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Wilderness PJs

Paul AndersenAspen, CO Colorado

I rehearsed a physical description for Mountain Rescue: “He is wearing PJs … with bears on them.” My 14-year-old son had vanished in the Seven Castles where we live on the Fryingpan, and I came very close to organizing a search party. Tait’s disappearance brought up a terror commonplace to any parent who has ever lost a child, even temporarily, at the grocery store, a mall, a swimming pool. This terror grips you deep in the psyche and shakes hard. It’s a potentially life-changing moment.It started with a hike to a nearby waterfall with a couple of friends. After the hike, we would return for lunch at our house. We set off from our door while Tait jumped on his mountain bike to show us old fogies the way. He sped past us and was sitting patiently on the trail at the turnoff to the canyon when we finally sauntered up.We hiked up the creek in the narrowing gulch hemmed in by red rock walls, where the air is cool in the shade and warm in the sun. Half an hour later, we reached the beautiful little waterfall that cascades with the soft whisper down a red sandstone wall.We were hungry for lunch, so we turned back, the adults chatting while Tait hung back exploring a few game trails. The last time I saw him, he was scrambling up a dirt bank, clinging to a tree root.Back at the house, my wife and I wondered why Tait hadn’t come speeding past us on his bike, as he likes to do. I waited five minutes, then jumped on my bike and rode back to the canyon. Tait’s bike was still there. Something had happened.As I entertained dire scenarios – a fatal fall or a mountain lion attack – Tait was well into an epic solo hike. He had climbed up the bank in the canyon and just kept on climbing until he topped out on one of the castles, a thousand feet above. He walked to the tip of the castle, hoping to descend and meet us on the trail, but he got cliffed out. So he turned around to find another way down.With fear welling up inside me, I left my bike with Tait’s and jogged up the canyon, calling his name. It’s spooky hearing your voice echoing in a deserted canyon when there is no answer, and I was thoroughly spooked by the time I reached the waterfall. That’s where I started tracking my son.I found faint bootprints where Tait had climbed up the bank, so I climbed into thickets of brush, clawing up the steep canyon wall. Occasionally, I paused to shout his name, calling up into the vertical ramparts of the castles that loomed overhead like a skyscraper. When Tait’s tracks disappeared on a talus slope, I knew I needed help.I’ve never called Mountain Rescue before, and I kept mulling over the fact that he was wearing the PJs that he had made himself at school. There was no mirth in this, just an odd detail that I reasoned would make an enticing headline: “PJs keep boy warm during wilderness escapade.”When I returned to the bikes, Tait’s bike wasn’t there. He had obviously returned for it, and I felt a flood of relief. He met me on the trail and sheepishly acknowledged his misjudgment. Still shaken, I told Tait that I was proud of him because he kept himself safe. “Now let’s get some lunch,” I said, and we pedaled home.Tait’s story unfolded later about the cliff, his backtrack and descent into a different canyon, the two big pour-overs he encountered there, and how he finally bushwhacked a route down to safety. He was never lost, he said, but was totally focused on finding his way back home. My wife and I are grateful that Tait knows how to climb and scramble through a canyon wilderness – alone – wearing his PJs … the ones with the bears on them … which held up remarkably well. We only hope he doesn’t make a habit of it.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays when he’s not out searching for No. 1 son.


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