The Night Hike

Sunset

Into the night,
Intently gaze,
And while you do,
A mystery plays.

There were 9 teenagers in Will’s group. He was sure of it. He knew each of them by both their name and quantity of snacks they possessed. They’d been backpacking in the boonies for 10 days and he’d headcounted them a bunch of times. Making sure everyone was accounted for, was one of his prime responsibilities as the group leader. The nine kids and two leaders made for a total group size of 11, a fact engrained in his mind.

Will had been leading backcountry trips for 7 years and had concluded that this was a particularly good group. So, he wanted to do something special to make their final hike back down to the base camp facility unique and especially rewarding.

Late in the afternoon of their final day out, while sitting on the summit of Quandary Peak on a clump of boulders and gazing toward the distant lowlands, the leader announced, “we’re heading all the way back down to the lodge tonight. Not tomorrow, but tonight. Yes, we’re walking in the dark, but there’ll be a full moon which’ll give us some mighty interesting light. It’s a 5-hour walk, nearly all downhill, which means we should be back and in bed by midnight or so. So, rest-up for the next hour, and then we’ll head down to the campsite, grab our packs, and be headed out by dark. No time for cooking supper and all that mess. Just eat up all your snacks—there’s no point in takin’ ‘em back home with you. We don’t normally do anything like this, but y’all have proven that you can do anything you put your minds to—and I know you’ll do this well. This is gonna be an amazing few hours and as a bonus, we’ll get back to base camp and the real world earlier than expected.”

As soon as he finished with the announcement, the group members made themselves comfortable and began resting, as suggested. Other than some Aspen leaves rustling in the wind, it was outwardly quiet and calm. But each group member’s mind was silently working full bore at developing a plan for carrying out the hike. Prior to Will’s night hike proclamation, there’d been plenty of anticipation about the impending return to the “real world.” But now, the idea of doing the final hike of the trip at night and returning even earlier than anticipated was downright exciting, albeit borderline overwhelming.

For the moment, the Sun was making another spectacular descent toward the western horizon and growing larger and redder the further it sank. A lone thunderhead lumbered across the flatlands in the far distance and a marmot suddenly appeared in the talus not 30 feet from the group. Even as they savored their final minutes of downtime in wild and magnificent backcountry, each person began to anticipate the moment they would walk through the camp gate and into the lodge. Once there, they were certain there’d be an endless supply of food, lights that would come on with the flip of a switch, and flush toilets with proper seats.

Aside from thoughts of pizza, chips, commodes, electricity, and full rolls of toilet paper, each person was mentally working through the details of how the night hike would work. Their glorified visions of everyday life were soon replaced with more immediate outdoor living concerns that included things like blister bandaging, filling water bottles with clean water, and finding dry socks. But even as they began their mental return, astonishingly, each took a few final moments to relish their backcountry surroundings.

Will felt certain that each of the group members would do fine on the hike and that when the sun rose the following morning, all would be back at the camp and asleep on actual beds. As he lay on a particularly soft boulder, basking in the afternoon sun, he ultimately closed his eyes and dozed off. Forty-five minutes later, he abruptly woke up, looked at his watch, and saw that it was almost 6:00 pm, which meant it was time to get the night hike ball rolling. Assuming they left shortly, they’d get back to their campsite and packs by 7:00 pm and would be on the trail before dark.

“Okay, let’s get up and start night hiking,” he almost yelled!

Immediately, everyone snapped-to and began walking down to the campsite. Once there, they began taking down the tents, stuffing dirty clothes back into their packs, and eating a variety of bonus snack items. Suddenly, they were in a race against sunset and hoped to be packed up and on their way while there was still some daylight left.

For the most part, the prepping and packing went according to plan. By 8:45 pm, with just a little bit of light left, the group fell in line behind Will’s co-leader, Ronnie, and began their hike to the camp headquarters. Even with the ever-darkening skies, the actual trail was obvious enough to mostly negotiate without a headlamp. And if you looked off into the distance and followed the wandering line of the trail as it moved across meadows and through the trees you could anticipate where it was and follow where it was going.

Because of the waning light, a couple of the kids soon began stumbling around on the rocks and uneven terrain. Inevitably, it was only going to get darker and harder to walk without a headlamp, but they would have to get used to the situation since Will had declared that they would hike only under the light of the full moon.

Will was aware that the full moon would rise at 9:03 pm and within only a few minutes of that would begin to cast a magical, although dim, light on the forest, rocks, and trail. But that hadn’t happened yet, and for the moment they’d just have to deal with the less-than-ideal lighting. “The light, or lack of it,” he thought, “is certainly going to add to the weirdness of this experience. And undoubtedly, it’s going to create some spooky shadows.” He was giddy with excitement about the hours of mystery that awaited.

The hard part of the backcountry trip was mostly over. It was personally satisfying to him that the group had bonded together strongly and would be walking into the base camp facility as a single united group and ahead of schedule. He felt like the night hike would be a positive finale to an especially good trip. Because their arrival back at the camp would be late at night, he was aware there’d be little outside fanfare. And so, he continually stressed the significance of walking back into the camp with 10 other people who had become lifelong friends.

The night hike began with a short uphill. That bit of up was soon forgotten and within a few minutes, the grade levelled out and they walked onto a broad ridge covered with gnarled Bristlecone Pines. They walked along the saddle for a few hundred yards and then intersected the Lost Trail, which they would follow all the way back to the base camp. The trail junction occurred near treeline at almost 12,000 feet. Since the base camp was located down in the valley at less than 9,000 feet, they had a lot of descending to do in only a few miles. The night air was pleasantly fresh and there was little wind. It was a near perfect hiking scenario– mostly downhill, comfortable temperatures, and a brilliant full moon to help light the way. At the far end of the saddle, the true downhill began. Ronnie Justice lead the way from thew start. He was Will’s co-leader, and while he didn’t have the extensive group and trail experience that Will did, he was a solid leader.

From the point where the group joined the trail, it was a bit more than 5 miles down to the trailhead. Once they arrived back down there, a half mile or so of dirt road would then get them back to their bags of snacks and the soft beds at the camp HQ.

Will did the math. In fact, he’d been doing a lot of it during the previous couple of weeks. He reasoned that the normal backpacker walks at about 2 mph. So, with a little bit of cushion built in, he figured they’d be back to the base camp by midnight.

The group had been on the trail for 10 days. As mentioned, Will was used to counting heads. As a backcountry group leader, it was something he found himself doing all the time. Even when he was at some random place in the off season and saw a group, he’d often find himself mentally counting to see how many were in the group, as if it was his responsibility. It was engrained into the way he looked at things, and when he was leading his own group, he’d developed his headcounting skills to the point of being able to glance at the entire group scene and immediately sense if anything was askew.

He was nearly always right with his assessments, but had made a mistake earlier that same summer, on another trip up Quandary. On that trip, he’d looked around at that group while they were taking a break and determined that all were present and accounted for. The problem was that they weren’t.

That group had finished their break and headed off down the Flume Trail. After a short distance, they came to Crow Creek, which they had to cross. As they sat along the shore changing into their water shoes, somebody asked where Griff was. Will’s initial thought was that he was just being messed with, so he didn’t appear to react. Even so, he made an unnoticeable head count and realized that, in fact, one of the group members was not there, and it was Griff. An empty feeling had immediately filled his gut. He looked around and, seemingly for the first time, noted the massive scale of the backcountry and instantly felt insignificant and helpless.

Ultimately, they’d found Griff. He was a mile back up the trail, and thankfully sitting and not wandering further away. In the build-up to seeing his face, Will had time to ponder some of the possibilities of what could happen in such a case. Things like it getting dark, getting caught in a storm, or some sort of injury. Will suffered plenty with that mistake, but it had worked out okay that time. He’d learned a hard lesson and was not about to have something like that happen again.

The 30-year-old Will knew that a sure-fire way to account for everyone was to assign each person a number and have them say it out loud and in sequence, whenever asked, i.e., “number off.” But he was mindful of the ills associated with using the technique. He felt it important that people didn’t think of themselves as “just a number” so, he mostly refrained from doing it. Instead, he made a concerted effort to hone his silent headcounting skills to the point where he could account for everyone without them even realizing what was happening.

As the night hike began, he silently headcounted the group- “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Good, all is well.”  He’d seen Ronnie, the other leader, helping Karen put her pack on, which verified that they had started-off with the expected nine kids, Ronnie, and himself. Numbers didn’t lie. All was well. Everyone was present and accounted for. The group was heading down. Will assumed his position at the back of the group. He was the sweep, which meant he’d be bringing up the rear and making sure that he was always the last person. And since the group was small and had typically hiked closely together, he wasn’t concerned that there would be a tendency for them to spread out along the trail or get separated.

Night came quickly, almost abruptly. One minute it was somewhat light, but then suddenly it got full-on dark. A glow began developing in the eastern sky as the moon began its ascent. As he pointed in its direction, Will confirmed to the group that the full moon was indeed rising and would be accompanying them all the way back.

The darkening night immediately gave way to the filtered glow that gave dimension to the trail, hikers, trees, and distant mountains. As the hike continued and the moonlight grew brighter, the group eventually stopped for a short break. There was little movement as the pace came to a stop, but some of the team members reached down to tie shoes, others asked for help reaching for their water bottle, and still others moved their arms or torsos in new directions as a way of staying loose or relieving soreness. Will took the opportunity to do a quick headcount.  “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.  And then there is Ronnie and….,” He’d counted ten plus Ronnie and knew that wasn’t right. His count made for a total of 12 and he was certain it should be 11. He was confounded by the result, but ultimately concluded he must’ve inadvertently counted Ronnie as a part of the ten. “My mistake,” he reasoned.

Just as the group leader was mentally accepting his mistake, Karen said, “Well, we can’t stand around all night,” and they began reorganizing themselves and once again walking down the trail. Will wanted to redo his count, but the group started moving before he could do so and the confusion caused by the reorganization combined with the strange light, made the task virtually impossible, anyway. And besides, he didn’t want to create any undue apprehension by calling attention to the situation. So, he just accepted his mistake but determined that at the next stop, he would use his headlamp to lay eyes on each person and verify the correct result. He didn’t want to renege on his moonlight proclamation, but since he really wanted to see what was going on, decided to retroactively exempt himself from the “no artificial light” edict based on safety concerns. Nonetheless, for that immediate moment, their world was still one of muted light, strange shadows, the sounds of boots walking in a sort of cadence, ruts, rocks, and mysterious things just out of sight. The light from the moon was just enough to keep each person moving forward but not enough to allow them to go at their normally faster pace. The darkness forced them together and an envelope of dimly illuminated energy surrounded and followed them as they continued picking their way down the mountain and along the trail.

After an hour or so of downhill and well before midnight, Ronnie paused again for another brief break. Will took the opportunity to carry out his headcount plan. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.  But right over there- that’s Ronnie for sure.  He’s a foot taller than everyone else and he’s always wearing that same stupid hat,” he thought to himself. Will looked at the rest of the group and noted they were all about the same size. He was certain he’d counted them carefully and intently, but once again the answer was the same– ten plus Ronnie. He was sure it wasn’t a mistake this time. “Who’s not supposed to be here,” he collected his thoughts?  He knew there wouldn’t be much more time for figuring it out during the current break and, once again, he didn’t want to say anything to alarm the group or, at this point, incite a potential intruder. If he called attention to the problem, he was aware that the uninvited visitor might react in some bad way. So, he did the only thing he could think to do at that point and counted one more time. As before, he was still hoping that he’d made a mistake, and everything was okay. But the third time that break was no charm, and the headcount was still ten. “Who is the extra?”  He resolved to look at each person. Inevitably, he’d come to unfamiliar face, and that would be the culprit. Then, once he found out who the perp was, he’d take action, although he wasn’t sure what that would be.

The group continued their break. “They’re resting longer than I thought they would,” he thought. Deliberately, he focused his attention on the person standing behind Ronnie.  “That’s Jim and I’ve been in his tent, and he lives in Chicago. I know him for sure,” he determined. Then, he moved his attention down the line, and looked directly at each individual. He didn’t want to seem panicked but needed to know who the extra person was. He went down the line. Everyone belonged to the group, he was sure of it.  “Wait, that’s impossible,” he concluded. So, he did it again, going in the opposite direction, from back to front. Karen was just in front of him. He looked her squarely in the face, although she was unaware of what he was up to, and then one by one moved his gaze and focus forward until he got back to Ronnie. There’d been nothing unexpected in what he saw. Each of the people was familiar. He did the count yet again. He still held out hope that everything would suddenly be good. “There’ll be nine this time,” he said almost aloud. But the result was the same. He once again counted ten and still hadn’t gotten to Ronnie.

About that time, his co-leader began to stir. Ronnie stood up, announced that “we can’t sit around all night!” and began walking down the trail. The group fell in behind him and soon regained their fast pace and energy. Will was perplexed. He kept trying to count as the group moved, but every time he began, something would shift or change, and he’d have to start over. He was getting nowhere and realized that by that point, even if he did count 9 kids, he’d likely have no confidence in the result. “What if I just made a mistake in the recount? That’s the most logical reason for counting 10,” he decided. “Maybe I’m expecting the unexpected,” he hypothesized.

As he walked, Will kept returning to the idea that it had to be some sort of mistake and decided to think back through the particulars of the situation, yet again. So, he took a deep breath and started recounting the details from the very beginning. He meticulously thought his way through the entire scenario- “There are 9 kids and 2 leaders in the group. We’re headed down the trail toward camp and ought to be there around midnight or so. I’m the sweep person and have been bringing up the rear ever since we started. I’ve kept a wary eye on everything connected to the group the entire time. Ronnie is the leader and has kept the group tightly consolidated. The group has never become spread out. I counted nine group members plus Ronnie and myself- 11 total, when we got up to the Lost Trail intersection back at the saddle and at that point, it was just beginning to get dark. We’ve taken two breaks, so far. At the first break, I counted ten plus Ronnie, but decided I’d made a mistake. Then, at the second break, I took three more headcounts and got the same bad result, 12 including me, each time. Also at the second break, I took a second count and looked at each person in the group and saw nothing out of the ordinary. So, whoever the extra person is must have snuck into the line somewhere between the saddle and the first break. I must not have been mistaken when I did the count at the first break. If I can figure out who the culprit is, I’ll come up with a solution.”

The group stayed bunched together as they continued their downward march. There was little talk– it was mostly just walking sounds and the occasional gust of wind rustling through the trees, that broke the silence. Dust enveloped the group in a faint cloud that further hindered Will’s ability to discern what was happening. Nonetheless, he kept trying to count or notice anything out of the ordinary. Soon, he concluded the situation had become downright dangerous and decided it was time to take more assertive action. The problem needed to be solved. What he’d been doing up to that point had simply not worked. And so, he established a firm plan– “It’s time for me to fish or cut bait. This can’t go on any longer. We might all be at risk, and I need to figure out, once and for all, who the culprit is. When I do that and shine my headlamp directly into their eyes, best case scenario is that he or she will just run off into the darkness and not pull a gun or do something desperate.” It made him feel better to develop a more concrete plan, although he kept visualizing things like hostage taking, big knives, and pistols.

Will was about to announce a break when the forward motion of the group stopped. Ronnie had walked into a small meadow that had a big fallen log lining one side of the trail and figured that it was a good place and time to take another break, and so that’s what he did. “Great minds think alike,” Will mused. By that time, they’d been walking for almost two hours, and Ronnie decided it would be a good time for everyone to remove their packs and take a longer rest. While Will was pleased that Ronnie had thought to give the group a long break, he was also glad to have a longer chance to sort out the problem. There’d be about ten minutes to complete his task, he figured. With everyone stopped and stationary, he hoped to be able to walk around the group and determine who didn’t belong and perhaps even see if that person was carrying a weapon. That latter fact, he knew, would be of special importance as he devised a confrontation plan. His first thought regarding a plan of action was that unless the mystery person had a knife or gun, he’d overwhelm and knock the intruder to the ground, fall on top of him, and pin him down. If he did that, his hope was that the rest of the group would see what was happening and help as needed.

Will stopped, slid his pack off, and left it on the edge of the trail leaning against a tree. Once he was free from his pack, for some reason he felt like he could perform a more proper headcount. He waited for everyone to settle into their spots and began counting. This time, though, he was shocked to unexpectedly count only nine kids, but decided he’d just made another mistake. Then, without hesitation, he began moving around the group and focusing his attention on each individual to verify their identity beyond any doubt. He first walked up to Karen, once again, who was sitting on a big boulder, with her pack still on. He looked her squarely in the face, almost as if she’d done something wrong, which made her feel uneasy. He was satisfied with her identity and, without saying anything, began moving toward the next person. But before he got there he suddenly felt inexplicably compelled to stop and do another count, and so he did. Like the first time that break, the count was 9 and with Ronnie that made 10. “That’s right, that’s what I should’ve been getting all the time,” he thought, in a flabbergasted sort of way. He looked out into the darkness, and his eyes blinked uncontrollably a few times. “The culprit must’ve snuck away and is out there in the night somewhere,” he reasoned. “That whacko was probably at the back all along and probably decided that his fun group time was coming to an end, and he was about to get caught,” he concluded. Then, goose bumps rose on his forearms and adrenaline sent a cold chill down his back, as he realized the identity of the perp might never be known. “And to think some stranger could just sneak into and out of my group without being discovered,” he lamented as a sense of vulnerability began creeping into his thoughts. He stared into the mixmaster of night, with its stew of colorless dark, and finally succumbed to and began the process of embracing the unknown. “Maybe that’s the answer,” he thought. “Maybe there is no answer.”

At that point, as far as Will was concerned, the intruder was gone, although he wasn’t sure about the whereto part. And so, he went no further with his individual verifications. But for his own peace of mind, he decided to do a third count and once again got 9 plus he and Ronnie. For the moment, hHe was convinced that all was well.

The temperature was dropping. Afterall, it was nighttime in the mountains. When they’d stopped for the break, everyone was warm and sweaty. But after a few minutes of sitting relatively still, their wet clothes and the falling air temperature conspired to make people chilly and it became time to get be back on the move. “Better to be a little tired and warm than cold and rested,” Will had often said. And besides, the group members were aware of the obvious fact that they would only get to the camp if they kept walking and that the longer they rested, the later their arrival. The 9 kids stood up, put on their packs, and followed Ronnie back onto the trail. Still perplexed and as wary as ever, Will hoisted his own pack, while keeping a vigilant eye on the group as they fell in place and then reassumed his spot at the back.

Will made uneasy small talk to the kids in front of him as he walked. He wanted to make everything seem normal. No one, including Ronnie, had any idea about the headcount or his apprehensions, and he wanted to keep it that way. Even though he was satisfied the group was perp-free, Will kept looking for anything unusual. While he’d concluded that he’d likely never know what happened, he still held out hope that he’d come up with an explanation. He hadn’t yet fully come to grips with the idea that some mysteries are never solved.

Will looked at his watch and noted it was almost midnight. He’d been hoping to figure this all out before the hike was finished, but they were almost to the end and there were still no answers. Then, they arrived at the trailhead, crossed the bridge, and walked onto the dirt road for the final approach to the camp. There was still only moonlight, but the road was wide and open and reflected more light than the trail had, so it almost seemed like someone was lighting the way with a floodlight. As the group spilled out onto the road, Will counted again, just to be sure. He counted ten plus Ronnie. “Wait, another mistake,” he thought. Everyone was getting antsy, moving around more than normal, and getting out of order, which made it harder to get a good count. The group was alone on the road and while there was plenty of grab ass and kid movement going on, they were still just one single mass moving along the open road. He counted ten a second time, and that was without Ronnie. He was simply going to figure this out this time, and adamantly yelled, “Hold it”.  Everyone stopped. They were right in the middle of the road and only a few hundred yards from their beds. The sides of the road were open and there was no place for the culprit to escape to. Will understood that the perp might feel like he or she was backed into a corner and react negatively. But right at that moment something had to be done. He would not allow this to go on. He was determined to resolve the problem before they got back to camp.

Each member of the group had received a unique number, from one to nine, early-on in the trip, and would periodically “number-off,” or yell it out in sequence whenever instructed. Verbally numbering-off is a sure-fire way to assure that all members of a group are accounted for. Even though they hadn’t done it in a while, the process was firmly engrained, and they all still knew what to do. So, Will planned to have the group number-off, which would undoubtedly reveal the identity of the outsider. He figured that they would yell out their numbers, from 1-9. But after they came to 9, the outsider would not understand how many were supposed to be in the group and say “10.” Doing so would reveal their identity as the stranger, and at that instant he would pounce, and as with his previous plan, hold the perp down on the ground and hope for the best.

Will took a deep breath and then barked-out, “number-off.”

Without hesitation or question, the group members began saying their numbers.  “one”, “two”.

There was a hesitation as number 3, Barry, didn’t immediately remember his number, before finally saying, “three.”

The leader edged closer into the mass of people. He wanted to be in the right position, wherever that was, for tackling the culprit when it became time. He tried to look at everyone’s faces, movements, and hand motions all at once. “What if the perp has a big knife, he suddenly thought?

“Four.”

“Five,” the count continued.

Adrenaline began supercharging Will.

“Six,”

“Seven.”

“Here we go,” he thought.

“Eight.”

“Nine.”

The leader was turning, waiting to hear “ten” and ready to jump on anyone that might bolt from the group. He would take that person down and use his body as a shield to protect the group members from whatever might happen. “Where should I be,” he wondered? He was panicky because he knew there’d only be one chance to get it right. He tried to look in every direction all at once and his ears strained to hear “t,” as in “ten,” come out of the mouth of the imposter.

But nothing happened. “Ten” was never uttered. Nobody ran from the group or tried to hide or separate themselves. “Wait,” he thought.  “Did someone just not number off or run from the group?”  He looked at the group members and all seemed to belong. He did a quick headcount and there were suddenly nine in the group, plus Ronnie. He must have messed up, he thought, and then began the count again. This time he was even more calculating and once againe He wHHH got nine. He started to wonder about his own sanity.  He’d been ready for someone to take off and was ready to react instantaneously. But that never happened, and he was loaded, locked, and prepared to pounce. “Have I lost my mind,” he wondered.

It was getting later all the time and they were close to the camp. “OK”, Ronnie said. “Let’s get going and get back to camp.” The co-leader was confused by the numbering-off event, but figured Will had his reasons and would fill him in later. The group started moving and fell back into line behind him.

The three hours of night hiking was surreal to Will. He’d wanted it to be special for the group members, and it was. But it was especially so for him. Undoubtedly, he’d be thinking and dreaming about headcounts for the rest of his life. It was the first of several unsolved mysteries he’d encounter along the way. As he neared the camp, he continued trying to understand what happened and even considered running ahead and counting the group members as they walked through the lodge door but realized he didn’t have enough time, and so didn’t even try. Soon, they all walked through the camp lodge doorway as anticipated, and Will walked into his small bunkroom. He set down his pack, pulled out his sleeping bag, and stretched out on his bed. Before drifting off, he looked out his window into the night and stared at the moon with an intensity like he’d never known before.

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.