Rob Byers is senior local news editor for the Louisville Courier Journal, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
I scanned the face of the barren mountain for movement, my gaze trailing across its many layers of rock. I strained to listen for a sound other than the light breeze and calling birds.
“There’s nothing up there,” I said to my brother, again squinting into the sun at the edge of Utah’s Zion National Park.
Then, a sound.
I grabbed my video camera from my pack and used the zoom to again sweep the upper reaches of the rock, rising hundreds of feet above. And there it was — there she was — perched on a ledge about 50 feet from the top, sobbing.
Wordlessly, my brother Ric and I began to scramble up the face of a mountain we had, just hours before, agreed we’d better not attempt.
An abundance of caution
Two days earlier, I’d touched down in Las Vegas on the morning of my 50th birthday. It was all part of my plan, hatched months before, to disrupt the nagging insecurities that a half-century tends to bring.
Ric landed a few hours later, and we pointed our rented Nissan Rogue northeast toward Utah.
We’ve been meeting up for these weeklong hiking excursions on and off for the past several years, trekking through some of the best scenery this country has to offer — the Sawtooths, the Bitterroots, Glacier National Park, the Green and White mountains and on and on. Besides Zion, this trip would have us hitting the trail in Monument Valley, Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon.
But it had been two years since our last trip. Back then, we’d done several miles a day on some pretty steep trails. But this time — a new desk job had left me out of shape. And I had hernia surgery last year. And my often-creaky knee was in full creak. I spent the better part of a rainy Saturday afternoon searching online for the perfect knee brace.
Ric and I grew up on a gravel road in southwestern Pennsylvania. We spent countless childhood hours together, exploring the surrounding hills, creeks and pastures. Now, living three hours apart, we use our hiking trips to catch up — and maybe recapture the feeling of those young, carefree, pain-free days.
Before our first trip in 2013, as she drove us to the airport, Ric’s wife repeatedly urged us to exercise an “abundance of caution” with our middle-aged selves. I thereby dubbed our trips The Abundance of Caution Tour, and when Ric opened his bag at our hotel outside Zion, those three words were scrawled across a slip of paper she’d tucked inside.
East peak, yes. West peak, no
On our first day in Zion, we made our way out to the red cliffs at Observation Point, the stunning Virgin River valley winding far below. A few too many fellow hikers for our taste, though. The next day’s hike promised more seclusion.
The morning dawned sunny and cool as we made our way to the Northgate Peaks Trail in a less popular section of the park. There were only a couple of cars at the trailhead as we shouldered our day packs and headed into the pines. We emerged in a few miles on an outcropping of black, volcanic boulders called Lava Point.
From there, we could take in the gray, slickrock mounds looming on each side of us —the east and west peaks. Being a longtime journalist, I had done my research in advance.
“The easier east peak is best climbed on its broken northwest face …,” advised the Utah tourism website. As for the west peak? The “route is exposed and dangerous, and while it’s not a technical climb, bring climbing gear and a rope for safety going up and down.”
We aren’t climbers. We had neither gear nor ropes. We decided the east peak was more our speed. Abundance of caution, you know.
I adjusted my knee brace, and within an hour, we were perched at the top, squinting toward the distant red cliffs where we had been the day before. Blocking a big piece of the view, though, was the hulking west peak.
We climbed down, ate our trail lunch in a shady spot and began our walk back toward Lava Point. It rose above us to our right, the west peak was at our left, and we made our way across the thin saddle of land in between. As we drew closer, we could see a small group of people standing far up on the ridge near the point. Soon, we could hear their voices. They were calling to us.
‘I’m too afraid to move!’
“Are you looking for someone?” they yelled, their words floating down into the valley. “Was someone with you?”
It was hard to make out what they were saying, but when we heard them ask if we had any ropes — something about someone needing help — we turned skyward, gazing along the face of the west peak.
That’s when I caught sight of her through my video camera and heard the sobbing. The folks over on Lava Point heard it, too. As my brother and I broke out our hiking poles, shouldered our packs and started searching for a way up, a few more words drifted down from the point …
“We’ll say a prayer for you.”
We skirted along the base of the towering rock until we found a place where we could begin to scramble up. The whole mountain looked like a huge stack of pancakes, and we used the edge of each narrow, rocky shelf to gain footholds as we zigzagged our way up.
We were climbing at about 7,000 feet. My lungs are accustomed to Louisville, Kentucky, which nestles at a comfortable 466 feet above sea level, so I was breathing hard when I got within shouting distance of her.
“What’s wrong?” I called up to her.
“I climbed here, but I looked down, and now I’m too afraid to move!” she said through tears and a heavy French accent.
“Are you hurt?” I called. "No."
“Anyone up there with you?” "No."
We kept climbing, balancing with our hiking poles on the cramped ledges. For most of the climb, the face of the mountain had sloped away from us at about 45 degrees. But the higher we got, the more the mountain crept closer and the angle closed. I placed one hand on its rocky face to steady myself, all the while watching for loose rocks as I carefully chose each step. Falling was not an option — not a good one, anyway.
When I finally plopped down next to her on the ledge, a cheer went up from the folks over at Lava Point. But she wasn’t cheering. She was panicked, still crying, apologetic and embarrassed.
I did my best to calm her down by boring her with mundane talk about my birthday and our earlier hikes. It seemed to work. She told me she was from the south of France and currently living in Montreal on a work visa. She’d decided to take a solo trip out West, and after spending an hour frozen in fear on this ledge, had concluded she might never see France again.
We sat in silence for a bit, looking out at the sprawling vista before us, before I broached the subject at hand: “You ready to go?”
The answer was clearly "no," but she carefully stood up. I gave her one of my hiking poles and laid out the game plan: Ric would walk ahead, choosing the best path; she would use the pole on the ledges to the right while leaning hard to the left (closest to the mountain) and occasionally using the mountain face for balance; I would hold tight to a strap on her backpack, pulling her back if she began to fall.
We took it slow. I pointed out places for her to step and places to anchor the hiking pole. Every once in a while, I tugged a little on her pack to let her know she had an extra hand. Twice, Ric reached a dead end on the ledges and had to turn around and come back past us, which did not sit well with her. On the second pass, she crumpled and began to retch.
My thoughts started to race: "Compared to where we found her, the ledges are much more narrow here ... there’s no way she can lie down … if she can’t go on, one of us has to go for help or find a place where we can get a cell signal … I think I heard the group at Lava Point mention trying to call 911 … did they get through?" But as quickly as it started, she managed to get things under control.
“I’m sorry, it must be the stress,” she said. We rested a while before carrying on.
I’m usually the quiet type, but I ran my mouth the whole time: “Step here.” “Hold tight to the hiking pole.” “You’re doing good.” “I’ve still got a hold on your pack.”
And about two hours after first being flagged by the folks at Lava Point, we were on the ground, sitting in the shade, drinking deeply from our water bottles.
Her tears again started to flow, and she said, “Merci beaucoup!” through sobs before apologizing for slipping into French. But as we hiked the last few miles to the trailhead and our cars, it dawned on me that I was the one who should be thanking her.
I flew a few thousand miles away from my life to take a bypass around my 50th birthday, to distract myself from some kind of semicentennial reassessment and the “man, I remember when 50 seemed really old” moment.
I attached myself to the person who reminds me more of my youth than any other, and I immersed myself in places I’d dreamed of as a kid reading Louis L’Amour.
It all worked perfectly, but it was my own construct. What was real was the mountain and the person in need. What was not real was the thought that one age, one round number, one ticking of the clock, is different from the next.
Sometimes, it takes a jolt to figure these things out. And another to bring you back down to Earth. I texted my wife a picture of the west peak, modestly bragging that Ric and I had climbed the mountain to rescue a hiker. She quickly responded:
“Cleaning the gutters shouldn’t be a problem then.”
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Zion National Park: Stressful mountain rescue leads to happy outcome