Part of iceowl's adventure quest

It is the summer of 1972 and I'm a young snot of 15 years. About a dozen of us from Boy Scout Troop 445 have arrived at Philmont Scout Ranch for a two week trek into the wilderness. Our leaders are Mr Tips and Mr Sharp. We know Mr Tips; he's served as an assistant scout master on many occasions. He's strict and rather stern in his aspect, kind of distant. Mr Sharp is just one of the boy's fathers; we don't really know him very well and, anyway, he defers completely to Mr Tipps' leadership. He just acts like one of the boys, making the same dumb mistakes we do and laughing at them. Mr Tips has two sons along on the trip and Mr Sharp has one.

After a couple of days of acclimation and training, we embark on our trek. For the first couple of days, a resident ranger accompanies us on the trip. We have a lot to learn about high-altitude cooking, keeping our food away from the bears, controlling our fires and so on. He's patient with us and gets us wised up quickly. Once he figures it's safe to leave us to our own devices, he hikes off to gather up a new group and repeat the procedure.

We have great fun. Each day we pack everything up and hike between 5 and 14 miles to the next camp on our itinerary. Many of the camps have activities, such as rock climbing or survival skills, and we take full advantage of all of them. About every third or fourth day, we call at a ranger station where we check in and pick up more supplies. We occasionally see other groups along the way, but for the most part we're completely on our own.

Around the mid part of our trek we have a tough day scheduled. It's our longest single-day hike - about 14 miles - and there's an elevation gain of over 1000 feet in the process. We get started early and take fairly frequent breaks. The going is tough, though. At one point we have a couple-hour climb out of a canyon that has us all gasping. Mr Tips is starting to make jokes about being to old for this crap and we know it can't be easy for him as he's a bit overweight and not the most athletic type of guy.

We finally arrive at our destination, Camp Christmas, about 3PM and take a break. Looking around, we find that Camp Christmas is pretty primitive. Actually, calling it a "camp" is something of an overstatement. It's just a small valley with a ring of rocks over to one side to show where people have had fires in the past. In particular, we are chagrined to note that it is not equipped with water, nor are there any streams nearby. In fact, the nearest source of water appears to be a well about three miles away. Mr Tips volunteers three of us - myself and two other boys - to take the canteens and our collapsable bucket over to the well and fill them up while the rest of the group sets up camp. I'm tired, but walking without my 40 pound pack seems so attractive that I don't mind the trip at all.

We're back in a hour and half and the camp is all set up and they're ready to eat. We cook a huge dinner, being only a day out of our last resupply and still flush with goods. After dark, we sit around a campfire and sing a song or two, but there's not much of the rollicking fun of previous campfires - everyone is pretty pooped out.

By eight o'clock, we're all pretty much ready to call it a day. We go through the nightly ritual of hanging our food from ropes in the trees to keep the bears uninterested and start to drift towards our tents. I've taken my boots off and slid thankfully into my sleeping bag when I hear Mr Sharp, in the next tent over, say fairly loudly, "There's something wrong with Mr Tips, I can't find a pulse!"

Suddenly, I'm not tired anymore. I'm trying feverishly to get my boots on in the dark, making a mess of the laces. I come out of the tent with my tent mate just in time to see Mr Sharp grab their tent by its peak and pull it right up off of Mr Tips, stakes and all (these canvas tents have no floors); a feat of some strength, I later reflected. Mr Tips' oldest son is there, trying to rouse his dad and not succeeding. He starts to do CPR, calling for the other son between breaths and compressions and sobs. I think, well, at least we've all had the CPR course recently...

Mr Sharp displays a sudden burst of leadership that none of us would have expected. He's directing boys here and there: you two build up the fire so we have some light, you spell him on the CPR after a couple of minutes, you three get all this gear out of the way and put a blanket over Mr Tips. We're scurrying around like a kicked-over ant pile.

Thinking about it later, I can see that much of what he had us doing was make-work. We had plenty of flashlights, we didn't need the fire and the mountain chill in the air was the least of Mr Tips' problems. I know now that Mr Sharp was just keeping us busy. In a crisis, you can keep people from getting hysterical if you just give them something clear-cut to do. Whether Mr Sharp knew this instinctively, or had received special training or was in the army or something, I never found out. It worked, though. We went from freaking out to coordinated action in just a minute or two.

After ten minutes or so, it becomes clear to me (although I wouldn't have said it out loud) that the CPR wasn't having any effect and the man is probably just dead. No ambulances out here. Mr Sharp pulls three of us over to the side and pulls out a map and flashlight. He points to a little square on the map and says, "it looks like this is the closest ranger station, they'll have a radio there. Do you think you three can find it in the dark?" We look at each other, gulp and say we think we can.

"It's going to be about five miles there and five miles back, do you think you can make it?" This is easier to answer. We are pumped so full of adrenaline that we could probably hike back to Texas without a break. "OK, then, get an extra flashlight or two and take it easy on your batteries. Go fast, but be careful, don't fall over an edge or anything in the dark. Stay together, no matter what."

Looking back, I can see how hard this decision must have been for Mr Sharp. The last thing you would want to do out in the mountains in the dark is divide your forces and send some kids off to find a ranger shack they've never seen. Still, what else was there to do?

The three of us leave a couple of minutes later. I don't think the rest of them even know we're going. Certainly no one says goodbye or good luck. We scuff along the trails in the dark, using just one flashlight at a time to save batteries. We all read the map together as we came to each turning point, and occasionally argue over the best route to take. We are still so high on fight or flight chemicals that it all seems to be happening to someone else. We don't talk about poor Mr Tips at all, we just focus on finding that ranger.

After an hour or so, we seem to be where the ranger cabin should be, but there is nothing to see. We mill around a bit and shine our lights into the woods, but can't see anything man-made. I shout, "Hello!", then "Help, E-mer-gen-cy!" at the top of my lungs. The other guys yell a couple of words too. After a few seconds of this, we hear a sharp whistle in the dark and start in that direction. We had been within a hundred yards of our destination, but hadn't been able to see it through the trees.

When we get to the cabin, we all start to talk at once, of course. The ranger shuts two of us up so he can get a coherent account out of the third. Once he gets the gist of it, he gets us to point to the exact location of our camp on the map (Camp Christmas being more of a philosophy than an exact map reference). The ranger warms up his radio and makes an emergency call to someone, somewhere; his radio protocol is crisp and efficient, as if he did this every day. He then pulls on his boots and asks us if we are up to leading him back to the camp. We say sure and we are off; pausing briefly for the ranger to heave a big aluminum-canvas stretcher over his shoulder.

We get back to the camp about two hours after we had left. Everything is much calmer. One of the sons is still doing CPR on Mr Tips (when do you stop? how about when it's your own father?), but the rest of them are mostly sitting around the fire. The ranger takes Mr Sharp off to the side and they have a quick, adults-only conversation. He then goes over and checks out Mr Tips. We don't follow him in this; we aren't too anxious to stare at the dead body.

He comes over to the fire and in a gentle voice says, "Well, I think he's dead, but I'm not a doctor and I can't pronounce death. We'll just have to wait for the medics." None of us say anything.

I'm tired. I go to my tent and start taking off my boots, which are a bit painful by this time. Adding it up in my head, I realize I have covered 30 miles in the last 24 hours (a personal record that holds to this day).

I don't remember getting into my sleeping bag or anything else after taking off my boots. The others told me that a four-wheel-drive ambulance showed up around 3AM, pronounced Mr Tips dead, and took him and his exhausted sons away. I slept through it, though, and I'm just as glad I did.

Somehow, Mr Sharp held us together. We finished our trek and even managed to have fun after the shock wore off a bit. The three of us who had charged off for the ranger station in the dark never really talked about it much afterwards, but we were a good deal closer from then on. This is before the modern trend to grief counseling and all that stuff - we each had to deal with it on our own.

We got together the next year, raised funds and built a small outdoor chapel at the local scout camp and dedicated it to Mr Tips. He was a devout man and this seemed the type of memorial he would have liked. It's still there.

Over the 30 years since the incident, I've thought of Mr Tips many times. Over that time, his death helped shape my definition of a hero. He wasn't some all-action, James Bond type, who saves the world. He wasn't dashing or flashy or even particularly courageous. He was just a middle-aged man who saw his sons growing up too fast and wanted to have one last boyhood adventure with them. In the course of it, he agreed to take on the responsibility of a bunch of other sons; something that I can now see made him uncomfortable - and therefore rather stiff and distant. In any case, he died in the service of other people and, as with the Challenger crew, that's enough to make him a hero.

I've owed him - and his sons - this writeup for a long time...

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