I looked at my watch. Five PM. We can make it to the party by nine, I thought, wrestling my backpack over my shoulders and staring out across the vast Yosemite Valley. A steady stream of tourists had begun to trickle down off the trails as the sun prepared for its decent behind the towering granite gods that watched over the valley. Nobody would be crazy enough to be on these trails at night!, I knew they must be thinking, as I watched them stumble down the path in flip flops, clutching their empty aquafina bottles and talking excitedly about the restaurant at the Yosemite Valley Lodge. I chuckled to myself, nobody would mistake this place for Disney World. At least they had made it back, I figured. A lot of these people don’t make it back, and when they don’t, the guys and gals of Yosemite Search and Rescue gear up and take to the trails to bring back that sprained ankle or take to the skies by helicopter in search of the guy that climbed half way up a cliff face with no gear and got stuck. I had a deep respect for the YSAR crew. Very rarely did they have to risk their lives to rescue a person out of sheer unpredictable calamity, but rather, put their lives on the line daily to rescue the ignorant and unprepared who had run out of water or got in a little or a lot over their head. But it didn’t matter whether it was a band-aid or a broken femur, the YSAR crew stood by the mantra of no man, woman or child left behind, and they bled for their cause. So when they invited my buddy and I to a party that was ten-miles deep into the backcountry of Yosemite National Park, we were like… duh, we’ll be there.
So there we stood at the base of the trail, headlamps strapped to our foreheads, boots laced tight, a buck knife hanging from my hip (in case I needed to make a bear even more angry), and backpacks loaded down with gear. We watched for a moment, the evening sun throw rainbows into the cascading waterfall next to us. Soon, we would see nothing but what the lights on our heads illuminated and the fire of adventure burned in my belly. I turned to my comrade, “You ready to do this?” “Without a doubt”, he replied, and we started down the trail. As the daylight slowly faded, it gave us one last chance to absorb the beauty of Yosemite and the sheer granite cliffs around us illuminated in a blazing orange. Absorbing the scenery, we walked in silence as our boots softly crunched the dirt path, composing the alluvial rhythm of the trail and marking our pace. It was a great beginning to a hike and as the sun completed its march across the sky and we turned on our headlamps, there was no way I could have known just how much I was about to be challenged.
It was a new moon that night, so a blackness thicker than ink had drenched the path before us and our headlamps struggled to cut through the wild dark. We were halfway up a trail of steep granite steps when my friend suddenly stopped. He leaned forward, putting his hands on his knees and, through struggled breathing, told me he needed a minute to catch his breath. I pulled out my water bottle and lit a cigarette, watching him. “Are you ok?” I asked. “Totally fine,” he said, “I just need a minute.” After he had caught his breath, we started back up the seemingly endless granite steps and fell back into a quiet rhythm as we ascended in the darkness. After fifteen minutes he stopped again, breathing harder this time, pain clearly washing over his face in the light of my headlamp. We had already covered roughly five of our ten miles, and in my meditative state of hiking, I had failed to realize that he had reached his limits long ago and had been quietly pushing himself forward, desperate to match my capabilities and afraid to be the person that ruined the party. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Take as long as you need.” I said, and we stood there for another ten minutes while he caught his breath before he quietly nodded his head as a sign that he was ready to keep going. Five minutes later, he stopped again. “I can’t do this.” he said, “I’m really sorry Brad, I gave this everything I had.” I looked him in his eyes, seeing tears start to swell in their corners, took him the shoulders and said to him, “Yes, you can do this. We are in this together and we are going to do this together.” He looked back at me, fear of pain and failure in his tired wet eyes, and he decided to trust me. We pushed forward… walking for a minute and then resting for a minute, walking for a minute and then resting again for minute… for hours we repeated this strategy. Through tears he walked and climbed, the cramps in his abdomen searing with every slow step, and when he would stop and give up, I was right by his side to encourage him and give him just enough energy and belief in himself to walk the next three hundred feet. It was painfully slow, and I was trying to push down my frustration. I just wanted to be at that party. And then it dawned on me that what I would remember of that night wouldn’t be the party, but this experience of helping someone through one of the hardest physical ordeals of their life. Thinking of my search and rescue buddies at the end of that hike, I felt their mantra of no man left behind seep into my bones. I remembered that a group is only as strong as its weakest member. Looking over at my friend as he struggled, the party fell from my mind and I gave him an encouraging punch in the shoulder, smiling warmly, as we pushed forward into the slate black night.
By two in the morning, I was almost physically dragging him along. I had already moved weight from his backpack into mine and he was gripping my arm while slowly shuffling his feet behind him on the trail, utterly and completely out of energy. The pain he felt had turned to numbness and his eyes stared forward down the trail in a half conscious haze. I was starting to feel as if he were about to collapse into the dirt when I finally saw it and stopped dead in my tracks. “Look dude…” I said with a smile, pointing into the woods. Down a path to our right, the glow of a bonfire radiated through the trees. “We made it.” I almost whispered to him. His face lit up and a new energy surged through him. All of his pain released and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of accomplishment in him and we stood there for a moment as this pain left his body in the form of tears. When he had collected himself, we walked down the path and into the site of the YSAR ranger outpost where the party was going on in full swing. “They made it!!!” yelled one of the SAR guys, who had just finished creating a giant fireball by blowing whiskey into the fire. “We almost came looking for you!” he said. My friend and I looked at each other and laughed. We sat down beside the fire and cold beers were pushed into our hands. My buddy’s face glowed with happiness and relief and, as I watched him for moment, I saw something even stronger wash across his face. Pride and accomplishment. He was feeling the summit. Looking over at me, he said, “Thank you for not leaving me behind.” I just smiled. “First rule of travel…” I said with a wink, “no man left behind.” And we clinked our beers together and watched the embers from the fire climb high into the sky to get lost among the stars.