Huge thanks to Doug for an awesome story and photo!
“Bob?!” I called again. “Where are you?”
I stood at the top of a slope frantically moving my eyes in search of the 55-year-old Vietnam veteran from Texas. Next to me were two empty cooking pots. Twenty minutes earlier they had been filled with water. But then the lighting had struck.
Bob and I had volunteered to scramble down from our camp spot to a small lake to fill our Outward Bound troop’s cooking pots with water. We had just finished a long day of grueling hiking with heavy packs. At last we had found a suitable spot to set up camp for the evening. It was a small, relatively flat spot above tree line nestled in the nook of a 13-thousand-foot peak that we would be mountaineering the next morning.
I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled out again, “Bob!”
I feared the worst. We had been in the middle of filling the pots at the lake when a sudden bolt of lighting hit the opposite bank. At that moment, I turned to Bob and hollered, “run!” took off up the slope as fast as we could. I tried to keep my pots steady as I tripped over rocks and brush but water sloshed out everywhere. I reached the top of the slope, threw the pots down, and dove under a tarp that was serving as our tent. My brother was already under it with his rock climbing helmet on. Lighting continued to strike violently around us. Then hail started falling. I got into my sleeping bag and curled up into a fetal position. My brother, Charlie, sat upright with his legs crossed, his helmet touching the top of the tarp. “Dink, dink, dink” went the hail. Charlie laughed.
After 20 minutes of fright, the storm had finally cleared out and all nine of us in the Outward Bound troop had been mercifully spared. Except for Bob, who had never made it back to the tarp. He was still out there. Had he been hit?
Just then out of the corner of my eye I caught a figure wearing a blue poncho emerge from behind a small boulder half-way down the slope. It was Bob. Thank god! I thought. Bob smiled and lifted up two pots in the air. Both were still filled to the brim with water.
Four months earlier I was sitting in my office at National Geographic Television and Film in Washington, DC, scrolling through Outward Bound’s website to see what courses were available that summer. I was 27 and just about to complete my MFA degree in film. My job at National Geographic was to prepare camera gear packages for crews heading out to all parts of the globe to create films and videos. One day, I hoped to be on one of those crews as a cinematographer.
Being at National Geographic was a good place to start toward that goal. But I knew I would need training outside of their office. I loved wild landscapes, especially the mountains. If I wanted to position myself as someone who could do film shoots in those types of environments, I thought it would help to have some mountaineering skills on my resume.
Part-way down the web page, I found what I was looking for — a three-week mountaineering and rock climbing course in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, the United States’ most remote wilderness in the lower 48. I had spent part of my childhood growing up in Colorado. We moved away to Seattle for my dad’s job while I was in high school. I missed the state and welcomed any opportunity to get back.
Then I got the idea of talking my brother into signing up with me.
Charlie and I were four years apart and grew up with different interests. I loved playing sports. He loved building things, especially forts in the backyard. When I was in college and he was in high school, we both developed an interest in the mountains and backpacking. Finally, we had something we could do together that we both enjoyed. We did our first backpacking trip together in Washington state’s Cascade Mountains when I was 20 and he was 16.
Charlie was just about to graduate from college and already had a job lined up after graduation. But his start date hadn’t yet been set. I told him this might be his last chance to do something like this before his career and other life events got in the way. He agreed and was able to get his start date pushed until August.
So we were all set, except, neither of us could afford the course fee. We were both college students with barely enough money to pay our bills. I learned that Outward Bound offered scholarships to those who were financially challenged. Charlie and I wrote letters to apply for the scholarship. We both were accepted.
It’s been 16 years since that day I watched my brother laughing at 12,000 feet while hail bounced off his helmet. During those years I have had few opportunities in my career to use the skills I learned during that course, my original reason for signing up. Nine years ago I did realize my dream of getting to go out on a National Geographic shoot. Except it wasn’t in the mountains. It was at sea level, shooting great white sharks of the coast of South Africa.
But it has helped my career in other ways. I now have my own video production company, but I work also as a professional photographer. Sixteen years ago photography for me was a hobby. I had my used 1970s-era DSLR camera with me during that Outward Bound course and used it to document mine and my fellow students’ experiences. Looking back, I see now that that experience served as a self-assigned editorial project, which helped me build a portfolio and train me for future professional work.
But what I treasure most of all from my Outward Bound experience is not the impact it has had on my career. Rather, it’s the bond with my brother and the friendships I made during it. I still am in touch with Bob, who has since moved to Ouray, Colorado, and become an avid ice-climber. And Julie, a musician and Broadway actress in New York that I got together with often when I lived on the East Coast. And Jeff, an artist who lives in Denver and with whom I get together to go to concerts.
After Outward Bound my brother and I continued to meet up for backpacking trips and use several of the mountaineering skills that we learned. When he was in Cleveland and I in Washington, DC, we would meet each other halfway in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, or back in the Cascades when we were both visiting Seattle. We have since found our way back to Colorado where we now both live Denver. We get together often to mountain bike, ski, and hike. He has a son who, like me, loves to play sports. I help coach his soccer and baseball teams. Charlie, meanwhile, provides me with help on construction projects on my home, a 980-square-foot fort I purchased two years ago.
This photo shows three of my fellow OB students during our course in 2003. I love this photo because it tells so much about my experience with the course —mountaineering thirteeners and fourteeners seemingly built only of millions of rocks pilled on top of each other; eating snacks and lunch on the sides of these mountains with unparalleled views; and Bob, the most unique member of our group who keep his 55-year-old body together with the help of a lot of tape.