by mel lees
i looked up from
our base camp on mt. shasta and saw that the heavens were almost white, so
filled with stars. our party was al except for a single tent perched on the
snow nearby. its occupant was a young man about twenty-two years old.
glanced over and saw him packing his daypack for the next morning's climb. first
he put in a small box, then two bottles and a lunch. he saw me staring and
waved. i returned the greeting and got busy with my own preparations.
the next morning,
the sun greeted the crisp dawn. after breakfast, my compani and i eagerly
started our ascent. i went into my slow, steady trudge, trailing the
after a little
while, the young man from base camp drew beside me and asked if it was okay to
hike along. i hesitated. i really didn't want any company. besides, i noticed
that he limped; and i wasn't certain whether he could reach the top. i didn't
want to abort my attempt at the summit to aid him.
"i'm glad for the
company," i replied, in spite of my misgivings.
his name was walt,
and he told me that it was his third attempt to reach the top.
"when i was about
twelve," he explained, "my father brought me here and we started up, but the
weather got bad, and we were forced to turn back."
pausing, he smiled
proudly. "dad was a great outdoorsman and a w climber."
we traversed for a
short way in silence before walt continued.
"i was born with a
problem with my left leg, so i've always had trouble walking and running. but
dad refused to let that keep me back. when i was just a tiny kid, he used to
take me into the sierra to teach me to fish. i remember the first time i baited
my own hook and hauled in a trout. he insisted that i clean it myself. it was
the best fish i ever tasted."
we stopped by the
side of the trail to put on our crampons. as we moved higher, he carried on with
"when i got to be
about nine, dad started taking me into the mountains. gradually, my leg became
str and eventually i could keep up with him. last summer he called and
asked if i would like to try for the summit again. we hadn't seen much of each
other since my parents' divorce, and i jumped at the chance to be with
walt looked down
toward our base camp.
"we camped where
you saw my tent. neither of us was really in a hurry to climb. we just wanted to
be together and catch up on the years we had missed. he told me that all he ever
wanted was to live with his family and grow old am his children and
grandchildren. dad had l silent spells, and there was a sad aura about
i spoke little. i
was trying to save my breath for the steeper incline. as we climbed higher, walt
kicked the steps, making my work easier. we came to a steep chute, narrow and
icy, and it seemed to me that his limp was hardly noticeable.
"why d you
lead?" he asked. "i remember that rocks tend to break away here, and i'd hate to
knock loose and have it hit you."
ten minutes later,
we stopped for a rest. by then i knew he was all of twenty- married and had
a three-m son.
"my father and i
got this far last time when i became ill from the altitude and my leg buckled
under me. the pain got so bad, i couldn't go on. dad hoisted me his back
and, somehow, he brought us both into camp before getting help. the search and
rescue team carried me to the hospital. dad and i promised each other that we
would try again."
then walt looked
down and squeezed back a tear. "but we never got to do it. he died last
after a solemn
moment, we trekked and just below the summit, we rested again on a small
rock outcropping. the sky blazed blue, and i could see at least 180 degrees to
eternity. the sun was high, and its rays warmed me as i ate some trail
a few feet away,
walt sat on a boulder holding in both hands the box he had packed the night
before. he whispered, "we're going to make it this time. you carried me last
time, and now it's my turn to carry you."
at that point,
walt rose abruptly, and with no further word he headed to the peak. i stared
into his face as he strode past me. he seemed to be in a trance with an almost
beatific smile lighting his face. i followed.
reached the top. i was a few steps behind.
knelt on the snow, reached into his pack and reverently removed the box. then,
after digging a hole about fifteen inches deep and attentively pouring some of
his father's ashes into it, he covered the hole and built a small st cairn
when he stood up,
he faced north, then east, south and west. turning his body toward each
direction again, he reached into the box and gently sprinkled some ashes to
each compass point.
walt's face was
painted with joy and triumph behind a rush of tears. he flung the last of the
remains into the wind and shouted, "we made it, dad, we made it! rest on our
mountaintop. i promise i'll be back when your grandson can meet you here."