Ryan DeKok lays out a map of the Rocky Mountains at the headquarters of Camp Tahosa, in northwest Colorado, and the paper crackles as he traces his finger along the 30-mile, three-day hike he has planned out. The route features 16,000 feet of elevation change—roughly three miles of up and down—and crosses Pawnee Pass, known for its harrowing 1,400-foot descent.
Ryan, an F-16 pilot with a muscular frame and a ready wit, will set out tomorrow with eight 13- and 14-year-old boys. An experienced hiker, he questions Tahosa camp director, Greg Robinson, about the conditions ahead. Greg warns of impending thunderstorms, and even though it’s July, snow and ice. A group of teenagers recently traversed Pawnee Pass, Greg tells him, and the wind gusted so hard they had to hold on to one another to avoid getting blown off the trail.
“It’s not so steep you’d free fall, is it?” Ryan asks.
“It could go either way,” Greg says.
“I’m a firm believer that there has to be an element of danger,” Ryan says.
Meanwhile, the kids mill around the Tahosa cafeteria, putting away their dishes and talking about their favorite subject: video games. Tall, short, athletic, slight, white, Hispanic, and African-American, they arrived yesterday from all over the country to participate in an outdoor adventure camp called Knights of Heroes. They share in common a single tragedy and little else: Their dads died in the military, most of them while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Once the tables are cleared, the boys retreat to their cabin to load their backpacks, and John Oglesby assists them. John is known as Cosmo, his call sign for two decades as a Navy pilot. He earned the nickname due to his hair’s likeness to that of Cosmo Kramer, the door-busting Seinfeld character.
One of the boys, Noah—or Doctor Noah, I’ll call him, because that’s the career he aspires to—is whisper thin, wears braces, and has soft, blond hair that never moves. He crams a bulky jacket into his pack, but Cosmo tells him not to bring it. He doesn’t need it, and it’s too heavy besides. Doctor Noah refuses to leave it behind.
The other Noah, Athlete Noah, stuffs his gear into his bag too. He is a baseball, hockey, and lacrosse player; his dad taught him how to throw by playing catch in the yard with a Nerf ball. The ball is at home, he tells me, on a shelf in his room. He never touches it. “It’s too precious,” he says.
We eat breakfast early the next day and drive an hour to Long Lake trailhead. The late morning sun cooks off the morning chill as we strap on our backpacks. Ryan rounds up the campers for a pep talk. “What I want you to focus on,” he says, “is unity as a team.” By week’s end, he says, they will feel strong because they will overcome whatever challenges await them.
His name was Troy Gilbert, but everyone knew him by his call sign: Trojan. A major in the Air Force, Trojan died on November 27, 2006, when his F-16 crashed north of Baghdad.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Harrold was a friend and squadron mate of Trojan. At Trojan’s memorial service, Steve watched two of Trojan’s sons file into the church. He started thinking about those boys’ lives without their father. He thought of his own sons, who were about the same ages. He wondered what male role models Trojan’s sons would have. He wondered who would take them camping, hunting, and hiking, activities Trojan loved.
His concern for the boys haunted Steve for weeks. Finally, he approached his pastor at Journey Chapel in Monument, Colorado, with an idea: an outdoors camp for boys whose fathers died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The next summer, in 2007, the church sponsored 16 boys to attend the camp. Since then, Knights of Heroes has grown to include girls, a camp for younger kids, and outdoors events for moms in Colorado Springs, such as horseback riding, white-water rafting, and hiking. Last year, 95 kids and 36 moms attended.
Boys in their first three years get assigned a mentor, and they spend the week together going rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, and skeet shooting. After three years, boys are eligible to go on multiday backpacking hikes. High Adventure Team 1, the name of our group, includes eight boys and three mentors: Ryan, Cosmo, and Yoshi Estrada, a 20-year-old former camper.
The next phase for Knights of Heroes kicks off this year, when the camp moves to a 118-acre property on Pikes Peak. Eventually, cabins will be available year-round for campers and their families.
From its beginning, Knights of Heroes sought to differentiate itself from other foundations that help families of fallen soldiers. Too often, Steve says, those organizations coddle the children. Knights of Heroes pushes the kids to find the outer reaches of their potential. “The toughest steel is forged in the hottest fire,” he says. “In order to get out those impurities, you’ve got to be in the fire. It’s got to get really hot. In order to strengthen these kids, they’ve got to go through some trials, because they’ll come out on the other side a lot stronger.”
Our Hike starts in a dense evergreen forest, the trail crisscrossed with gnarly roots. The two Noahs far ahead, I walk in the back of the group with Logan, the funniest kid in camp, according to Ryan. But that wasn’t always the case.
The year his dad died, Logan repeated second grade. He internalized that as a failure and told people about it for no reason. His confidence plummeted, says his mom, Nan. He also felt guilty about what he perceived as missed time with his dad, because he sometimes played video games instead of hanging out with him.
At Knights of Heroes, the mentors pushed him to brave the ropes courses and go rock climbing—adventures that gave him newfound confidence. After his first trip to Knights of Heroes, in 2010, Logan’s mom picked him up at the airport. He cried in the car. He had no idea, he told her, that so many people loved him. “His self-esteem was just an amazing transformation,” says Nan.
At Knights of Heroes, Logan also discovered a passion for reading. One of his favorite books, Where the Red Fern Grows, gets its title from the plant that sprouts between the graves of the main character’s two beloved dogs. He loves the idea of beauty coming from death.
Two miles in, High Adventure Team 1 pauses to grab a snack and prepare for a 1,600-foot ascent. After that lies the Continental Divide—and Pawnee Pass. “I have faith in every single one of you that we can do this,” Ryan says. “But we can only succeed if we all stick together.”
The problems start soon thereafter.
Our leisurely stroll through the woods quickly transforms into a daunting climb over rocky, harsh terrain. I try to keep pace with Caleb, a lean football player with a graceful gait. Though we’ve been hiking for hours, Caleb looks like he just stepped out of an L.L.Bean catalogue: He hasn’t broken a sweat. He does a spot-on impression of President Obama. “Let me be clear,” he says. “I’m a little tired. When we get to the bottom, I’m going to buy you Obamacare.”
Usually he wears his dad’s high school class ring, but he locked it up when his family moved this summer so it wouldn’t get lost. He struggled when his mom decided to remarry recently because he felt like his dad was being replaced. He called Cosmo, who talked him through it, and he seems at peace with it now.
As we scramble up craggy rocks, I reach back to grab Athlete Noah’s hand and pull him up. His red face glistens with sweat. An expansive tundra spreads out before us. Doctor Noah, walking in the middle of the group, trips and catches himself on the edge of a rock, ripping off the top of his thumbnail. While Cosmo puts a Band-Aid on Doctor Noah, Athlete Noah steps off the trail. To his right, the ground slopes to a wind-worn valley. The jagged peaks behind him form an awe-inspiring background as he bends over, puts his hands on his knees, and vomits.
Cosmo hustles over and wraps his arm around Athlete Noah, easing him to the ground. He pulls a tarp out of his backpack and covers him. Within seconds, Athlete Noah falls asleep.
A few walk over to check on him as Cosmo monitors him from afar. “It’s so important that they inherently got it,” Cosmo says. “One of them needs a break, and they’re giving him a break. None of them are complaining. They’re acting like a team on the first day.”
Ryan doles out chicken and tortillas to the rest of the group. An hour passes, and just as suddenly as Athlete Noah started vomiting, he bolts awake, rejoins the group, and asks Doctor Noah when he hurt his thumb.
“Right before you started puking,” Doctor Noah says.
“That makes me feel a lot better.”
Ryan and Cosmo discuss what to do next. Athlete Noah’s vomiting is a symptom of altitude sickness, usually not serious but potentially dangerous if the ill person doesn’t get to a much lower altitude. Further complicating things, Athlete Noah told Cosmo before falling asleep that he hadn’t felt well earlier in the week, so maybe it’s not altitude sickness. The decision is critical: If we turn back, we could call for help from the trailhead. If we go any farther, we’ll be forced to stay in the mountains overnight.
Cosmo knows Athlete Noah well and says he would admit it if he couldn’t go on. He’s already eager to get going, so that ends the debate. We disperse Athlete Noah’s gear among the group and restart our journey. Soon I hear his voice booming across the trail, laughter from the other boys following close behind.
Blaze says almost nothing when he’s hiking and tells funny stories when he’s not. His dad—known by his friends as Big Friendly Giant—asked him to play navigator in the car one day. Blaze, about 5 at the time, asked his dad to go the wrong way on a one-way street, and his dad obliged. “I remember the car on the other side of the road looking over at him like, Are you crazy?”
Blaze has been coming to camp for five years. When he started, he had a hard time making friends, here and at school. “I was afraid they would just leave me,” he says. “So it was hard for me to connect to people.”
Each year, Knights of Heroes holds an opening ceremony in which each kid shares one story about his or her dad. The stories are often silly, like the one about Blaze’s dad driving the wrong way, but it was there, in his second year, that Blaze realized how much he had in common with the others. He started bonding with them. Those bonds translated into the rest of his life, and now he has no problem making friends. Several others recount similar “aha” moments inspired by the opening ceremony.
Now standing atop Pawnee Pass, Blaze peers down at the narrow path zigzagging through pointed rocks and wonders, Whose bright idea was this? Logan compares it to walking down an avalanche. Stones squirt from under our feet. Cosmo carries Athlete Noah’s backpack in his hands, so he can’t see where he’s stepping. A third of the way down, rain starts to fall. We throw on our rain gear, and soon we face a much bigger problem: Doctor Noah curls up and passes out in the elbow of a switchback, apparently from exhaustion.
Cosmo leads the other kids ahead, leaving Ryan, Doctor Noah, and me on the pass. Soon, Doctor Noah stirs, becomes sick, says he can’t walk any farther, and drifts back to sleep. He dreams he’s soaring over Pawnee Pass wearing a wingsuit. He spots a rock formation with a hole in it. He tries to squeeze through it, but the suit gets stuck. He spits out the other side—and wakes up.
He has a headache and the chills and feels dizzy, further symptoms of both altitude sickness and exhaustion, but he agrees to press on. Thirty minutes later he turns to his left and vomits. “All right, let’s go,” he says, barely breaking stride. He takes two steps, turns to his right, vomits again, and keeps walking.
We make it to our campsite at 6 p.m., an hour after everybody else. Doctor Noah, his pale skin now ashen, disappears into his tent. In 10 hours we covered 8.6 miles, ascended 2,200 feet, and descended back down 1,700 feet. “I don’t know if I would’ve done it if I knew it was that hard,” Ryan admits. The last boy falls asleep at 8:15.
The next morning, Isaac, a tall, lanky kid with a nasty sunburn and a mop of brown hair, sits by the fire pit. “I’ve had a lot of fun with you this year, Isaac,” Ryan says from across the campsite. “But you’ve just done something that really disappointed me.”
“What?” Isaac asks.
“You put on a New England Patriots beanie,” Ryan says.
“It was a gift,” Isaac tells him.
Of all the kids in the camp, Isaac has changed the most in the last few years. He describes his old self as a mopey, chubby kid who wanted to play video games all day. “The first year, he wouldn’t do anything,” director Steve Harrold says. “The third year, we couldn’t stop him.”
Athlete Noah wakes up cheerful, eats breakfast, throws up, and returns to his tent. Doctor Noah remains in his tent. Neither seem capable of hiking across treacherous mountain terrain.
Though we’re deep in the Rockies, we somehow have cell coverage, so Ryan calls Camp Tahosa to fashion an extraction plan. They discuss various options, including a helicopter evacuation, but eventually decide on a simpler plan. A team will drive to a nearby mountain resort and hike up to meet us on the trail. Then they’ll decide whether the two Noahs need to go to the hospital.
Athlete Noah rebounds, just like yesterday, and Ryan gives him the nickname “Par,” short for “puke and rally.” He tries to talk Ryan into letting him stay on the hike. Ryan tells him that if he carries his full pack to the evacuation point, he can stay.
Doctor Noah, meanwhile, stirs in his tent, his pale blue eyes glossy and only half open. He says he’s cold, so I grab his jacket, the heavy one Cosmo told him not to bring. It’s camouflage, with his last name printed on the breast: his dad’s Army jacket.
He zips it high, sips water from his Nalgene bottle, and nibbles on crackers. Once again, we divvy up the items in his and Athlete Noah’s backpacks. Ryan calls the eight kids to a circle before departing. “It gives me chills to see the maturity you displayed,” he says. “What the Noahs have done is the story of champions.”
All morning, it rains so hard that at times the trail looks like a stream. Doctor Noah cracks jokes while hiking but admits he’s faking it, because if he thinks about how miserable he feels he won’t be able to take another step.
During lunch, the storm turns serious. Hail pings off of our packs. Thunder and lightning come scary close. Hikers we had passed going in the opposite direction now scramble back by. They tell us a lightning bolt hit a meadow within 100 yards of them. For a few minutes, the storm reaches biblical proportions.
Then, just like that, it stops, and the sun appears, hovering in the afternoon sky. We forge ahead and reach a fork in the trail. Straight leads to the resort; right takes us to our campsite. Cosmo, the two Noahs, and Yoshi continue straight. The rest turn right. Ryan pulls out his map to plan a new route. This hike, Ryan says, is like life: “You can’t always execute your first plan.”
That night, hours after the evacuation, Cosmo rejoins us, and the kids turn serious. Over the crackle of a fire, stories about their dads tumble out of them.
Caleb: When I saw my dad in the morning, I didn’t even say goodbye. And that was it. When some kids get in arguments with their parents and they say they hate their parents, it’s like, if that person left you the next day and died or passed away, how guilty would you feel about what you just said?
Isaac: I don’t like it when people ask about my dad. My least favorite response is when I tell them, and they go, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I just don’t like that. I’m like, ‘What do you have to be sorry for?’ Most of the kids at my school have no idea my dad’s died. I do that on purpose.
Caleb: Most of the sympathy’s not even real. They’ll be like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re really not sorry for it. You don’t know what it feels like.’ They’ll try to be like, ‘One time, my grandfather died.’ It’s not the same.
Blaze: You don’t see them everyday. They don’t sometimes drive you to school or pick you up.
Andrew: They don’t wake you up.
Logan: I love stories about my dad. I like to look back on the life he had. My dad’s best friend’s name was Scott. When my brother (Killian, also a Knights of Hero camper) was very, very small, and my mom was pregnant with me, the moms went out to go get some stuff from Target. The two dads stayed back at home and played with Killian by tossing him back and forth. Killian started vomiting and having diarrhea. It got in my dad’s mouth.
Isaac: Did they keep throwing him back and forth as he was vomiting?
Logan: They realized it and were like, ahhh, ahhh. They called
my mom up, like, ‘We’ve got a problem.’
Isaac: My dad was a horrible dancer. If you ever see a sprinkler, that was his favorite dance move. And he wasn’t even good at it.
Do you know what today is?” Ryan asks the next morning before we start the final stretch.
“Hump day,” someone says.
“Backward day,” another guesses.
“It’s Vomit-Free Wednesday,” Ryan says. “Keep that in mind as you climb this mountain.”
We finish late in the afternoon, and a pair of vans pick us up and make the jaw-dropping 2.5-hour drive back to Camp Tahosa. When we arrive, the two Noahs storm the van to greet us. Team 1 is whole again, but not for long.
The next morning, we hop a chairlift to a 10,700-foot peak in Winter Park, Colorado. Instead of lugging backpacks down a mountain, we launch bikes down one.
By midday, everybody has a crash story. On his second run, Logan accidentally ran into his brother, Killian, and wiped him out. After his fall, Athlete Noah’s left hand swells like a catcher’s mitt, but he keeps riding (a camp mentor who is an orthopedist later tells him that he cracked a bone in his hand). Doctor Noah limps around with a self-diagnosed hyperextended knee.
They wear these wounds like badges of courage—until Cosmo’s disastrous fall. Ryan helps carry him to an onsite clinic, where Cosmo is diagnosed with a broken right hip. This man who walked dozens of miles carrying other people’s gear now can’t walk at all. The boys gather around his bed.
Cosmo, a veteran of four combat deployments as a fighter pilot, blames his own meekness for the crash. As he entered a turn, he tells them, he got scared and straightened up, which threw him off the trail. The bike landed in sand and stopped abruptly. He kept going and flew over the handlebars.
If he had been bold, he says, he would’ve leaned in, physics would have taken him around the turn, and he’d still be out there riding instead of lying here with IVs in his arm. If he had confronted his fear, he tells them, he’d be able to wolf down pizza with the boys on their way back to Tahosa.
Cosmo points out three boys and congratulates them for riding even though they were afraid. He tells all the boys to call him anytime, about anything.
“Be bold,” he says, choking up. “I love you guys. All of you.”
The boys, shaken but galvanized, pay their highest respects by vowing to eat an extra piece of pizza in Cosmo’s honor. They tell him they can’t wait for next year.