John, the Human Lightning Rod

John, the Human Lightning Rod

We never know to what heights a friendship may take us . . .

We were three days into our annual fall BTA (Buckeye Trail Association) backpacking trip. Children again–five strong–who still loved to hike and camp in the woods with our buddies. Our fall hikes take us off the BT into new territories. This year John was leading our little band of explorers on the North Country Trail through the Allegheny Mountains of northern Pennsylvania.

This far into the journey, we explorers were noticeably tiring. The valleys and vistas were exquisite, but the terrain and temperature were taking their toll (not that age could have anything to do with it). Two days before, we had numbered seven, but Bob had to get a ride out due to some kidney issues; since Andy came with him, they left together. Jim, an experienced hiker, was still with us but limping from a severe strain in his calf. As we marched over the path in formation, we anticipated reaching camp and resting our weary bones. Then Chris, our senior member, fell and broke a couple of his. I’m pretty sure this was not the trip John had planned.

Chris had been in the lead at the time. I was near enough to hear the sound of body striking boulder as Chris slipped crossing a small stream. He only had time to let out a quick “Whoop” before he found himself resting on his back in the water. I reached him first and noticed his injured foot, the one turned to the left while the rest of his leg faced the sky. I immediately suspected the culprits were his new shoes. Chris and I were always looking for ways to travel lighter, and he had been experimenting with some quick-drying, lightweight low-tops. They didn’t have the tread his boots did, and they certainly had offered no support against the fall.

We needed to act quickly. Not knowing what to do first, we all tried our phones, fully aware that we hadn’t had cell service since we began our hike three days before. Still with no service, we had to do something besides repeatedly peck 911, preferably something more productive. Chris was the calmest of all. He quietly suggested that we get him out of the cold water and up onto the flat bank. Good thinking. Not wanting to create a big fuss with bringing in rescuers, he then proposed that we rig a carrier out of our jackets and hiking poles. We had already had some falls on this trail just carrying ourselves, so that option didn’t sound like a feasible way to get to the road five miles down the trail. Good try anyway, Chris. After tossing around some other ideas, we came to the only viable alternative–climb the mountain to search for a cell signal.

John and I started up the hill while Jim and Dave stayed back to try to make Chris comfortable. He was already soaked from the stream and he was starting to turn pale. We kept trying our phones as we climbed, but with no success. In one place the hill got so steep we practically had to crawl. I looked up; we were running out of hill. Four-tenths of a mile after we began our ascent, we reached the top. I still had no service, but John’s phone finally displayed one bar. Even though we were completely focused on our mission, we couldn’t help but notice the darkening skies and gusts of warm moist air swirling dust around us. I’m pretty sure this was not the weather John had ordered for the hike.

John tried 911 and somehow got through. The connection was so weak he could hear only every second or third word. He handed the phone to me while he looked for his maps. What I heard was not good:  “. . . you . . . need . . . climb higher. . . hear . . . coordinates . . . storm . . . damage . . .” Then more crackling.

As the smell of ozone blew in from the west, I gave John the phone and my translation of the conversation. He looked around and spotted a huge slag pile. (We were near a forest service road.) He climbed it, gaining maybe 15 more feet in altitude. That put him high enough to hear almost every word. Though it was far from a good connection, it was adequate for them to hone in on our coordinates. That was the good news. The bad news was that the ominous, zigzaggy lightning two ridges over was moving our way. They asked John if he could go any higher to improve the connection so they could get more details of our situation. I was shocked to see him looking up into the trees surrounding us. I was pretty sure that was not what they had in mind.

Fortunately the top of the slag pile proved high enough. Help came an hour or so later. Six vehicles wound their way up the mountain on the snaking service road. Pros and volunteers gathered to discuss their descent to pluck Chris from the abyss. Even while they drew up their plan, they eyed the skies warily, knowing there was already storm destruction in the next county. As they set up their rescue equipment, they continued to glance to the west. The rain had arrived, and the wind was beginning to drive it horizontally through the makeshift headquarters. The team had never made a rescue during a severe weather watch. They were concerned not only that the storm would score a direct hit on us, but also that Chris would become hypothermic from another soaking.

I led part of the rescue team down to Chris. Although in a great deal of pain and looking paler than the peeling bark of the surrounding sycamore trees, Chris had managed to coach Jim and Dave on the art of splinting. I figured he would find some way to utilize those jackets and hiking poles in his rescue. The team was duly impressed by that feat as they loaded Chris into their sturdy carrier. Six guys transported him up the mountain with the assistance of a cable and winch on the steepest part. The rescue was successful, and I thanked God that the brunt of the storm had bypassed us.

Three hours after his fall, Chris lay in a warm, dry bed in the hospital in a nearby town. John sat by him through the night as the doctors decided the best course of action. John celebrated his own birthday in the hospital (I didn’t find out about that until the next day), but he didn’t complain. The fact that Chris was high and dry was all the present he wanted.

Chris is rehabbing faithfully this spring, trying to make friends with the extra nuts and bolts in his tibia and fibula. We old guys are rethinking our mountain hiking trips. Could be that maybe we need a better communication system.

John and Chris have been forging their friendship on and off the trail for years. I saw on that trip what a real friendship it is: stepping up when your friend falls, being willing to take a hit, standing by until the situation is well in hand. It was quite a takeaway for me. I like to think that any of us would have done the same.

Yes, friendships have their sunny days and smooth trails, but sometimes we end up being a lightning rod. I’m pretty sure–no, actually I’m positive–John would have climbed to the treetops for Chris if necessary. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if John buys Chris a pair of high-tops for his next birthday. And maybe Chris will get John a satellite phone. There’s no use tempting lightning twice.

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2 Responses

  1. Brenda
    April 17, 2013
  2. Dolores R. Birkle
    April 24, 2013

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