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James Ferragut, Published August 16 2009

Ferragut: Survival,prayers on trail

I wanted the experience of a hardcore mountain-backpacking trip.

Five months ago, my 15-year-old son and I signed on for an eight-day hike. Our destination was the Wind River Mountain Range just southeast of the Teton Range in Wyoming. Training sessions started in June. Gabe and I were mentally and physically prepared to join 18 other team members on a quest to learn how hard we could push ourselves and the importance of relying on team members for survival. We would also explore our relationship with God.

A 14-hour bus trip brought us to Ethete, Wyo. Two groups of 10 were taken by truck 34 miles to the St. Lawrence Ranger Station, elevation 8,000 feet. After preparation and prayers, our group headed southwest armed with only our packs, a topographic map and compasses.

We set up camp in the woods off the trail. We were besieged by mosquitoes, gnats and flies. It rained and hailed for an hour. We broke camp at dawn and hiked for four hours up to 10,800 feet. The last part of that climb above the tree line was on a loose rock field at a 50-degree angle in 85-degree heat. With a 50-pound pack on my back, it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, including marathons. The climb down to 9,000 to our next campsite was easier, but the insects provided no reprieve.

There were two more days of hiking up ridges and down gorges; the trekking was as difficult as day two. However, the next day’s seven-mile hike made our day-two climb look like a kiddie camp. We overshot our campsite by two miles. Our seven-mile hike turned into a nine-mile test of sanity and endurance. We set up camp and we were spent mentally, physically and maybe spiritually. The last thing one of our camp mates said before he went to bed was, “My chest hurts.”

We awoke with the news that our mate was having difficulty breathing. It looked like high altitude pulmonary edema. He was wrapped in two sleeping bags and a wool cap but was shivering in the 80-degree shade.

The only relief for HAPE is getting the patient to a lower elevation. That option was impossible. We were 15 miles into the mountain range and would have had to climb to 10,800 to get the patient to a lower elevation. He could walk. There was no way to communicate the urgency of our emergency to anyone. There was no cell phone coverage. All we knew was that HAPE only gets worse with time and can be fatal.

A daring late-night helicopter rescue worthy of a Steven Spielberg film got our friend out of serious harm to a Jackson Hole, Wyo., hospital.

Is there a take-away here? I’ve been reminded that the hold we have on life is precarious, which means our job is to live in the moment, to express our love to those important to us and to revel in the wonder of our lives. We should remind ourselves that the power of strangers working toward a common goal can overcome the most extreme challenges. And believe that no matter the depth of your exhaustion, there is always more inside you to pull you through.

And finally know that sometimes God answers prayers.

Ferragut is vice president for marketing at a Fargo bank and a contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.