The longest day of my life started at one o’clock in the morning on July 21, 2014. Our last night in the tents was a short one at our campsite around Guitar Lake in Sequoia National Park. We wanted to get a very early start on our Whitney summit attempt, hoping to reach the highest peak in the lower 48 by sunrise. This was the first time we had been out and about after dark the entire trip, excepting an occasional need to use the “restroom” in the middle of the night. As we broke camp and hit the trail, I was surprised at how dim Pacer’s headlamp was. It was a bit unnerving to see my trail boss inching his way up the mountain aided by the luminous equivalent of a kitchen match.
My fears were well founded. We lost the trail within the first 30 minutes. During the day, no big deal. During the night, while schlepping your way up a very big mountain perilously close to precipitous drop-offs, it’s a big deal. So, we did what any self-respecting mountain men would do; we sat down. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long for brighter lights and brighter minds to arrive.
As we sat waiting in the dark, it occurred to me that as embarrassing as it was, sitting down on the job in the wee hours of our summit morning was probably one of the smartest moves we made during the entire trek. How often do we lose our way in life, then make matters worse by redoubling our efforts despite being misguided and ill-equipped? It’s far better to call a time-out, reevaluate the situation, then make the necessary course corrections.
As we approached Mt. Whitney that morning, the attainment of our lofty goal loomed just below the clouds before us. But, at a critical juncture we found ourselves ill-prepared to continue moving towards it. We had to either turn back or find a way around our dangerous dilemma. Turning back was out of the question. It was, after all, our final summit day. So, we sat and waited for the Calvary to arrive.
And arrive they did in the form of a single trekker decked out in all the latest European climbing gear. He was chugging along like the Little Toot That Could with a headlamp that could have illuminated The Grand Canyon. In a mild British accent, he graciously gave us the assurance that we needed and invited us to follow him. In less than a minute, we were back on the trail and Little Toot was back in high gear. It didn’t take long for us to lose sight of him.
The whole scene reminded me of another one in the classic film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While being hotly pursued by an unknown posse, with a puzzled look on his face, Butch turns to Sundance and asks, “Who are those guys?” Though we never got his name, we’ll be forever grateful to Little Toot and his brilliant headlamp.