The Backpack

Two buddies, Mitch and Zach, embarked on a day hike in a gulch lined with red cliffs. Each wore a backpack carrying his lunch, snacks, and water. Mitch was smaller and not as strong as Zach, but this wasn’t his first hike, and he kept up with his taller, stronger companion. Mitch knew that if he started to flag, Zach would offer and even insist on carrying both packs. So Mitch committed to himself that he would keep up.

The day passed without incident as they enjoyed the scenery. A creek that snaked through the gulch required multiple crossings, but its shallow bed was no obstacle. And then the end of the hike came—with the climb out of the gulch.

The sun had already moved out of view, and the pair stood in the shadow of a steep, red-rock slope. To Mitch, it looked almost vertical. But horizontal cracks and shelves in the cliff provided ample hand- and footholds. So they began their climb and quickly left the bottom of the gulch behind. Zach led the way.

Mitch found that the cliff gradually curved backward, making the ascent easier little by little. But suddenly, as Mitch pulled himself upward, he found himself in the middle of a stretch of nearly smooth rock. He strained his arms upward, fingers splayed, searching for a crack or knob to grasp. Nothing.

He looked over his shoulder. Far below twisted the creek. Beneath his feet, he couldn’t see the last foothold. And then he became aware that he had leaned backward to look down, and the remaining weight of the pack started pulling at him. He quickly pressed up against the cliff again, unsure what to do.


Zach was looking down at him. There were probably six feet between where Mitch could reach and where Zach’s feet rested. Sadly, Mitch’s treads had become worn enough that they were no match for Zach’s ultra-grip soles. Mitch had been planning to replace his shoes and hadn’t gotten around to it. But, you know … hindsight.

“Are you stuck? Do you need help?”

Mitch felt himself start to teeter backward as he glanced over his shoulder again. So far down. He shut his eyes, swallowed, and calmed his breathing, but the panic still spread through his chest. He nodded.

Zach set his own backpack against a scraggly bush growing out of a crevice. Then he turned and slid down several feet. How did facing downward like that not give him even a second’s pause? “Give me your backpack,” he said.

With heat flooding his face, Mitch slowly took his backpack off and handed it up. Zach shouldered it and thrust a hand toward Mitch, who took it. Zach hauled him upward and gave him enough momentum that he could keep going. Zach came after, putting his own backpack on again.

The slope continued to curve, and Mitch kept up his pace with Zach almost right behind him. In moments, they reached the rim of the gulch and burst into sunlight. Mitch realized he was holding his breath and let it out noisily. He stopped and turned.

Coming abreast of him, Zack said, “Feel better?”

“Now that I’m off that slope, yes,” Mitch answered. “Remind me to never do this hike alone.”

Photo by Germain Rodriguez on

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