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The Virtue of Self-Rescue

On hiking, marriage and asking for help when the route grows treacherous



There are two kinds of people in the world: the kind of person who calls Mountain Rescue, and the kind who doesn't.

My husband Patrick and I had been hiking in Jackson Hole for four hours. We were out of water. We had no map. The snow was at least a foot deep, and Patrick had already slid nearly 30 feet down the side of what we later learned was a black diamond slope.

I knew we were at the start of what one day might be a very horrible Lifetime movie about the mistakes rookie hikers make — and the ugly divorces that follow. With only 10 percent of iPhone battery to spare, Patrick said it was time to call Mountain Patrol. Even though I imagined helicopters flying, ropes falling from the sky, and all of our savings disappearing in an instant, I said, "OK."

The truth is, it wasn't our first time getting lost on a hike. Patrick is an analytic thinker — the guy who follows the trail. I'm the type who moves on instinct and gut feelings. Six months earlier, while trekking the (snowless) paths in Italy's Cinque Terre, my husband and I got separated when I walked into a gelato shop and he turned around, thinking I'd gone back to the beach. My gut said he'd started the trek back. No cellphone, no cash on hand, I realized 20 minutes later that my gut had been wrong. To be fair, we'd been in an argument. Couples have those sometimes, especially when there are multiple hours of walking and very little food involved.

When we took off that morning in Wyoming, the hotel concierge had mentioned that we "might run into a little snow." She explained that when we reached the top, there would be a free tram that would bring us back down, saving us a seven-mile return trip. Pointing to the trail on the map, the concierge assured us it was well marked.

So as we sat there together, waiting on Mountain Patrol, I couldn't help but feel embarrassed. Earlier in the day, I had adamantly told Patrick that we'd gone off trail. My gut instinct was that this snow was too thick, the climbs just too steep. But there was no map to point to. And while I despaired, Patrick searched for signs or the sun's position to analyze. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen, but I didn't have the strength to be angry. I looked over at my husband, who was patiently explaining our location to our rescuers, and I was suddenly thankful for his even-keeled, temperate nature. His ability to be analytical. If I'd been on the phone, I would have been crying — out of shame more than fear.

In a moment of clarity, I realized that we weren't experiencing anything unusual. Lots of couples get lost. Lots of couples split ways, or try to push through the pain, only to get more hurt along the way. At least this time, we'd had the endurance to get lost together.

Our rescuers, Jeff and Tom, arrived in their matching plaid shirts and nametags, thankful for a little activity on an otherwise uneventful day in June. When I asked how often they were called in to rescue people like us, Jeff — a Ty Pennington lookalike — said, "It comes in waves. Sometimes there are incidents every day on this mountain. I tell people, you've got to know your limits. And be as prepared as you can be to backtrack. A lot of people can self-rescue. They don't think they can, but they can."

That afternoon, as we stuffed ourselves with tempura zucchini and tuna tartare at the Four Seasons' mountainside Handle Bar, our host, Nina — who'd helped organize the whole adventure in the first place — shared that she was a newlywed. They were approaching their first anniversary. My husband and I exchanged knowing looks. I kept silent. But I wish I had told her what I'd learned on the mountain.

In marriage, as in hiking, expect little in the way of clear direction. At times the road is paved, with few potholes and the kind of bold yellow lines that keep everyone in their proper lanes. Other times, the trail may be well-worn, packed by thousands of feet that have gone before. And then there are those moments when you look around and realize the route is too steep, too treacherous, and that you've run out of the proper supplies. And there are two options: You call for help, or you self-rescue.

And if you choose to self-rescue, then turn back — back to the things that you both know are true. Back to the reason you started the journey together in the first place.

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