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
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.
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
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
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...