From the Lowest Depths there is a Path to the Loftiest Heights
Given: It was the last night on the trails and everyone was looking forward to ice cream at base camp the next day. Fourteen days of hiking fifteen to twenty miles per day with forty pound packs on our backs, and eating rationed, dehydrated food, leaned our bodies. It also helped me get in shape for my sophomore high school football season.
Our goal was to merge with another New Jersey group and greet the sunrise atop the Tooth of Time, a jagged outcropping of rock; its silhouette branded the Philmont Reservation on belt buckles, shirts, and coats. It was a fitting end to an eventful fourteen days where we tested our endurance, courage, and communication skills to help our unit remain together and safe. I was also relieved. My boots started coming apart about half way through the trip. It looked like they would finish the trail.
We woke at midnight and started hiking, to insure seeing the sunrise on the Tooth’s peak. I cut my fingernails before going to bed and my finger tips swelled. This and being dazed from two hours sleep kept me from being able to tie my pack and shoes.
As we started to hike, I had a hard time keeping my eyes open. My sleep was off since the first night on the trail. Every night I woke between two and four and remained awake until about five. The extreme quiet, or distant noises, made my mind and heart race. I could not rest. On one of the expedition’s first nights, I heard a bear near my tent. In the morning, we found bear tracks around camp. This influenced my sleeping patterns.
Doubt: The trek was a testing ground for me. My mom was diagnosed with cancer six years earlier. This, combined with my dad’s related anger and other traumas, caused some problems. My schoolwork was abysmal for five years. I was truant. I hung around with questionable kids. My scouting experience was good for me, but I did not excel like my father. At the time he received the award, he was the youngest Eagle in NJ history.
My lack of sleep put me in a fog as we headed to the tooth. I was hoping to hike and enjoy the scenery while reflecting on the two previous positive weeks. It was very dark. There was no moon. We hiked for a while when our adult leader, John Gruber, and Mr. Ames, the other unit’s leader, started questioning the map. They thought we lost the Tooth’s Trail. Instead of turning back, Mr. Ames recommended we blaze our own trail until we were able to rejoin the path between the Tooth and the smaller mountain facing us, situated east of the Tooth. The stars outlined these mountains, barely.
Trials: With an eager bounce fitting his Teddy Roosevelt looks, replete with his handlebar mustache, Mr. Ames bounded into the rough path causing our initial derailment. It resembled a deer trail. Brush was pushed aside, but there was no established path. Our units dutifully followed until we came to a wall of boulders. One of the other troop’s scouts led our initial ascent up these boulders, but he chose a dangerous path on loose rocks weighing well over several hundred pounds. One slip would be disastrous for the twenty one men and boys behind him.
Mr. Ames and John met in private, but I was within earshot. They felt it was too risky to climb back down the loose boulders with twenty two scouts and no visibility. Yet, they feared what lay ahead. The boulder movement, and their fears, shook me. I offered to lead the expedition. There appeared to be solid faced rock between the walls of boulders. And this sheer rock seemed to have enough hand holds and moss to make a safe climb possible.
Thus, I started ascending this mountain. With some disappointment, we accepted the fact we had missed our initial goal to climb the Tooth Trail. Enthusiasm turned to fear as we realized the seriousness of our predicament. We climbed the boulders and ledge on this mountain in front of the Tooth. We created communication systems to insure everyone was safe, and following secure holdings. It was pitch black. As we climbed, the mood changed. Some scouts started to panic. They screamed about falling rocks. Someone thought he broke his leg. Three quarters up the mountain, I maneuvered around a ledge, to check its stability, and heard Mr. Ames panic. He was saying to himself. “Oh God, what did we do? One slip and we could all die!”
I yelled to Mr. Ames to relax and keep moving forward. As I spoke, I needed my arms to lift myself across a bottomless hole as my legs dangled inside. I could see very little and anticipated being bitten by a bear or snake resting in this crevice. People who followed lifted each other across the hole. No one was injured. We later learned this same boulder field was, in broad daylight a week earlier, the site of a tragic accident when an avalanche critically injured several scouts.
Transcendence: Inside me, there was a peaceful calm. I knew we were going to be OK. I sensed there was a solution, but our adult leaders, and some scouts, did not share my enthusiasm until a formal trail appeared. We followed it and rested on a series of ledges. We marveled at the silver lined clouds framing the sunrise. Directly behind our mountain loomed our initial goal, the majestic Tooth of Time. I was thankful for helping lead 22 people to safety. I figured Grace, will, and luck helped me guide others through this experience, and God would help guide me for the rest of my life. Then, I sat down, cradled my head in my hands between my knees, and I took a nap.
There was a broad, safe, trail leading from these ledges down the other side of this mountain to base camp. The ice cream and naps were most gratifying. And, the positive decision making and outlook I learned on this trip started me on a great high school journey.
After this trip, I decided to forego Scouts and devote my time to varsity football, wrestling, and track and to discipline myself. My grades flourished. Our football team never lost a game over the next three years while I was the sole three year starter. We finished top ranked in NJ my senior year when I was a co captain. Princeton, Brown, Harvard, West Point, and Georgia Tech recruited me. The attitude cultivated on this Philmont Mountain seemed to change my life for good.
My educational and professional journey exposed me to legendary coaches, educators, and exceptional organizations. From these experiences, I created competency profiles highlighting traits shared by outstanding performers. I hope to share these with you in 2008, to help guide you to great outcomes.
Happy New Year!
Great expectations don’t always guarantee anticipated results, but a positive outlook, discipline, and effort can bring uncommon rewards and learning.