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Going Back In


From National Geographic Adventure (Aug/Sept 2009)

From National Geographic Adventure (Aug/Sept 2009)

By Andrew McCarthy

I CAN STILL PICTURE KATY. A petite, brown-eyed, 16-year-old Texan sitting cross-legged on a large rock on the far bank of the river, her elbows propped on her knees, her chin resting in her hands, pouting.

“Don’t worry, Katy,” I shouted over the rushing water. “It’s just walking.” She smiled wanly and waved.

It was our personal joke.

Katy Brain and I were in the heart of the Absaroka Range in northwest Wyoming, in the fourth week of a monthlong course run by the National Outdoor Leadership School, the premier outfit in wilderness education. Katy had struggled almost from the start, clinging to an unhappiness that had tried my patience at times. A few days earlier we’d been making dinner, and she was crying. I finally said to her in frustration, “Katy, we’re just walking here, okay? We get up and we walk to the next place, and then we do it again the next day. It’s just walking. And in a week it will be over.” She settled into a sullen silence for the remainder of the night. But the next evening when Katy was returning from the bear hang, I overheard her say to another student, in a disarmingly confident tone, “It’s just walking, that’s all we’re doing here. We’re just walking.” I smiled to myself and felt a paternal satisfaction.

It’s a memory I can’t shake.

Our group included 15 students and three instructors. On June 26, 1996, day 24 of our course, the class was divided into three independent, student-led units, with instructions to hike to a prearranged spot on the map and regroup with the guides in the evening for dinner. The Absaroka Range is rugged wilderness, carved out of stratified volcanic and metamorphic rock, and the planned route for the day had us hugging a drainage until we reached the confluence of the South Buffalo Fork of the Snake River, then following it for several miles to the meeting spot. It was a straightforward plan— follow the rivers and nothing could go wrong.

Katy’s group of five students left camp first that morning. Quickly they arrived at the bank of the South Buffalo Fork and decided to deviate from the set plan, crossing the river to make use of a preexisting trail. It was a move in line with the independent student decision-making that NOLS teaches. The past winter had been a hard one, with 45 percent more snowpack than usual in places, and the spring thaw had swollen the rivers. But this early in the day, before the sun had done its work, the river had not begun to rise.

By midafternoon, the water was driving hard and fast. When my group, second out of camp that morning, came upon Katy’s, they were on the far bank, scouting a way back. After patrolling the river for some time, shouting over the rushing water, we all reached the same conclusion: It was unsafe for them to cross. It was agreed that Katy’s group should return a few miles upstream and ford at an easier break. If necessary, they would skip the rendezvous and camp on the south bank until morning, when the river would be down.

I gave Katy one last look, sitting miserably on the rock, and the two groups split up. We headed downriver toward the meeting point and left Katy’s group as they turned back upstream for a long hike. But after backtracking just a short way upriver, they changed their minds. They decided to attempt a cross at a spot where the river divided into two channels, separated by a gravel island. The first, ankle deep, they managed without incident. Then, at approximately 3 p.m., without consulting everyone in the group and before spotters were in position—NOLS protocol—three of the students, including Katy, entered the larger, faster section of the South Buffalo Fork. They were using the chain system, in which the students face upstream, hands interwoven, arms locked, and sidestep across the water. Katy was the center link. It was a technique we had practiced often in the preceding weeks, safely fording dozens of rivers.

As they crossed, one student slipped but regained her balance. Then Katy fell, taking the first girl down with her. Both were wearing backpacks that weighed at least 40 pounds. The girls tried desperately to stay together while unfastening their packs. Then the current took hold, flipping them facedown into the frigid water.

THE TWO GIRLS LOST THEIR grip on one another. The first was carried into a shallow channel a few hundred feet downstream before being pulled out by the two group members who hadn’t tried to cross. She was badly shaken, but safe. Katy was carried into a deeper channel, out of reach. She disappeared around a bend in the river.

Katy’s group mates found her nearly half a mile downstream, facedown in two feet of water. They were unable to reach her as she bobbed in an eddy on the far side of the river.

Thirty minutes later, the third bunch of students, last out of camp, came upon the incident. Like my group, they had been hiking the north bank of the river and were able to pull Katy’s body onto a gravel bar. They made efforts to revive her.

A mile and a half downstream, we had been waiting at the prearranged meeting point. Members of the third team arrived and with obvious distress reported what had happened. Katy was not hurt, not missing, not in trouble—she was dead.

With deliberate calm that I found both off-putting and powerfully responsible, Liz, the lead instructor, delegated duties. She and I and two others were to return upstream to retrieve Katy and bring her back to camp. Everyone else was to stay put.

Late afternoon shadows cut through the trees as we walked in a silence filled with urgency to locate Katy. After 40 minutes we came into a clearing 50 feet above the river on a steep bank.

“There she is,” I nearly shouted, pointing. (Years later, I still feel shame about the excitement in my voice.) Whatever private hopes any of us might have been harboring that perhaps Katy was still alive were vanquished in a glance. We scrambled down to the river. The expression on her face startled me. Instead of the panic or fear I might have expected, her look resembled one of awe, even ecstasy. We stood over her. Liz suggested we say a prayer, and we joined hands. Words didn’t come, but we stood still in the wilderness, the river loud against our ears.

“Anyone object if I close the hood over Katy’s face?” Liz asked.

And then we tried to lift her. Katy’s living weight would have been featherlight for the four of us, but we were barely able to hoist her water-saturated body up the cut bank. Carrying her back to camp was out of the question. Night was falling. Liz decided that she and I would stay with Katy’s body. It would serve as a vigil of sorts, but it had a morbidly practical purpose as well—we were in grizzly country.

Throughout the course of the endless-seeming night, Liz and I talked to keep the silence at bay. Eventually we were quiet. I thought of how wrong it felt that we knew of Katy’s death when her parents were at home, unaware. We took turns scouting for firewood, venturing farther and farther into the night, relief always accompanying the return of the other from the blackness. We secured Katy’s body in a sleeping bag just beyond the direct light of the fire. A few times small animals had to be discouraged. I felt myself alive in a way I hadn’t before. I was aware of thinking, The most important thing in the world that could have happened just happened, yet simultaneously feeling how little any of it mattered—the river still roared by in the dark, the stars were still blazing in the sky. Nothing seemed different at all.

Dawn brought rain for the first time in a month. Radio contact was eventually made with an overflying plane that alerted NOLS (these were the days before easy satellite communication), and that evening, under a florid red sky, a helicopter shattered our insular world. Our makeshift campsite was blown to tatters by the backwash of the furious blades. And Katy’s body was removed. It took the rest of us two days to reach the roadhead.

KATY’S DEATH STUNG THE NOLS community hard. There have been other deaths at the school over the years, as there have at other outdoor programs, but last year Gary Cukjati, a NOLS instructor since 1986, captured what was different about this one: “Katy’s death went to the core of the school, because it wasn’t some random accident. It happened while attempting to apply everything the school teaches and encourages—students making their own decisions, independence, leadership, and the power of the group.” Which leads to the questions that John Kanengieter, NOLS director for leadership, then asked. “Who are we, and what is our place in the world? And is a death acceptable? To which the answer, the only answer I can come to is, No. It is not. And yet what should we do? Not go outside? Not teach? It’s something I have thought about endlessly, had countless meetings and discussions over. There is no simple answer.”

In the years since Katy’s death, I have grown to feel closer to her than I did during the weeks we spent together. I think of her regularly, whenever I am in the wilderness, of course, but also at random times—crossing the street, eating a meal, or watching a plane fly over. I think about all the years not lived. Katy would be 28 now. Her death clings to me, as if some aspect of her unfinished life equates to some unfinished business of my own. That need for resolution brought me back to the Absarokas Range 12 years later.

I SET OFF FROM BROOKS LAKE, a glistening high alpine pond so typical of these mountains, and camp the first night under the shadow of Bear Cub Pass. The next morning I continue up Cub Creek. I’m not sure whether my mind’s playing tricks on me, but the backcountry takes on an intensity I’ve rarely experienced in the wilderness before. I crest a high, grassy pass and spot a large elk. Several drainages convene and the terrain becomes more extreme. I veer west—and then I see the South Buffalo Fork raging beneath me. After so many years I am suddenly very close. The trail drops precipitously through a densely wooded area and opens onto a large meadow. I walk beside the river, deadfall crowding its course in places just as it had years earlier. I had forgotten. The far bank is steeper than I remember. The entire area has a feeling of rawness, the way wilderness does in the early spring after a long winter—but it’s already full summer. I’ve seen no one since I left the trailhead, just as we saw no one during the month of the NOLS course. This is true backcountry, rarely visited outside of hunting season. The day is bright and the sun hard on my neck. I feel alert, expectant.

And then there it is.

The S-curve in the river and the cut bank leading to the small, rock-littered ledge, backed by a steep slope rising behind. I feel my shoulders drop under my pack, and my skin begins to tingle.

“That’s it,” I say softly, startled at the sound of my own voice. The map I have shows this site about a quarter mile farther on. I look at the running water again. “No. That’s it,” I say louder.

I leave the trail and step to the river. Facing upstream, I enter the icy current. Quickly it’s over my knees. I’m aware of breathing deliberately as I sidestep my way across the river that took Katy’s life. The area is different, but unmistakable. The river is lower, leaving gravel bars exposed that had been submerged when I was last here. I stand over the place where we found Katy’s body; a single yellow dandelion shoots up through the gray rocks. I gaze upriver to the gravel bar where the helicopter landed. I climb the cut bank; the ledge is rockier than I remember. We must have been operating under a high level of stress to decide this place was a worthy campsite. I sit for a long while, uncertain of what I feel.

I decide to recross the river and set up my tent on the far side, in a meadow that will make a better camp. But I’m still unsettled. I ford the river again for another look at the site, and then cross back. I take in the valley’s beauty and am reminded why this is my favorite mountain range in the world.

Night is gathering. I decide to ford the river yet again and sleep where I did years ago. In the lingering light, the river driving hard, I go to the water. My legs are weary. I haven’t secured my pack well. I almost slip, and my heart begins to race. I look to the north bank. It seems far off, and I think of how Katy might have felt as she lost her footing. It’s nearly dark. I put the foolishness of what I’m doing out of my mind—it takes all my concentration to reach the other side safely. I scramble up the bank as if being chased.

I set my tent at the sloping angle the ledge permits. Rocks press in on my back through my sleeping bag. I spend a fitful night, waking every hour. I fear a grizzly will attack me in my tent. I fear my children are not safe in their beds at home. I fear that Katy will disapprove of my being here. I’m grateful for first light and break camp long before the sun is up.

I go to ford one last time and wonder what I’m trying to prove by crossing this river again and again. It’s as if I’m looking for some answer in its current. After all, it’s what—I almost want to say “who”—I came here to see.

The water is frigid in the gray predawn. I deliberately step one foot out and then the next. My legs are stiff, but my feet are solid under me this morning. I feel the slippery rocks clearly under my boots as the water drives into my legs. I lean into its current. My movements are sure. This river will not take me. By the time I reach the far bank my feet and lower legs are numb. I drop to empty my boots of water, knowing I will never cross this river again. It’s then that I begin to sob. I stop myself, embarrassed in front of no one, and then I allow the tears to come again. I sit in the dew-wet grass and weep. I tell myself it’s a physical reaction to the numbing water.

The pulse in my Achilles begins to throb and sensation comes back into my feet. It feels good to be alive, and it occurs to me, finally, that my actions surrounding Katy’s death had been appropriate—at the very least, nothing to feel ashamed of. What I’ve missed, what I did not do all those years ago, was simply take in what had happened. A young woman, a girl, had died, and that needed to be actively, consciously, acknowledged. Perhaps I’ve owed Katy an apology, and perhaps my penance has been served in crossing and recrossing this river.

The first rays of the new day slant down the valley. A magpie cries not far off. I watch the light moving across the meadow. I just sit. The sun reaches me and begins to warm me. Steam rises off the river. I experience an unfamiliar feeling of internal quiet, and I know that my sobs here in the dawn light were not a reaction to the numbing cold of the river at all, but rather a thawing of emotions that had been frozen for so long—since a young woman died needlessly in the wilderness.

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