What I learned about love, death, and fatherhood on Sawtooth Peak

On August 25, 2016, on a remote mountain in the High Sierras, things went horribly wrong for Bryan Feller and his daughter, Courtney. That day would change his life forever.

By Bryan Feller, NCF California

Courtney took a step and immediately went into a slide. Time went into slow motion. My left hand still had a strong purchase on the rock, and my right hand gripped the trekking pole that she was hanging onto. As her full weight started to load the system, she swung underneath me. I felt the sharp pinch of fear throughout my body. I felt my hand slipping off the hold I had on the rock. I couldn’t let her go. Then I lost my grip on the rock and we started to slide. It was over. I knew that, in a matter of seconds, we would be airborne, free falling 800–plus feet to our deaths.

A little more than two years earlier, Courtney had left home to go to school in Northern California. I have never seen my life flash before my eyes before, but as Becky and I waved goodbye and drove away from her new home, it happened.

I remembered her being born, and now she had grown up and left home … and it had all passed by like a snap of the finger. The rush of images and emotions was followed by 20 miles of Becky and me sobbing. So, when Courtney decided to come home after finishing two years of school, I could not have been happier. Within months of her arrival, I had convinced her to come hiking with me, starting with Timber Peak.

She loved it and we kept hiking together. She ended up finishing all of the Six Pack of Peaks, including San Gorgonio Mountain. It was on these hikes that we ended up having great conversations. Court and I have always had a good relationship, but I regretted not being present much during her younger years; this was a second chance for me to really connect with her.

Like a lot of guys, I let stress, depression, anxiety, and a lot of other emotional baggage rob me of years of actually being present. But I was present now, and I wasn’t going to lose this amazing opportunity with Courtney.

Like a lot of guys, I let stress, depression, anxiety, and a lot of other emotional baggage rob me of years of actually being present.

I had a long weekend coming up, so I thought it would be fun for us to climb Mount Langley. But two weeks before the trip, a fire cut off access to the trailhead, so we had to find another hike on short notice. As I was searching online, I ran across Mineral King in Sequoia as a possibility. At the center of this area, there’s a mountain called Sawtooth Peak. With alpine lakes on each side, the mountain has a long, narrow, knife–edge summit ridge that leads to a shark’s tooth-shaped summit at the top. I read a few trip reports on Summit Post and decided to make this our new destination.

Getting there was straightforward, but painful. We headed up a narrow, windy road with cliffs on each side for about 90 minutes. The area is beautiful, with tall pine forests and high granite peaks on all sides of the horizon–the trademark of the High Sierras.

We arrived to find plenty of good spots to camp, had a nice dinner, and relaxed by the campfire until we turned in for the night. Going from 1,500 to 9,000 feet is usually a recipe for a bad night’s sleep for me, but we both slept great and we were excited to get on the trail at sunrise.

The day that changed us forever

Our plan was to make the summit before 12 p.m., then get back to the car by late afternoon and drive home. On our way up, we met a park ranger coming down. He asked to see our permit, then asked where we were going. We told him our plan to summit Sawtooth, and he said, “There’s a lot of sand up there. It’s like climbing a mountain and going to the beach at the same time. It’s really gonna make you tired, so just keep in mind it’s pretty hard near the top.”

I thought to myself, “Not a problem. We’re in good shape.” Looking back at this interaction, I am stunned that he did not warn us about the danger involved. He must have assumed we were going to Sawtooth Pass, and not going to the summit. Sawtooth Pass is where hikers come over the summit ridge and back down the other side as part of a popular 40+ mile loop in this area. The summit itself is much higher and, as we’d soon find out, quite dangerous.

Driving in, we got glimpses of Sawtooth. Courtney and I had the same reaction when we saw it in the distance for the first time. It was sinister and ominous and it gave us both pause when we saw it. As we completed a long bend in the trail, the summit came into view again–and we had the same feeling again.

There was something about this peak that was both beautiful and frightening. I dismissed this feeling because I expected to find a well–worn trail to the summit. Lots of mountains look scary from a distance but are actually not when you hike them.

We ate lunch and took a water break at the lake. We were both feeling great, surprised at how fast we’d made our initial ascent of the trail. It was a clear 65 degree day without a cloud in the sky. So we started up toward Sawtooth Pass. True to the ranger’s words, it was steep and sandy. We ended up choosing a route just to the right of the hiking route that was steeper but more stable than the path most of the hikers used.

It got so steep that we had to stop every 100 feet to rest. The higher we climbed, the more the sand became a problem. With every step, our feet sunk into deep, steep sand. But if we fell, we’d slide into mushy sand. We weren’t in an exposed place where a fall would result in a fatality.

Little did I know, things would soon change in ways I was not prepared for.

The disappearing path

We eventually got to Summit Ridge of Sawtooth Peak, where most people cross over. We were pretty winded. To the right of Sawtooth Pass, there’s a jagged knife–edge summit ridge that extends about half a mile, then abruptly jets upward into a steep pyramid-shape shark’s tooth. That’s the summit peak itself.

When I saw it, I felt fear come over me, more strongly than it had before, but again I dismissed it. Fear is just information, I thought. The trail was clearly marked with cairns, those piles of rocks hikers leave, leading toward the summit. In my mind, this confirmed that I should dial down my fear-meter. This was the class 2 trail I expected to find.

The path traversed around the mountain, getting steeper as we went. We were now above 12,000 feet. It had taken 90 minutes to make a half mile of progress from the relative safety of Sawtooth Pass. We were starting to fatigue.

At this point, the terrain started changing sharply. The deep sand near the pass had turned to a thin coat of sand on top of steep slabs of granite. This was starting to feel unsafe. Falling in the wrong place could be serious. The well-worn path that had put my fears to rest had completely disappeared.

I told Courtney, “I’m really not sure about this. Let’s go a little further and see if it gets any better. Maybe we’ll pick up the trail again if we continue our traverse. If we don’t, I think we’re gonna have to call it.”

Courtney was bummed. We had come a long way and suffered our way through some challenging terrain on the upper mountain. We traversed another 50 feet, where we could see the summit 300 feet above us. But getting there required us to climb straight up an avalanche chute where there were car-sized boulders perched precariously above us.

“Nope, we’re not doing this,” I told Courtney. It was time to turn back. We took a picture together, trying to frame the summit above us in the background.

Turning back

Having made the decision to turn back, I felt my anxiety decrease. Rather than take the route we came, I took a route that looked a little easier. I downclimbed a section of large boulders that were solid and safe before traversing toward Sawtooth Pass. Courtney followed.

I came upon a section of smooth rock covered in a thin layer of sand. About 40 feet below us was an exposed cliff that dropped off 800–plus feet. I crossed without difficulty. It turned out to be easier than it looked. As I crossed, something in my soul said, “This is a little sketchy. Make sure to protect Courtney when she comes across.”

Listening to my inner voice, I shortened one of my trekking poles so it wouldn’t extend under stress, then I handed one end to Courtney. My left hand held firmly in a jug hold on a large granite rock while my right hand held the trekking pole. I held out the other end of the trekking pole to Courtney and said, “Just step across. I’ve got you.” I could see the fear in her eyes, but I kept a straight face, hoping to exude the kind of confidence she needed to lower her anxiety and make the move with confidence.

She took a step and her foot immediately slipped out from under her. Then time went into slow motion. She swung violently under me, and the force of her weight and momentum pulled my hand from the rock I was holding. We immediately began to gain speed sliding down the steep face. She was sliding feet first and I was sliding head first, while we held onto each end of the trekking pole.

We were both staring into each other’s eyes, and Courtney’s were filled with terror. She knew these were her last moments. “I can’t believe this is happening,” I thought. “I am watching my daughter die, the person I love more than anyone else in the world. She’s terrified, and I can’t save her. We are going to die together.” It was the most empty feeling I’d ever had in my life.

In my mind, as we slid, I was playing out the anticipation of what was about to happen. We would slide over the cliff in a few more seconds, get airborne, and fall into oblivion. I imagined her screaming in terror on the way down. Could I bear this? I didn’t have a choice. I wanted to scream myself, but there was nothing. Our eyes were locked together as we slid.

We’d moved down the rock face at an angle toward a small rock knob. Her foot stopped on the knob just before we would’ve become airborne. It was a solid hold. I slid to my feet, perched precariously on the same rock she was on. There was no reason why we should’ve still been alive, but we were.

Courtney stood up, visibly shaken. I asked if she was okay, and she teared up and said, “Yeah, I’m okay.” At that moment, I knew we had narrowly avoided death, but there were no guarantees that we’d still get off the mountain alive. We were now in a seriously compromised place. I felt like our chances were 50/50, but I made a lame attempt at a pep talk.

On the way up, we’d been talking about her getting married someday. I said, “Court, you are going to get married, and I am going to live to be an old man. Are you ready to get off this mountain?” She nodded.

We were exhausted. I took off my pack to tie up my trekking poles since we would be climbing. We were in an awkward perch and my pack rolled off the cliff. My glasses, our water, and my jacket were gone. We watched it all roll off ledge after ledge until it was gone.

We couldn’t go back up the way we came. It was too dangerous. We found ourselves on loose, class–four terrain and needed to climb our way out. For the next hour, I would find a short route and choreograph some way across it. Telling her where to place her hands and spotting her as we went.

I would always call out loud where I was putting my hands and feet and describe how solid the holds were. When Courtney followed, she would repeat everything I had said out loud as she climbed. Any small mistake could be fatal. It was the longest hour of my life.

It was the longest hour of my life.

I was astonished, even in the moment, by how brave Courtney was. She knew our lives were on the line but never cried or had a meltdown. At 20 years old, she kept her composure like a professional. I remember thinking about how proud I was of her bravery and hoping that I’d have the chance to tell her about it.

To safety

When we finally got back to Sawtooth Pass, it was a huge relief. Though we were out of danger, it didn’t feel like it. We were anxious to get off the mountain and back to Monarch Lake. But before we headed down, I invited Court to walk up to the top of the summit ridge, about 200 feet above us. From there we could see a 360-degree view of both sides of the mountain, the crest of the Sierra, and the valleys and drainages dotted with lakes.

It was beautiful, and we were both so glad to be alive seeing it.

We reached the lake completely dehydrated, having lost our water earlier when my pack fell off the mountain. We met some hikers who were making camp at the lake, and they graciously gave us some water.

As we sat on a rock looking across the lake, the full weight of what had just happened hit us like a ton of bricks. Courtney cried convulsively for five or 10 minutes. I still wasn’t ready to process it all yet. As we started down the long trail back to camp, I repeated the same thoughts out loud, “I can’t believe I almost got us killed. How did I almost get us killed?”

We continued to talk about what had happened, but in a kind of stupor of disbelief, all the way to the car.

The sun was setting, and I had lost my glasses. I can’t see to drive without my glasses. Courtney was in no condition to drive, so I drove with my prescription sunglasses on, in the pitch blackness, all the way down the narrow windy road that made me nervous driving in the daylight. The possibility of driving off a cliff in the dark felt like a continuation of the rest of the dangers we had endured that day. It was a long drive home. We got back about 3:00 a.m. and went straight to bed.

The next day, my wife Beck asked how our trip was, and I broke down sobbing as I tried to tell her the story. I thought she’d be angry. I’d almost gotten our daughter and myself killed because of my poor judgment. But she was gracious, just glad we were alive. Thank God.

A lesson straight from the Father

In the years since, I’ve thought about that day often. When life isn’t going as well as I would like, I remember that I shouldn’t even be alive, and I’m grateful. Courtney married a great guy in December of 2018, bringing some closure to the pep talk I gave her on the mountain that day.

In those moments when we were sliding off that mountain, I believe I felt something of what God felt. And I think I experienced it so he could impart something to me. It was more than mere cerebral knowledge; it was something transcendent.

As I looked in my daughter’s eyes, I knew at that moment that I could not live without her. She was terrified, and I couldn’t let her die alone. Love, in that moment, was not some emotion or even a commitment. It was something hardcoded into my nervous system–literally into the grip of my hand.

I’ve come to believe that the Almighty wanted to show me that what I felt for Courtney, he feels for me. In a world where I was separated from him by my sin, he had his eyes on me the whole way, and he chose to die to save me rather than let me die alone. When given the choice, he would rather die himself than live without me in his life. This is the Christ-story, and it’s mind-blowing to think about.

This is the Christ-story and it’s mind–blowing to think about.

Many see God as some disconnected being who turned his back on the suffering of the world, or the one telling us we can’t do what we want or give in to our basest pleasures. So we shake our fists at him or try to convince ourselves that he doesn’t exist. Yet, the reality is that he is the Father who loves people more than I love my daughter.

I am incredibly proud of Courtney. I don’t look at her as if she’s some lost cause who will never measure up to my standards. Yet, I’ve often thought that God saw me that way. Distant and disconnected. I don’t anymore, and this has made all the difference.

Courtney journaled some thoughts about the day that she shared with me a few years later. Here is what she wrote:

The rest of the way down, my dad would lead and I would follow. It felt like I was walking in the Father’s steps, and fear was not allowed there. My dad had proved to me that he was never going to let anything happen to me, and I was confident walking down that mountain knowing he had me. Looking back, I think those steps changed my life… He was the dad who loved me unconditionally like God loved me.

I realize now that God has shown me the kind of Father he is and the kind of father I should aspire to be. He is a Father who is connected and engaged, cheering us on. Like many men, I don’t have a father I can look to for my identity or as a role model. But knowing that my heavenly Father relates to me like this gives me a true north for who I really want to be.

The reality is that he is the Father who loves people more than I love my daughter.

I think God said to me that day, “Do you remember how it felt to love someone so much that death was better than life without them? That’s how I feel about you, Bryan.”

That day changed my life forever. The experience embedded in the core of my being a sense of how much my Father in heaven loves me. I only hope that I live up to the grace I have been given–that I can grow up to be like my Father and that I make him proud.

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