In the summer of 1997, just before I started college, I moved out to live with the family of one of my best friends from high school in northern Idaho. While there, I worked for the family business, which typically involved installing and replacing pumps in residential water wells in homes spread across hundreds of miles of some of the most beautiful and rugged country in America. We spent long days on the road and working outdoors, often 12 to 16 hours per day, and the work was physically demanding. I was 19 years old at the time and had the energy and endurance to get through it. By the end of that summer, I was probably in the best shape of my life.
Late that July, we decided to go on a hike in a mountain range known as the Seven Devils, located in the Hells Canyon Wilderness area. Part of the Rocky Mountain range, the peaks are nearly 8,000 feet above the Snake River, which runs to the west of their base, and the tallest of these, called “He Devil,” is 9,393 feet above sea level. Four of us went on the trip: my friend Paul, his father, his older brother Greg, and myself. We took two horses with us, which in retrospect was the beginning of the trouble that was to follow. The entire Seven Devils Loop is 27 miles; we hiked only a portion of it, but keeping up with horses on foot is as difficult as it sounds, especially on steep and rugged terrain.
The riders were chosen by fate. Earlier that summer, I had tried my luck with one of this particular pair of horses, and my inexperience allowed him to get the bit in his teeth, whereupon he took me for a full-speed gallop through an alfalfa field. The story, as I recall it, was that he had been a racehorse that cracked a hoof and wound up being sold as a farm animal. After that ride, I believe it. I barely held on.
With that memory firmly implanted in my mind, I found myself looking down over the steep drop of the switchback trail into the valley below the mountains and knew it wasn’t worth chancing. The carcass of what appeared to have been a horse that had taken a wrong step about a hundred feet down slope drove the point home. So Greg, a former track and field athlete who didn’t mind the leg workout, and I, the horse idiot, were the ones who got elected to walk.
We hiked for hours. I don’t know how far we went, or even where we were. The scenery was beautiful, but I had never been there before. I had no map, no compass, no GPS, and I was entirely at the mercy of the more experienced men I was with. After three or four hours and a visit to one of the area lakes, we decided it was time to head back the way we had come. We didn’t have the right gear with us to do the whole loop, and even if we had, it would have taken two more days.
As the sun began lazily settling into the afternoon sky, Greg and I found ourselves falling farther and farther behind the horses. When we realized we were at last back at the bottom of the punishing switchback trail on which we had made our initial descent, one of us – I honestly don’t remember who – had an idea. We would scramble up the loose rock face to the bluffs above, making up the distance in altitude between ourselves and the riders by skipping out on some of the horizontal distance we’d spend if we traversed the back and forth of the trail.
It seemed like such a great plan at the time.
What we quickly learned was that the bluffs didn’t connect to the trail in the way that they first appeared to from below. There was no way to span the chasm between the rocky cliffs to the well trodden path. Undaunted, we noticed that there was another bluff set back just a few hundred more feet, and it looked promising. At the very least, we figured it might give us a better vantage point to plot our course. So rather than waste the effort we had made getting up the steep and difficult slope, we kept going.
Soon, we lost visual contact with the riders. It was a time before the ubiquity of cell phones, but we had a handheld FM radio in our bag. We could communicate with the rest of our party, but there was no way for either group to get a lock on the other’s position. With few options, we pressed on. The bit of climbing turned out to be much more vertical than the previous one, but there were hand- and footholds, so up we went.
And then, as we at last crested the top, we saw the gravity of our error.
Another few hundred feet. Another set of cliffs. There was no way to the trail, and worse, there was no way back down. The cliffs were not too steep to climb up, but impossible for us to descend. We were not experienced climbers. We had no rope. And we were more likely to fall the 30 or 40 feet back down after missing a toe hold than not. So again, up we went.
I don’t know the exact number of times we repeated this same process of climbing a bluff, thinking it was the top, and realizing there was another climb of equal or greater difficulty ahead. Maybe five times? Six? I do know that had I not spent the summer increasing my strength through heavily physical work, I wouldn’t have made it. To make matters more difficult, while Greg had the physical endurance for a long hike, he was probably eight inches shorter than my six-foot-four. There were times he couldn’t reach the handholds to pull himself up, and I’d have to find places to brace myself in a crevice, reach down and grab his wrist, and haul him up to the next place where he could get a hold.
By the time we made it to the summit, I was completely physically exhausted. We had almost no water and only a handful of Oreos – all of our supplies were being carried by the horses. To make matters worse, I had tied my flannel shirt around my waist in the heat of climbing, but it had fallen off along the way, tumbling down and out of reach. At the summit, we were high enough that there was still a snow cap, even in July, and the sun was just beginning to set as a cold wind kicked in. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but also terrifying. Darkness was quickly setting in. We were on the top of a mountain, were completely lost, had no gear or supplies, and had no idea which way to go – except down.
I looked over the other side of the mountain. The slope was steep, covered in loose stone and gravel. More gradual than the way we had come up. It would be dangerous, but it looked possible. I had an idea, and I tried it. I planted my hiking boots on the slope, sat in a crouch, and slid on the loose soil and gravel down the hill. After a respectable distance, I grabbed a small, gnarled tree to stop myself. I had done so just before launching over another cliff to the depths below. A close call, but it had worked. Greg followed.
We had a new problem now that we were on the east side of the mountain. The sun was setting on the other side, and even the bit of twilight that was left there was lost to us. I had a mini-Maglite with me, so I stuck the flashlight in my mouth and began picking paths and sliding down, stopping where I could, turning to grab Greg if he needed it when he made his own way after I stopped. In much less time than it took us to do the climb, we found ourselves at last at the bottom. Under a sea of stars, we stood in the middle of a forest, navigating a maze of enormous trees that had been downed, likely by avalanche, dodging the jagged edges of branches that had been snapped like twigs, the pale glow of the moon our only illumination. Even the moonlight didn’t last long once we cleared the debris field and found ourselves back under the pitch-black canopy of the forest.
It was around this point that we realized how much trouble we were in. The Hells Canyon Wilderness area was over 200,000 acres, and there was only one trail through the Seven Devils loop. It was oppressively dark. We didn’t know how many wild animals would be prowling at night for food. We had been hiking for over seven hours. We had started out with less than a quarter of a gallon of water in a jug, and we were taking sips to make it last, but it was running out. We were dehydrated, hungry, and dealing with muscle fatigue. My flashlight batteries were dead, and the only light we had was the tiny flame from a Zippo lighter I had in my pocket.
So we started praying the rosary, and we walked toward the lights we saw on a hill in the distance. It was the best chance we had, even if it wasn’t a very good one.
Thinking back on it now, 21 years later, I don’t remember exactly how things happened after that. I can’t recall the transition from that labyrinth of downed pines to the moment we stumbled through the blackness of the forest onto the trail, but we did. We truly rejoiced when we found that trail, but we didn’t know which way on it to go. So we picked the one that seemed right, and we kept praying. Kept walking. Kept moving forward through the inky blackness so thick that it might as well have been a blindfold. It was so dark that Greg couldn’t see the light from the flame in front of me when walking behind me on the single-file width of the trail. He had to hold on to my backpack, because he was walking blind. We’d receive an occasional radio transmission from the horse-riders, who had been back at camp for hours. But there was no way they could find us, and so we were on our own.
Well, not really on our own. Because we had the Blessed Mother and our guardian angels. And they must have showed us the way, because nine hours after we began our hike, we stumbled, incredulous, back into camp. Just moments before, we still weren’t even sure we were going the right way. Once we arrived, I downed as much water as my stomach could hold, and, feeling nauseated and with muscles like over-stretched rubber, I collapsed into my tent. I couldn’t even muster up the energy to eat. I had given it everything I had, and there was nothing left.
Don’t Let the Devils Win
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I didn’t tell you this just to regale you with a decades-old hiking misadventure. As I was getting ready for my day this morning, I found myself searching my mind for an allegory that would help to make sense of what faithful Catholics are enduring. Almost immediately, this story came to my mind.
I can’t adequately describe to you the feeling I had every time Greg and I crested the top of one of those sets of cliffs, only to find another rock face we had to climb. These weren’t insignificant obstacles. They were massive, they were daunting, and there were times when it felt as though forward progress was impossible. Not only was I exhausted from my own ascent, but at times, I had had to physically lift a grown man up after me on a nearly vertical incline. (For the record, that’s not as easy as they make it look in the movies, when someone catches the arm of the guy who jumps out of the burning building toward the helicopter.)
Doesn’t that sound exactly like how you feel when every other day you wake up to read some new story about how much worse the scandals are in the Church than they were the day before? Every time you think you’ve come to grips with one unthinkable situation, there’s another one looming ahead. It makes you want to give up, to just sit down and say, “I quit. It’s not worth it. This is too exhausting.”
During our climb, we also had to overcome our issues with morale. The Seven Devils – though demons only in name, unlike those who have infested Holy Mother Church – almost defeated us. I was hardheaded and stubborn enough to believe we could get through it, but there were absolutely moments of doubt. For Greg, it was even more difficult. The fact that there were parts of the climb he couldn’t get through without help began eating away at his confidence. Still, I think both of us knew, on a deep, instinctual level, that if we stopped pushing ourselves, there was a good chance we’d die out there. And I remember recognizing that I had to stay positive, because if I allowed despair even an inch of breathing room, it might take over.
I see Catholics beginning to falter. I see them starting to lose hope. And if I’m being 100% honest, I have those moments now, too. There’s a temptation in all of this to doubt Christ and His promises. To think maybe the Church’s isn’t what she claims to be and that the gates of Hell have, in fact, prevailed. Even for those who are holding fast in their faith, there can be a fear that comes with realizing there’s no human way to overcome the situation. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer ugliness of it all. Others may even look back down the slope, thinking we can go back to a safer place, wishing for a return to the seemingly halcyon days of recent papacies.
But I’m telling you, there’s no way back to that from here. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and I think that while painful, this is exactly what is needed. We’re committed to the ascent. To the crucible. The only way to the other side of this mountain is over the top of it. The only way out of the dark forest is through. And no matter how much of our own strength we put into it, at the end of the day, the only way we’re going to survive is through the intercession of Our Lady. That was the turning point for our emergence from Hells Canyon: when we realized that we were at the limits of our own wits and our own strength, and we turned to our Mother for aid.
So keep climbing. If you can’t see a way out, put one foot in front of the other, and head toward where you think the light is. It takes only a small flame to begin carving a path through the darkness. And if you haven’t done it yet, recognize your own insufficiency in the face of such an overwhelming task and start praying as if everything depends on it. Because the light is fading fast, and the night will be long and difficult.