Miracle on Mt. Whitney

                Johnny Fobes always let it be known that he was a religious man in between sips of beer in the small room of the office in his Eastern Sierra hotel. All manner of subjects were discussed in this dark, dingy office, and religion and politics were popular topics.  He had a poster on the wall that showed Edward Kennedy going off the bridge into Chappaquiddick and flipping the bird out of the window of his car. 

                Johnny, being an old-timer had a lot of stories to tell and pictures to prove them. The photos were under glass and arranged neatly.  They showed Johnny ice skating, fishing, and even one curiosity of him hiking to the top of Mt.Whitney.

                At the mention of this particular photo, Johnny would tell guests of his miraculous escape from death on the summit of Mt.Whitney one October day, and the religious miracle that ensued.  Before Johnny started this trip he was informed by a tenant about the dangers of climbing Mt.Whitney in October and the risk of getting frostbite.  He was warned to carry a good sleeping bag and to get off the summit before dark.  Johnny nodded in agreement and thanked the tenant for the information.  He didn’t heed the warning though and nearly lost his life because of it. 

                When Johnny started his solitary trek that crisp October morning, he felt good and optimistic at the fact that he was one of a handful of disabled 60 year olds to undertake such a journey.  There was an enormous physical challenge that he knew he must face.  It was only a few years previous that he had left the hospital.  An automobile accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.  After years of pain and suffering he overcame his disability and walked out of the hospital.  He was left partially paralyzed on his right side, but determined to climb Mt.Whitney before he died. 

                The mountain that rose before Johnny, beckoned him ever upward to its lofty summit.  As he trudged on, his pack grew heavier with each step.  Frequent rest stops and talking with other hikers gave him more energy to move onward up the desolate granite mountain.  After a day’s toil he reached Trail Camp and made camp for the night.  Above him some 1,500 vertical feet was the summit of Mt.Whitney and the goal he knew he must attain. That night the stars in their infinite brilliance gave Johnny a sense of security that no storms were in the area. He was confident that it would be clear sailing to the summit the next day. 

                Johnny awoke to a beautiful day, ate his instant oatmeal breakfast and prepared for his personal challenge.  He put his pack under plastic with rocks all around to protect it from marauding marmots.  He took some energy bars, a quart of water, light jacket, straw hat, and started his ascent.  Two hours later he reached his first critical test. Before him was a solid wall of ice, fifty feet long, skirting cliff with a 200-foot drop.  Hikers had carved out a small 10-inch-wide trail across this icy face.  Johnny was very fearful of this new development.  He realized that if he wanted to gain the summit, he must cross.  He knew that he must not panic but relax, because a fall here would mean certain death.  He made it across all right but worried about the return trip.

                Johnny reached Trail Pass at 13,000 feet without incident.  He ate his energy bars for a quick boost, had some hiker take his photo and continued on to the summit. He was so impressed with the spectacular views and the large proportions of that above-timberline world that he lost all sense of time.  All the other hikers had gone off the mountain hours before. 

                The afternoon was fading fast and by 6 pm the small puddles of melted snow were sheeted over with ice.  Johnny started down the trail but the cold caught up to him.  He began to panic and knew that without a sleeping bag, he could freeze to death.  The mountain had deceived him.  The day had been so warm, even hot, but the night caught him unawares.

                As darkness began to close in Johnny was more scared than he had ever been.  All he could do was pray and ask God for help.  He was numb from the relentless wind chill but continued to stumble down the trail toward the pass.  Then the miracle happened:  he heard voices nearby.  Just when he was ready to give up, the voices were like a fire in his heart.  He cried out for help and soon two mountain climbers were at his side.  They had just climbed the face of Whitney and were going to bivouac at the top.  These mountaineers soon had Johnny in a sleeping bag and safe out of the cold. The next morning they fed him and told him to remember one thing.  Next time there might not be someone to help, and to always be prepared for the worst. 

                On his way down the hill Johnny felt reborn.  That ice wall that had been such a concern on the climb up now seemed insignificant.  He told everyone about his miracle on the way down and couldn’t praise the mountaineers enough for their help.  People who knew Johnny thought he was like a cat and wondered how many lives he had left.

                There is moral to this story, but it is difficult to define. It lies somewhere between a religious miracle and common sense.


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