I WAS 16 AND TRAPPED in a thunderstorm on a mountain known for some of the worst weather in the world. Next to me a grown man lay sobbing, whimpering, pounding the mud with his fists. He was my counselor.
It was 1987, and I'd been sent to a tough-love camp in Vermont, a place where they promised to teach resourcefulness and self-reliance. The camp had dispatched usseven teenage boys plus a pudgy career graduate student I'll call Wayne (the mud-hugger)on a three-week hike through New Hampshire's White Mountains. Things went bad right away. Wayne was clueless, so we'd lost the trail and wolfed down all our rations. Next it started rainingfirst a drizzle, then a deluge. After three nights in a wet sleeping bag, Wayne was talking to himself.
"Yo," one of the campers whispered. "I think Wayne's lost it."
"Give him time," I said, feeling increasingly unglued myself. "Maybe the rain will stop."
It didn't, at which point the expedition, strung out by hunger and the gathering dread that none of us would ever know dryness again, descended into madness.
On the worst day, halfway through, we reached the top of Mount Washington, the 6,288-foot peak that, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, is the site of the highest sustained surface wind speed ever recorded (231 miles an hour).
As we summited, the rain broke, and a complex of buildingsa mountaintop observatory and cafeteriamaterialized in the thinning fog. Desperate and dehumanized, we invaded the cafeteria like crazed animals, foraging in the trash for soggy French fries and half-chewed pizza crusts, slurping ketchup straight from the packets, and raiding the salad bar with bare hands. Meanwhile, Wayne telephoned the camp director and tried to weasel out of the last ten days of the hike.
"Suck it up and get back on the trail," the director barked. Which we did, just in time to get walloped by a reconstituted storm that seemed like a Hollywood special effect.
"Run!" people on the trails shouted. "Find shelter!" When the storm climaxed in a fusillade of breathtakingly close lightning bolts and hurricane-force winds, we were still above tree line, scrambling to get off a naked ridge. That was how I ended up hunkered in the mud, next to an all-but-catatonic Wayne.
"I can't take it anymore," he whined. "I want to go home."
"I know," I said.
That night, when I crawled inside my wet sleeping bag, I'd absorbed an important lesson about self-reliance: Adults aren't actually in control, and they can be just as weak as children. The next day the sun came back, and it didn't rain again the entire trip. Wayne, however, was no longer our leader. He was just another body on the trail, and when the hike was over and we returned to camp, he quietly slipped away.