A friend accused me of being a risk seeker.
It wasn’t really an accusation, just an observation. She had read me describe the experience of doing aerobatics in a small plane over the green fields of England; skydiving in New Jersey; scuba diving on shipwrecks in the Canadian wilderness.
It started me thinking. The truth is, I have been in some sticky situations. Caught by sundown on the desolate mountainside of Haleakalā in Maui, for example. But I didn’t see that as a risk taking endeavor.
My ex and I had driven up to the summit, and decided to explore down the trail that more adventurous types would have struggled up. As the designated outdoors “expert”, I had noted we had three hours until darkness fell. Following the rule “one third in, one third out, one third spare”, I reasoned that we had an hour before turning around.
Off we set, Hannah bouncing in the lead down the little traveled trail. We were in a virtual moonscape, no trees with painted blazes to show us the way. The way was vaguely marked by pebbles brushed to the sides, heaped occasionally into precarious piles. But I was confident in my sense of direction, and reasoned that even if we lost the trail, all we needed do was head for the summit where our rental car was parked.
Our raincoats, though thin, protected us from the wind as the sun shone brightly. We were explorers in a strange and alien landscape, made even more strange by a silversword bush, a shock sprouting out of the gray, a miracle in the desolation of a rocky desert.
I have a special memory of exploring a great sulphur pan, off the trail, always conscious of the route back. Brilliant yellows and autumn colors.
Eventually, my sense of responsibility begged for attention. The hour was up, and I informed Hannah that we must head back. She argued that we could stay a while, it was still two hours until sunset by my own reckoning. I was insistent, our descent was done, now the return.
Only to find that I had made a serious error. Not of time or direction, but of altitude – I was no mountaineer. In the thin air at 10,000 feet, what was a gentle downward slope was now a forbidding mountain climb. An inevitable slowness overwhelmed us as the lack of oxygen made us laggards, unable to make progress. Not panting, just slow as if still asleep.
Darkness falls suddenly and completely, at that latitude, and we would be unable to follow the trail. No rescue party would know of our predicament.
Young hearts and young lungs clawed back in a losing race against time. Night fell, and twilight ended quickly. Hannah seemed oblivious to our danger, still confident in me. But at this altitude and so far above the tree line, I knew the temperature would drop rapidly, how far I did not know. With no equipment and inadequate clothing, we would only be able to huddle together for warmth and pray the temperature did not drop below freezing.
As the last of the light left us, we were saved by the headlights of cars in the parking lot.
Unable to see the trail, we took a straight line towards the lights. Reaching the lot, we climbed over a low fence, back to the world of buzzing humanity. With no ranger to do the duties, I gave myself a thorough mental dressing down for having taken such an ignorant risk with another life in my hands.
It was never about putting myself in danger. In fact, I had sought to avoid it, judging time and distance responsibly, ever the cautious one. In all my adventures, I listen carefully to my fears, they keep me from doing stupid things. When I have separated the real risks from the imagined and minimized them (only a fool takes risks for no reason), I make a judgement: is the essential risk worth the reward?
And what is the reward? For me, it is the exhilarating feeling of mastery, over nature and myself. Not for glory, I rarely speak of what I have done, though I tell my share of war stories.
It’s about being the.steel jawed hero of the science fiction I read in my youth. Self reliant, able to handle any situation, self validating.
A hero to myself.