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The wild bunch

Some argue that hiking in droves undermines the wilderness experience. John Corrigan explores the ups and downs of group dynamics as he takes 10 teenage Boy Scouts up California's highest peak.

October 14, 2003|John Corrigan | Times Staff Writer

On the John Muir Trail — Some backpackers shoot us evil looks. The bears steer clear.

Who can blame them? There are 13 of us -- three men, 10 teenage boys -- rambling through the remote reaches of the high Sierra with all the stealth of a tank brigade. Each campsite we claim threatens to become Party Central. There are card games and football, and mealtime resembles a busy Italian kitchen.

I'm getting an education in what the rangers call "social impact." It's a big part of wilderness management these days, as forest officials try to ensure that there's enough solitude for those who aren't looking for the E! channel's "Wild On, Sierra Style."

As a Boy Scout troop, we want to be respectful of the wilderness and of other hikers. But is that possible with a group our size?

In two decades as a ranger, K.C. Wylie has seen other Scout units wrestle with this dilemma -- how to adapt the tradition of big-group hiking trips to the modern etiquette of lower-octane forays. "We've got the guys who want to re-create the trips they remembered from 20 or 25 years ago, with roaring campfires every night," says Wylie, director of the Inyo National Forest's Lone Pine Visitor Center. "But more and more, we're getting Scout leaders who want to make as little impact as possible."

No argument here. Backpacking for me is a chance to find a secluded high-country lake with a friend or two, cast for trout, and see the mountains the way adventurers did a couple centuries ago. Could that spirit live amid 10 teenagers? I'm about to find out.

A classic trek

Peace and quiet actually isn't the main mission here. The idea is to pass on backpacking skills, just as they were handed down to me by Jim Bullock. Nearly 30 years ago, Bullock took half a dozen of us on the Silver Knapsack Trail, a 50-mile loop through Sequoia National Forest. We carried $2 plastic tube tents and drank water straight from lakes and streams, blissfully unaware of Giardia.

Bullock packed a hammer because he knew my jury-rigged backpack would need repairs along the way. If memory serves, he also carried a carton of Marlboros. It was a glorious trip, and I caught the backpacking bug.

When my son Kevin joined La Crescenta's Troop 319, I signed up as an assistant scoutmaster. And having made just about every mistake you can make on the trail, I felt qualified to lead a 50-mile backpack this August. Two other adults, Greg Lievense and Jim Douglass, signed up to help.

To lure recruits, I planned a trip that would appeal to our troop's best hikers: Onion Valley to Whitney Portal. This classic trek would take us along a magnificent stretch of the John Muir Trail and give the guys a chance to conquer Whitney.

Preparation was the key, and on details large and small I found myself falling back on things Bullock had done on that hike long before. The boys got the message. When we left for Onion Valley, everyone was prepared. But, of course, you can't anticipate everything.

A soggy start

Rain unloads on us the first day out, which means a damp crossing of 11,823-foot Kearsarge Pass. Sprinkles on the trail that Saturday turn into a downpour once we set up tents at Kearsarge Lakes. The storm breaks so we can cook dinner, but a duty roster for cooking and cleanup chores hasn't been done, so everyone gets in each other's way.

For someone used to hiking in small groups, leading a crew of 10 city boys in the wilderness is a bit like taking wrestling fans to the opera. You need a large area to camp. There are clashes on what to eat, when to eat, when to stop and where to stop. And when you're ready to start again, invariably someone isn't.

It takes us nearly three hours to break camp and hit the trail Sunday morning. Our eight-mile hike is deceptively tough. From Kearsarge Lakes at 10,600 feet, we would drop to 9,600 at Vidette Meadows. Then we would have to painfully gain it all back, and more.

Our objective the next day is 13,200-foot Forester Pass. As we begin the long, slow climb out of Vidette Meadows, Ben Henry, 15, starts gasping for air. He walks for a couple of minutes and then has to stop. He feels like throwing up.

Altitude sickness can be serious, and the only sure cure is descent. As in turn around. It's an ugly thought on a trip like this, but when you're responsible for 10 kids, you don't dismiss it.

At the same time, Ben has trained for the hike by running eight or nine miles a week. A water polo player, he has the stocky build of a quarter horse. Maybe he's trying too hard to keep up with the racehorses in our crew. Slow down, but try to keep going, I tell him.

Ben gradually seems to get his rhythm, although when we roll into camp that evening, his condition isn't far out of mind. Another Scout, meanwhile, has developed a wicked cough.

There are other concerns. Two of our water filters have conked out, and leaky fuel lines on our stoves need attention if we don't want to ignite another river of fire, as we did at breakfast. On top of that, we're all snapping at each other.

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