"Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold... Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." Hellen Keller
My dad was moments away from falling to his death. We were traversing a jagged ridgeline in Oregon's Eagle Cap wilderness when we came to an impasse: a slick chute full of loose rocks which plunged 20 feet towards a towering cliff. My old man told me to wait as he risked walking directly through. About half way across he started to slide. He dropped a meter when the small rock collection under his feet, descending like a stony snowboard, momentarily stopped. It was clear that any motion to extricate himself could cause the whole pile to flush down and off the edge. My father was in big trouble.
"I'm stuck," he said, the panic creeping up in his voice.
"I have a rope," I replied.
I could feel the timebomb ticking as a rifled through my backpack, whose 10 pockets seemed like a bonus at the time of purchase, but now felt like they could be my dad's demise and I opened one after the other, hands shaking, to find it empty.
"Jon.. you gotta hurry. I can feel this thing sliding"
I unzipped the 6th pocket to find it nothing. Oh God I was sure I put a rope in there this morning. Not because I had a plan for it, but simply because it made me feel like an outdoorsman. I was a graduating high school senior from the suburbs of Peoria, Illinois. My father encouraged these trips to proper mountains so I'd grow up with a healthy appreciation of nature. I wanted to do him proud. Now I was his lifeline.
With 4 more pockets to go it weighed on me that there may not be time to go through them all. If my dad slid off the cliff I would forever ponder the misfortune of not having the rope handy.
zip - no
zip - no
zip - got it!
I tossed an end to my father, braced myself, and held on with every muscle fiber as he climbed back to me. Had I first run my hands over the backpack might i have felt the rope's place and thus acquired it faster? Perhaps. This was my first misadventure, and it may have set a precedent for all to come.
When you read a step by step guide to handling emergency situations, step #1 is almost always "Don't panic." This seems like a ridiculous sentiment until you find yourself in a real jam. A panicked decision is what inspired me, swept out by a riptide in South America, to freestyle furiously straight for the beach. Might I have persisted until I was completely gassed with no progress made? Perhaps. Luckily a friend, caught in the rip with me, told me to relax and conserve my energy. So we kept our heads above water until it pulled us out and across the beach. Then, timing the sets of waves, we dashed between a cluster of rocks to make shore. My buddy's cool demeanor in the face of danger taught me a lesson, and our riptide escape ended up being one of the best stories of our trip along the Brazilian coastline. If I had drowned that day the rip should only get 50% of the blame. My bad decision to swim straight into its teeth should take the other half.
Nowadays I take "don't panic" like religion. When another friend's car ran over a boulder in the Owyhee high desert, dead south of where dad and I had our rock chute debacle, we realized the situation was serious. We were 30 miles from the nearest paved road and had just a few liters of water between us. But we sat down to make some tea on a camp stove and assess our options calmly (wasting more water than planned as I accidentally tipped the first pot into the dirt).
A few days ago this same friend and I woke up on his 17 foot catamaran, still in our sleeping bags, to find ourselves drifting out into the open sea from our mellow little cove on remote Santa Cruz Island. The anchor had slipped off into the deep. Gazing through the pitch black our panic subsided as we realized we had a moment. The cliff walls were not impending. It would be a few minutes before the open water currents snagged us. We stuffed the sleeping gear in dry bags, donned our swimwear, and talked over the plan.
If you were standing on that dark rocky beach you would have been hard pressed to see us approaching on that moonless night, oars plunging into the opaque bay as we charged the shore. But if you had you might detect slight grins on our faces. And if you listened you'd have heard one of us say, "We got our first good story!"