On a whim, Magdalena decided to hike the John Muir Trail. She entered the forest as a backpacker, and left as a first responder, doing everything she could to save a man’s life.
For some people, hiking the JMT is a lifelong dream. With the trail’s increasing popularity, the park system has implemented a permit system to limit the number of hikers a year in an attempt to preserve the wilderness. In 2002, only 1,000 people hiked the JMT. By 2016, the limit was capped at 3,500 permits for the season. Permits are available 24 weeks in advance, and sell out immediately.
For Magdalena, it was as simple as her friends showing up with an extra permit.
“I was at work, some friends came and said, ‘We’re doing this,’ so I said, “Can I come?’ It was 3am, we were at a party, they took out a map and we found a road. I told them I would meet them at this trail junction between 5:00 and 5:30pm. If I didn’t show up, I told them to go on without me.”
Magdalena set off on a burly trail. It was all uphill and she didn’t know exactly where she was going. “I had to put faith in arriving at that time and hoping to run into them. I remember walking and asking myself: Am I really going to do this? I carried with me this strange feeling that something was going to happen. I chalked it up to self doubt, but I had a feeling I wasn’t going to finish it.”
Magdalena found her friend Katie sitting on the trail looking at a map, and they set off into Evolution Valley. They made it to Evolution Lake where they stripped naked and jumped in.
“Maggie? Is that you?” someone called from the other side of the lake. Magdalena sprinted around the lake, naked and cheering, as she reunited with a friend from college. As they hugged, an older woman approached them with a stern look on her face.
“Seeing you two reunite in this granite cathedral just awakened something in me I haven’t felt in many years,” the woman said with tears in her eyes, expecting to find escape in the wilderness and instead was greeted with connection.
The next day the wilderwomen hiked over Muir Pass, a peak standing 11,955 feet tall. A stone hut sat at the top of the rocky pass, housing beer and cookies left behind by some trail angel. Delighted, they continued on to the golden staircase: in one mile they would climb 2,500 feet of elevation gain.
“In my head, it stands out as the hardest hiking I’ve ever done,” Magdalena said. “The trail started to leave the classic California alpine area. We were approaching the end of Evolution Valley with Mather Pass ahead of us. Mather Pass is referred to as a transition point, the part of the trail when you are almost not on the JMT anymore.”
They turned a corner and could see miles ahead of the rocky trail, leading up to Mather Pass. They saw a boy, maybe eighteen years old, running up to a man who was lying face down on the rocks. They hiked for several minutes toward the scene, unable to decipher what exactly was happening.
“I didn’t hear any commotion. It was silent. I saw the boy looking around in a panic. When we got to the boy, we immediately told him to run.”
“Run up trail, find a man named Baby Steps, tell him to come back.”
The boy took off down the trail, running for Baby Steps, a man they had met earlier on the trail who was a retired ER nurse.
Magdalena and two women were left alone with the body lying face down on the rocks. One woman left the scene. She was mourning her friend who died while climbing Mt. Denali a few weeks ago. The experience was too raw, too soon, and too heavy for her. She wanted to help without being in proximity to the body, so she gathered all of the hiking poles and rerouted the trail so hikers wouldn’t walk past his body.
Magdalena and her friend Katie were left alone with the body. There was an understanding of, Fuck, we gotta do this.
“Katie was so pragmatic and point blank, she jumped into action. There was no hesitation in her mind. She seemed so unemotional and detached in the moment, which is what we needed to take action,” Magdalena explained. “I became immediately aware of the gravity of the situation. My first thought was: This is going to change my life, this is a big deal.”
“We need to find his pulse,” Katie said, getting on her hands and knees and searching for a pulse in his wrist, then his ankles.
“No pulse,” she reported.
“I stood over his body feeling stunned and shocked,” Magdalena recalled. “His ankle was bent the wrong way. He had short blonde hair and we could see he had bruising behind his ears. I knew this was a sign of internal head trauma.”
His backpack was on top of him when they arrived. On the trail above him about ten feet was a hiking pole. On the trail about ten feet below him was his other hiking pole. He was too heavy for them to flip over to unclip the hipbelt. With a knife, they cut his backpack off at the hip belt and threw it to the side.
Other hikers arrived and were willing to help. Katie instructed them where to go, what to grab, and when to push. Magdalena stabilized his head and neck during the flip in case of a spine injury.
“I remember feeling happy to help and being scared to see his face,” Magdalena said. “His heart wasn’t beating. We couldn’t find a pulse. Someone started doing compressions.”
When Magdelena saw his face, it hit her like a ton of bricks. His teeth were broken, fluid was coming out of his ears and nose, his eyes were at half mast- not open or closed. Katie immediately lifted his eyelids to check his pupils.
“I immediately saw humanity. I started thinking, This is a person who has lived a long life. I wondered, what love does he have in his life? Who is waiting for him to come home?”
At this time Baby Steps arrived, who had experience as an ER nurse, and immediately jumped in with the patient assessment steps. Magdalena looked through his backpack in search of his ID. She found his journal and the pages were mostly blank or filled with resupply information. Page 14 was empty except for a smiley face. Another page mentioned missing his daughters.
Baby Steps made the final call. “This guy is dead, his body is starting to get cold. Stop doing compressions.”
The moment slowed down. All Magdalena could think was, “Wow, I’m witnessing death. This is the first dead person I’ve seen.”
Her next thought was, “He loved the outdoors. He died doing what he loved.”
The moments that followed were cathartic, slow, and reflective. It was still morning, the rocks were still cold and there was pink in the sky.
“I remember looking down at his head next to my foot. I remember looking up at the Palisade Lakes. I could see the whole trail I walked to get here. This is how far I’ve come to show up in this moment. This is this man’s resting place: the most insane and natural beauty I’ve ever seen. This was the last thing this man saw,” Magdalena said.
To die among mountains is to fall into the arms of Mother Earth herself. Where this man laid, his body sank into the loving embrace of the wilderness. His soul had an abundance of space to release into the cool mountain air, up into the clouds and into the heavens.
The group moved into the next necessary steps: they sent their GPS location to the forest service, they called a helicopter. The rescue team told them to leave.
“Don’t wait around, it’s not an emergency, we’ll come later today,” they said.
“We put his body in his sleeping bag and zipped it all the way up over his head. We used his neon jacket to put rocks around so EMS could find him easily,” Magdalena said.
The moment arrived for them to leave, there was nothing left to do. They put on their packs, just as they had the days before. Though this time, they carried the weight of death on their back. They carried the weight of life on their back. With each step over the rocky landscape, they stepped on what seemed sturdy but was actually frail. They carried with them a heavy awareness that life was fleeting, life was dangerous, and life was valuable. They carried with them a desire to live a life worth living.
Together they summited Mather Pass in silence. From the top they could see the neon spot where the sleeping bag body laid.
“The first thing I did was take my backpack off. I tried to get my water bottle out; I turned around too fast and my nalgene cracked on a rock. How is this possible? How did my water bottle just break on a rock? How did this man just die out here on this trail? Hiking was something we didn’t consider dangerous. He just fell on a rock and died.”
At the summit, they allowed themselves to cry, sob, and eventually weep. Fifteen people stood at the summit waiting. North bound hikers stopped when they heard the news and waited to comfort them. South bound hikers had walked around the rerouted trail and waited to comfort them.
“A man who looked like Jesus was standing there. He was hiking the JMT as a missionary. He said, ‘You are my sisters. I feel inspired by you. You did everything that you could. This man died in a special place.’”
He told them, “You will find love in the comfort of Jesus. You will find peace.”
Magdalena realized in this moment how closed off to religion she felt.
“Growing up in a religious enviornment fucked me up. It hurt me to hear people say ‘Jesus loves you.’ I don’t like Jesus or God. I don’t like that they are men. But in that moment, replacing Jesus with love was healing for me,” Magdalena said.
The trail community opened their arms and hearts without hesitation. They gave what they had, which wasn’t much in terms of possessions. Instead they gave words of wisdom, hugs, wildflowers, and their presence. The trail community rallied together to acknowledge what was real, what was painful, and what was.
“People kept showering us with love. Everyone on the trail knew what happened and knew we were there. The experience allowed everyone to open up and give. We were able to connect so deeply with strangers, immediately,” Magdalena said.
A woman with blue hair approached them later in the day along the trail.
“Everything she was wearing was blue. She asked, ‘Are you the girls? You look life you could use a hug from a mom.’”
Magdalena leaned into this woman’s arms and wept openly.
“Feel me, I’m alive,” Sister Smurf said. She grabbed Magdalena’s face with both hands and held her there, saying, “You are strong, you are brave, you are important.”
Sister Smurf asked, “Can I sing you my life song?” which went like this:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
“All I can remember is her singing and full on dancing. She was this bundle of joy. All these religious things kept happening. I wondered: Am I gonna become religious now?” Magdalena said.
“There was this energy on the trail that day of: fuck all the bullshit, someone died today, I fucking love you. If this had happened on the city streets, I don’t think I would have received that love. I don’t think people would even know, walking down the street. I don’t think everyone would stop and offer love to me.”
This experience shaped Magdelena’s worldview and opened her up to the importance of sharing love.
“The only advice I can give is to offer love as freely as you would as if someone died or was about to die. Love is huge,” Magdalena said.
The three women continued hiking, desperate to leave the wilderness. They hiked in silence and they hiked fast.
“I can’t tell my mom or my parents about this. It will strengthen their belief that the wilderness is a dangerous place and they won’t want me to come out here. How is this going to change my life?” Magdalena worried internally while hiking.
The women decided to leave the JMT. That night they slept in a spider’s nest and woke with spiders all over them.
“The ecosystem shifted drastically. We hiked 20 miles into the night. We wanted to be in a place that wasn’t there.”
The next morning they hiked over Taboose Pass and began seven grueling miles downhill with 7,000 feet of elevation loss.
“It was like walking down a vertical ladder the whole time. I can’t imagine anyone that would hike up it- it was the world’s most fucked up trail. It was getting hotter and hotter. I wanted to be anywhere but there.”
As desperately as they wanted to leave the wilderness, the wilderness would not let them escape: not quickly, not easily, not without feeling pain. On that hellish decent over exposed rock and under a brutal, unforgiving sun: their emotional strength deteriorated.
The wilderness gave them space to scream “FUCK THIS” and “GODDAMNIT.” The wilderness exposed their anger, frustration, and sadness. It exposed the heavy, aching pain in their calves, thighs and hearts. It exposed their strength to push on through the heat. It exposed their determination to never give up. It exposed their belief that a better future was waiting for them if they kept going. The wilderness exposed their power.
“We got to the parking lot and it was 106 degrees. We had 10 miles to hike to get to highway 395. I cried because I was miserable,” Magdelena said.
While they were walking, someone put their hiking pole in a wasp nest.
“Suddenly there were wasps in my clothes and in my hair, stinging me everywhere. I was hitting myself with my hiking poles. I ran as fast as I could and felt dead wasps falling out of my clothes. I remember thinking, this is the lowest point of my life, and there is no way I can escape this. So I kept sprinting, for twenty minutes in the desert with my backpack, crying and screaming.”
The wilderness unraveled them to the core. The wilderness broke them down and grinded them like the rocks beneath their feet into soft sand. The wilderness, while putting them in discomfort, was a safe place for them to release their frustration and anger onto the mountain itself. They could release their emotional pain as it morphed into physical pain that stung. The wilderness would not let them escape, not until they felt their pain so deeply that it broke them open. The wilderness would not let them forget. The wilderness does not let them skip or avoid the hard stuff. It forces us to feel it, to be with it, and to eventually coarse through it.
Eventually, a jeep full of girls passed by.
“You would not believe what hellshit fire we’ve been through, please give us a ride!”
They loaded into the jeep, bringing dead wasps with them, and got dropped off on highway 395, where they hitched another ride from a single mom who gave them $20 for ice cream. They booked a hotel room and Magdalena called her parents.
“I told my parents and they were loving. All they said was: ‘come home,’” Magdalena said.
After a few days, they decided to get back on the trail. They returned to the wilderness, which was now a place of fierce truth and uncertainty. They faced the side of the trail that was ugly, scary, hard, and chose to walk on the side that was beautiful, giving and full of life. They hiked 23 miles to Mt. Whitney- the highest peak in the continental US and the end of the John Muir Trail.
“I felt proud and I felt important. I felt sad, and I knew I did the best I could. This was part of my story now,” Magdalena said.
As they hiked through the forest, they started passing all the people on the trail they met on Mather Pass. Their journey lined up with the end of the people who stayed on trail. The trail community has this special knack for running into each other in a place that seems full of solitude.
Jesus man was standing on top of Mt. Whitney, and said, “My children, of course I am running into you here.” He gave them all hugs and kissed their foreheads.
The women held a private ceremony on top of Mt. Whitney, the highest emotional peak they conquered in life so far. Katie read a poem and they marveled together at the magic of the wilderness:
“I am in awe of the power of the wilderness. I am humbled by the timeless expanse. Death is inevitable, it’s just as much a part of life in the wilderness as it is in the cities. I feel seen by the wilderness. The wilderness has been the backdrop for my life- a lot of love, growth and sadness. I am healing myself and my relationship with the wilderness. I feel like I am being taken care of by the wilderness. Sun’s up, I’m up. The wilderness does the work,” Magdelena said.
In the following days, Magdalena left the mountains and returned to the ocean.
“I tried to find wilderness in all different shapes. I spent a whole day on a beach in Point Reyes by myself, journaling and thinking about my relationship with the wilderness. Hearing waves and sitting in silence was healing. I have the wilderness inside of me, always. So much of who I am has been shaped by experience in the wilderness. I know it’s healing, it’s challenging, it’s everything. I can create whatever relationship I want with it. I have much greater respect. Now, when I look at lakes and mountains: I see possibility. I see growth and love and sadness and everything. I feel it all.”
Weeks later, the women would talk to this man’s family on the phone. His family would offer to fly the women out to Wisconsin for his funeral. The girls would not accept or attend. His daughter emphasized how much he loved being on the trail. He had a history of falling on the trail, and when his daughter begged him to stop hiking, he told her: “If I’m gonna die, it’s going to be out there.”
The last thing this man saw was beauty. He did not run in fear of his life, he did not hide or cower or cry. He likely breathed in deeply, smiled at the vast expanse and missed a step. His last thoughts may have been, “oh shit” or “whoops,” but no: “please no,” “goodbye,” or “I’m in pain.” He escaped death by murder, death by machine, death by cancer.
This man’s exit from the world was natural. He welcomed death by mountain, death by elevation, death by beauty. With grace, he joined the wilderness which gave him life.
This man chose to live his life outside. He valued the adventure and challenge and was willing to accept the risk as a life worth living. He traveled alone by foot if no one wanted to join him- the mark of true love . He traveled into the cold, into the heat and into his soulwork.
“And what is your perception of death now?” I asked.
“There is a new emotional depth in my heart. There is something sacred and special and sad about witnessing death. I have touched on something deep and intense inside of myself. A transition out of life is immense. It opened me up to my own fragility. I am frail and I go forward. I have tried to take more belly breaths and savor more interactions. If you live your life in the mountains, you’re going to die there. I could die any day, my body knows it,” Magdalena said.
“And what is your perception now of the wilderness?” I asked.
“The wilderness has allowed me to understand good and bad, to hold both as equal and loving. Nothing is good or bad, it is neutral. I’ve seen the ugliness of the wilderness. I feel rewarded by her for still showing up.”
“What advice do you have for us?” I asked.
“I feel so humbled by the experience. It feels righteous to give advice. But: let wilderness in. Enjoy rain storms just as much as the sunny days with wildflowers. Don’t avoid the hard stuff. See beauty, heighten your awareness and learn from the awful. That’s where we grow.”
What does it take to look death in the face? Courage, compassion, strength, and empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The important piece of empathy is taking action, not only taking on the feelings or cognitive understanding of another’s situation. What Magdelena and her friends did for this man’s last moments on earth was out of love, bravery and compassion. They left the wilderness as empathic adventurers.
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