I haven’t written about my Pops’ for some time. After his passing in October of 2016 it was painful not to write about him or his influence on others. For nearly four months I lived out of my car, trying to make sense of his absence and plant a flag in my memory as to how painful losing him was. But with the passage of time healing patched enough holes in me that it was time to move on and begin my long-planned trip.
On July 8, 2017 a group of hikers meandering near Bishop Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains found my father’s body.
The most important thing we learned from the discovery was that it was not a rockslide that killed my Pops. That had been my best guess after searching 6 days for him. The coroner and how he was found suggest that Pops actually froze to death. Furthermore, the equipment he carried suggested that he was the victim of bad weather as much as poor preparation. Pops was found sheltering from fierce winds; some recorded as much as 100 miles per hour that day. His backpack was still on and the hastily-packed contents suggested he was “making a run” for the trailhead. This tells me he didn’t have confidence in his gear or supplies to shelter until the storm passed, which typically happens within 24 hours in October. Most frustrating for me was that Pops was wearing cotton jeans, and among his top layers was a cotton tee shirt and a cotton sweatshirt. For those who don’t know, cotton in the backcountry is a very poor choice as it is slow drying, heavy, and losses all insulating qualities when wet.
As a son is it ever possible to influence your father? It doesn’t matter how much sense you make, how compelling your case, or how gently you make it. I’m not sure this is the case with all father and son relationships but I would guess it might be. I spent at least a hundred days in the backcountry with my Pops spanning four decades. Admittedly, I can be obsessive about my gear, but that obsession has lead to a lot of knowledge about dressing and preparing for backpacking trips, especially in shoulder seasons. My Pops made a lifelong habit of not spending money on himself and when it came to backpacking he rarely sprang for new cloths or equipment. He didn’t own a pair of wool underwear. He only had a waterproof shell because I gave him a spare one of mine. Regularly he didn’t even bring gloves, saying he liked to feel his fingers even though they would often be numb. No amount of cajoling, lecturing, or example-setting had much impact on this preparation. Compounding this was that even when an item was given to him he would often forget it at home.
Pops was 74 at the time of his passing and he was showing signs of forgetfulness. He complained to me a number of times about how it was getting harder to remember where he put things. My guess is that on his last trip he forgot his synthetic hiking pants and had to hike in the jeans he brought for the drive.
I was very close to going with him on his last trip. Before we would leave his driveway on trips together I always went through a checklist with him to make sure he had the essentials. On one trip he forgot his hiking poles and I made him buy a new pair in route as the trip was going to be particularly rocky. I bring a bag of cold-weather cloths that I go through while in the weather at the trailhead to make last-minute tweaks to my equipment. I often loaned Pops key items he didn’t have or bring. I will forever live with the thought that we might both be here today if I was able to go with him on that last trip to supplement his preparation.
All this may raise the question as to why Pops would go in the first place? After all he was in an alpine location, well over 12,000 feet, in October and hiking off trail. While sounding ludicrous to most, those who regularly backpack will understand. The answer is simple; because he had to.
Backpackers do it for a rawness and beauty appreciated best after spending multiple nights in nature with only the gear on their back. The entire time your survival is based solely on your decision making and the supplies you brought with you. Combined with the physical challenge, the undertaking forces a presence of mind that is often cathartic and transformative. Said another way, the amalgam of the physical challenge, the sublime scenery, and the presence of mind it takes to make smart decisions in an unforgiving environment wash away the troubles and concerns of day-to-day life. Add to this the special thrill that comes from catching alpine trout and you have the ingredients for Pops’ annual trip. This past year’s trip was especially important to him. Pops had spent nearly two months in the constant care of his wife Joanne after her knee replacement. His job complete, it was time for his Sierras.
As the news of his passing disseminates most will feel how unfortunate Bob was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And those who know more of the details will lament his preparations for a summer trip when he should have been ready for a winter-like storm. But what most will miss was that while his timing was unfortunate, he was definately in the right place for him. The wild and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains were essential to Pops’ being. While his preparations where wanting, his yearning and respect for nature was life-long and without doubt. He was complete in nature. You could feel burdens lift off Pops with each step on the trail. On our last trip together in Yellowstone in June, he came back to camp and told of the wolf he had just seen as if he were a kid describing his favorite flavor at Baskin Robbins. Age and luck factored against him on his last trip, but he was doing what he loved in a place that was very dear to him. While he was taken from us too soon, how fitting he should go while visiting the place that made him whole. ~rdw