When the line snapped, our super-hero fell and broke his leg.
The helicopter brought their man back up, flew him to the hospital and dropped us a stretcher for our own injured girl, but we were on our own. At times we walked, sometimes we carried the stretcher, once Yoshi stopped and asked us "This what 'hiking' mean?"
"No, Yoshi," my friend told him. "This what means HELL."
When we'd finally staggered through all but a mile or two of the trail, we came to a shale slope about a hundred yards across. This took careful maneuvering. If anyone were to slip, everyone would slide down the mountain together. Our busted ankle, covered her face while four of the guys balanced her on the stretcher and got her across.
Upon reaching an actual Forest Service trail, the horses met us. Me and the injured girl were loaded on horses for the final leg of the trip. The rest of our group raced down the trail, scooping up twinkies and ant covered sandwiches as they went. about a half mile before the end of the trail, my friend, who'd been by my side the entire time, took off to go let his mom know he was okay. Not more than three minutes after he'd left me, the horse I was riding, slipped on a slanted stone and fell, crushing my foot between his body and the rock.
When I finally emerged from the base of the trail, my foot was wrapped in gauze, my blood sugar was low, I was dehydrated and I'd been awake for 30 hours.
If I'd known when I started what would happen, I still would have gone. If I'd known that the steep slope at the top was only the halfway point, I still would've finished it. It was the craziest 30 hours of my life up to that point, but I'll never forget those people. My friends, my brother's leadership and courage, Even Yoshi, who never complained or gave up.
One of my favorite quotes is- "It will all work out in the end. If it hasn't worked out yet...then its not the end."
Faith is just a practice of that concept. The end could've been anywhere along the trail, if I'd decided it was the end. Even now, 18 years later, its not the end. I still shiver when I think about that long night on the mountain. I still smile when I hear the words "You were my voice when I couldn't speak. You were my eyes when I couldn't see."
I still remember my friend in her shorts and bandana coming off the mountain. It makes me love her all the more.
Faith takes courage, strength, and patience. Mostly though it takes perspective. Its a good thing we didn't see the end of that trip before we took it...we probably wouldn't have gone. And look at all the life and love we would have missed. To my 14 YSA fellow hikers. Thanks for the trip. I wouldn't have missed it for anything.