Climbing a mountain. No gear. Pitch black. One flashlight down. Hey…at least I was with my best friend.
The word trust comes to mind when you’re choosing the best man for your wedding.
So, looking back, it’s kind of ironic that the best man I chose is the same guy who gave me one of the scariest moments of my life when I heard him say: “Oooooops!”
This happened about 13 or 14 years ago, and my memory leading up to that “Oooooops” is pretty fuzzy. My best friend, Brennan, remembers some of the lead-up a little differently.
One thing’s for sure. Anybody who’s ever grown up in Whidbey Island in Washington will tell you there are plenty of opportunities for adventure. There’s lots of hiking – particularly around Deception Pass.
One summer afternoon when Brennan and I were about 18 or 19, we drove toward the parking lot we intended to use, but we were detoured by a gate. So we headed further along the road – to Mount Erie. It’s not an icon of a mountain like Mt. Rainier. It doesn’t have glacial peaks. But it’s pretty high. And you can actually drive all the way to the top and park in a lot.
We left our car in that lot and started hiking down. Didn’t use any defined trail, just sort of scrambled and explored our way. The trouble began when it started to get dark and there wasn’t any particular trail to follow back up.
Above us – almost conveniently – was a rock face that we could climb straight to the top. It was the most efficient way to reach the parking lot, and maybe our only way in the darkness. But it was more than that.
When you’re a young guy, a mountain or a rock face can talk to you. You’re in the process of becoming a man and you’ve got the mentality of wanting to prove things to yourself.
This one rock face just called out to us. It was really jagged, maybe a little bit more than hundred feet up from where we stood, with a lot of handholds.
We’d climbed rocks before, but we weren’t rock climbers. Besides, we were in t-shirts and sneakers and we didn’t have any protective gear. No helmets. No ropes.
We did have a couple of flashlights with us. The hand-held variety loaded with D batteries. But that was it. Two flashlights. One for each of us.
So we start climbing this face. It’s not like we were beginning at the bottom of the mountain. We were a significant way up. One slip, and we could fall thousands of feet and be impaled by some trees.
Brennan was climbing ahead of me, using the light of his flashlight in his right hand to guide his way, along with the beam of my flashlight from below.
When his footing was secure, he’d stop, and shine his flashlight down toward me. And I’d use that beam of light, plus the light coming off the flashlight that I’d stuffed in my pants pocket, to guide my way up.
We were almost halfway when suddenly I see this beam of light spinning off the rock face and down to oblivion.
Then I hear the word no rock climber wants to hear: “Ooooooops!”
Are you fucking kidding me?
I later came to find out our initial reactions to the falling flashlight couldn’t have been more different. Brennan actually watched the light descend with the detached appreciation of a cinematographer: Wow, that looks really cool.
Me? Well, let’s put it this way. As I watched the beam of light go spiraling into the abyss, an icy chill filled my head and shot down my spine: I might die on this mountain.
Besides the moment when I got married, or held my daughter for the first time, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more self-aware. All of a sudden I was completely conscious of the sweat running down my face, my clammy palms, and the shaking in my knees.
It’s not like you could say: Okay, that’s enough for today. Let’s go back down. It was pitch black. You couldn’t really see in any direction. One wrong step, and you were toast. Not only that, but if Brennan took one wrong step and started to fall, he could take me down with him.
Brennan was much less nervous than me. So maybe he has the better memory. He remembers it being easier to climb without his flashlight because it gave him two hands to use on the mountain. Trying to climb with the light in his hand was probably the reason it fell in the first place.
But now he had no guiding light, and my beam from below was not ideal, because at times the illumination was blocked by Brennan’s body.
Brennan remembers us sort of leap-frogging our way up and passing the one flashlight back and forth like a baton. I have no memory of that at all. I remember shining the light for him about six or seven feet above me, him taking a few steps up, securing his position, then me putting the flashlight in my pocket and following him up for a few steps. Then we’d start the process all over again.
We’d been friends for about seven years up to that point, had helped my parents build two homes from scratch, worked together, played together. That’s how Brennan saw us getting to the top – as if we were working together as usual. I saw every inch up as a gift from God. I was concentrating so fiercely on keeping my head clear that I didn’t even want to hear Brennan’s advice on where to step.
Slowly we worked our way to the top, and then Brennan went safely over the edge. I got to within a yard away. That’s when his outstretched hand reached out to me. I didn’t stop to wonder if it was the same hand that had dropped the flashlight. At that point, his outstretched hand meant hope.
He’s a bigger guy, and when he grasped my hand he immediately supported a lot of my weight and helped pull me up over the edge.
Out came a surge of adrenalin, a high five, shouting that’s not coherent, but needs no translation: We made it! We’re alive!
I would’ve wept had I not believed at the time that grown men don’t cry.
You go through a close shave like that with your best friend and it stays with you for the rest of your life. You forgive him the dropped flashlight, but you never let him forget it.
Six years later, when I needed a best man, I knew exactly whom I wanted to hand over the rings.
And just the other day I got a message from him to be ready for late spring or next summer. He just got engaged. I’m going to be his best man.
I don’t think I’ll have any trouble coming up with material for a toast.