Mountains, mortality and motorcycle mamas

I’ve been watching a four-part Netflix documentary called, “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?”

It’s about a community college student and outdoor guide named John Leonard, who in the mid-1990s collected enough Pepsi points to purchase a Harrier Jet.

Pepsi’s promotion campaign was designed for folks to buy Pepsi products and collect points to purchase promotional items like hats, sunglasses and jackets. They made an ad that featured a kid arriving at school in a Harrier Jet. He hopped out of the jet saying, “it beats taking the bus,” and then the words “Harrier Jet — 7,000,000 Pepsi Points” scanned across the screen.

Unfortunately, Pepsi forgot to add a disclaimer pointing out that it was a joke. When Leonard actually raised the $700,000 to purchase enough Pepsi Points, he sent in his check and asked for the jet. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but suffice to say John Leonard was a unique kid.

Though he wasn’t one of my students, I had my share of unique kids as well. I like to think some of the things my students did were just as noteworthy. Perhaps more so. One event in particular comes to mind.

For the 16 years I taught Wilderness Recreation Leadership, the Fall Practicum was 33 days of backpacking and canoeing. The first 28 were filled with wilderness experiences designed to teach students outdoor skills, but more importantly, to develop their leadership and decision making. The last five days were called the “Final Expedition.” There, students in groups of four or five planned and led trips without faculty supervision. It was in reality, if not in name, a final exam.

Students planned different types of trips. Some were ambitious excursions bagging lots of peaks, while others were laid-back opportunities to decompress after a stressful month of practicing leadership and being under the instructors’ constant eye. While these final trips probably cost college risk managers sleepless nights, I found them powerful learning experiences.

We put a strong emphasis on trip planning. The bible may have Ten Commandments, but when it came to trip planning, I had 16. It sounds overwhelming but for most trips it requires only a small bit of time and thought:

¯ Why are we going?

¯ Where exactly are we going, and do we have a map?

¯ Are there any special rules and regulations we should be aware of?

¯ Do we have an adequate first-aid kit, and do we know who to contact in an emergency?

¯ How are we going to safely get to the trailhead?

¯ Is the trip appropriate for our physical condition?

¯ Do we have the 10 essentials including the proper clothing and equipment for the weather forecast?

¯ Do we have enough food and water?

¯ Who’s paying for things like gas, food, etc.?

¯ What have we learned from previous trips that will help us be better prepared for this one?

My students were usually extremely diligent, so I wasn’t surprised on a mid-October Friday in 1990 when the students finished their final expedition and arrived back on campus, they were abuzz about their experience.

But I was surprised when one of them declared, “We saved a woman’s life!”

“Really? I asked. “How’d that happen?”

Helena said: “This motorcycle mama named Eva rode her motorcycle up from New York. She said that she was so stressed she just had to get out of the city. But she was poorly prepared. She didn’t know where she was or that she was climbing Dix Mountain, was dressed all in cotton, had no sleeping bag, no food, no water, no flashlight, just a plastic tarp that she planned to wrap around her at night.”

Eric said: “We saw her on the way up the mountain and told her that there was no way she could survive the night so poorly equipped. She ignored us, but when we saw her on the summit, we told her she had to come with us. She resisted, but we wouldn’t take no for an answer. We brought her back to our camp, fed her and put her up for the night. It was great!”

The following week, I received a letter. It had a return address of New York City, but I didn’t recognize the name.

“… So here I am climbing up the mountain when I run into this group of friendly, but smelly, individuals. When they see my lack of provisions, they strongly suggest I hike back down the mountain. I thank them for their concern, and hike to the top. And wouldn’t you know it, they follow me. Then begins my compulsory mountain education, compulsory because they wouldn’t leave me alone. They went on a long spiel about the possibilities of death considering my circumstances, were very sweet and earnest … finally I had to accompany them back down. By then I was a ward of this group …”

She went on, “Here I am back in New York City, living just another of my usual days. Who knows if I would have perished back there (as they assured me)? But I do know your group was incredibly gracious and hospitable and a real credit to your program. Sincerely, Eva.”

Of course, the letter made me proud. But more importantly, I was happy they put into practice what they had learned.

The line between a fun wilderness outing and a fatal one is thin, but with proper prior planning and preparation it’s not hard to stay on the right side.

Did the students save Eva’s life? I don’t know. What I do know is that by staying on the right side they turned Eva’s dangerous outing into a positive and memorable experience.


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