There is a reason we picked the banner picture (above) to grace the top of the iWantMyEagle.com homepage. It is special to us. In July 2009, my son, JB (seated to my left), was 13 years old. Our unit scout leaders, along with the troop, decided to hold a week-long camp out instead of going to the typical BSA merit badge camp. Among other activities, we planned to summit Wheeler Peak in Nevada, a challenging hike to a peak that rises to 13,063 feet in elevation.
My son was a little nervous, and so he asked if I would volunteer to go as a parent leader with him. I came along with another adult, Joe Bowen (pictured bottom right in the white shirt), who also volunteered to come for extra adult supervision. Little did we know that this week was going to bring the three of us, and the whole troop, closer together, forming friendships that will last a lifetime.
Before I tell the story of our hike to the top of Wheeler Peak, I want to say that this story is a prime example of why I think scouts and leaders should plan hard things that stretch and challenge. These experiences are what they remember when they grow up. Scouting offers the infrastructure and design to lead boys through challenges that teach priceless values. These are the things that build character and remain long after scouting has faded. Over the years, I have conducted many Eagle Boards of Review and, without exception, the answer to a question I always ask, “What was your favorite thing you did during your scouting career?”, is always the hardest thing the scout achieved, like a 50-mile hike or a feat similar to this story.
This opportunity took deliberate planning. We camped at 10,000 feet for a couple of days to acclimate our bodies to the altitude. On the morning of our planned hike to the peak, we started before sunrise. We had just over 4 miles to hike and about 3,063 feet elevation to climb. We were prepared with enough water and snacks to make it.
Along the hike, JB soon became so scared and nervous that he started to drink his water too quickly. He was out of water before we reached the half-way mark. He was also walking slowly in the quiet hopes that the other boys would leave him behind and make it to the top; he would just turn around and go down with them. He didn’t care about the summit. It was too hard; too far out of his comfort zone; beyond anything he had attempted before. I shared my water with him to keep him going and to help him avoid altitude sickness.
About two-thirds of the way up, he finally broke down and started crying. A few of us stopped and tried to find out what scared him. We cautiously encouraged him and tried to discern what he wanted to do. He was ready to quit a long time ago, and the further we got and the more cliff drop offs he saw, the more scared he got.
Joe Bowen was there and asked JB if he wanted to have a prayer with him. JB finally calmed down enough to say yes and asked Joe to offer the prayer. In the prayer, Joe asked God to bless him with the strength to conquer his fears and to make it up the mountain with the troop.
After the prayer, JB appeared much calmer, but remained undecided about reaching the summit. He decided to continue. As we got higher, within 500 feet in elevation from the top (which is still quite a way), he started doubting again. We stopped and had a rest to allow him time to think about it.
Then, something happened that I will never forget. A fellow scout from our troop came down the trail to meet us (as they were all up ahead). He had a message for JB. The advanced group had not yet reached the peak and they (on their own, a group of 12-13 year-old scouts), had decided together that they wanted JB to be the first one to reach the summit and that they wouldn’t go on without him.
When he heard what this scout told him, it was like a new life instantly overtook his body. He jumped up and started hiking up the hill as fast as he could go. I could barely keep up with him. As he reached the group of boys, they let him pass, and then all got in line behind him as he lead them up the remaining trail to the peak.
As we reached the summit, there wasn’t a dry eye in the group. He did it! We did it! He overcame his fears with help from his friends and the troop made it together! His confidence soared and he became a new person from that point on in his life. Sometimes, I think we discount the influence scouts can have on one another and doubt the heights they can reach when given the opportunity. Sometimes we don’t expect enough from our boys in this way.
It was just a little under a year’s time following that camp out, when JB completed all of his merit badges, Eagle Project and other requirements for the rank of Eagle Scout. That hike was a pivotal point in his scouting success; he never looked back. When we held his Eagle Court of Honor, I asked JB who he wanted to award his Eagle Mentor pin to. He replied that he wanted to give one to every single person who went on that hike. There were 12 of them. Those pins aren’t cheap! It was worth it and an appropriate honor for a trust and victory earned together.
One of those pins went to Joe Bowen. He grew up in the military his whole life and was a decorated Army veteran. He wore that Eagle Mentor Pin on his suit coat every Sunday for years until the day he died of cancer. His passing came suddenly while my son was out serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Joe told me during his final days that that Eagle Mentor Pin meant more to him than any honor he had received during his distinguished military career. He treasured that pin and the experience behind it.
Joe’s wife has since sent that pin to my son while still serving his mission.
The experience we had on that mountain changed the lives of almost everyone there. I have heard my son, JB, say that the hike to Wheeler Peak changed the way he thought of “hard” things and that if he could make it to the top of that mountain, then he could do anything. Experiences like this are what scouting can provide for boys and men. It makes them better boys and better men.