Issue: February, 2007
Author: Melvin C. Orchard, III
Printable Version (PDF)
Survival of the Fastest
I was asked to tell this story in the Wyoming Lawyer because my colleagues seem to find it funny. But because of how the story ends, it never seems quite as hilarious to me. So, in the spirit of self deprecation, I’ll tell my tale of man versus nature.
I’m no Mark Jenkins, but I have been hard-headed enough to find my way to the summit of a few peaks of interest, always reminded by my friends that I’m too big for a climbing harness to ever consider quitting my day job. I’ve seen the view from the top of Mt. Rainer in Washington, King’s Peak in Utah, the Grand Teton and Mount Moran several times, and of course, the crown jewel in my book, Gannett Peak. At 13,802 feet, nestled in the northern heart of the Wind Rivers, Gannett reigns as King of all Hills in Wyoming, and by humble accounts, to summit Gannett is a hard earned feather in the cap.
This story takes me back to when I was a law clerk for judges Betty Kail and Terry Rogers, living in the wonderful town of Lander, and secretly dreading the day when legal puberty would end, and I would actually have to take sole responsibility for my work. From the court’s sidelines, I saw a lot of lawyers, and from time to time, a few would chat with me about law and life. My interest in Gannett was “peaked” by Bill Miller, an outstanding Fremont County lawyer, and a very competent mountaineer.
Each time Bill finished in court, he would engage me in conversations about maps, ice axes, coveted route information, and enticing tales from the trail and the top. After learning as much as I could from Bill, and borrowing six sets of crampons from NOLS (thanks Dan H. and Christine L.), I decided I could lead myself and five other proud Evanston High School buddies up Gannett Peak. What could be so difficult? With backpacks stuffed with alpine climbing gear, helmets, food, fishing poles and camping equipment, we set out for our base camp at Ink Wells.
The next morning, we packed two tents, sleeping bags, minimal food, and climbing gear and set off for the ten mile trek up the Dinwoody Drainage to the base of Gannett Peak. Late in the day, we camped a few hundred feet from the glacier. The next “day,” we left at 4:00 am, and were on top of Wyoming seven hours later.
Bill’s advice about the route was perfect, and it was one of those perfect days where at almost 14,000 feet we could take off our shirts. With snow caked in our crampons, and our shirts around our heads, we hiked the last 400 feet to the summit. A photo with our six bare chests (and with better focus, we’re certain there are a couple six packs there too) on the summit still hangs in Pete’s Rock and Rye outside Evanston.
We hiked off the glacier around 4:00 p.m. and trekked back down through deep and slushy snow, rested for an hour, ate what little food we had left, packed up our tents and headed downhill for nine miles with the last mile painfully uphill. Around 10:00 p.m., we stumbled into our camp at Ink Wells – dehydrated, hungry and exhausted. My legs were non-existent. No one bothered to eat or even light a fire. Soon, we were snoring with smiles of accomplishment.
Our camp was nestled in the trees on the dry side of a lake. A large marshy meadow bordered the other side. Being in the Wind Rivers and not fishing is like being in Jackson and not seeing a BMW or Mercedes SUV -- impossible. The lake had plenty of fish, we had hauled our gear up this far, so all six of us decided to try our luck the next morning.
We circled the lake because the best fishing seemed near the meadow. My friend Stuart was closest to the trees on my right. The rest were spread out to the left around the lake in the marshy meadow. I noticed a cow moose come out of the trees about fifty yards to Stuart’s right, heading to the lake. Because no calf was in sight, I figured she had come down to feed or water and posed no threat. We had just reached the summit of Wyoming’s giant – this moose was of little concern! But I have had enough moose encounters to appreciate the wisdom of paying attention. As usual, Stuart was oblivious.
Ever since we were kids, when I try to tell Stuart anything, he’ll remark, “Thanks Dad, but I can handle it.” When I try to tell him that we are going the wrong way or taking the wrong trail, I end up as “Chief North-Needle” for the rest of the trip. Regardless, I say, “Stu, there is a cow moose on your right, and she is wading through the water right towards you.” Predictably, he quipped, “Okay, Mighty Melvin the Moose Marvel.” I decided to snap a few photos. This could get good. The first is of Stuart casting his line with the moose around the bend 25 yards away with her nose in the water. The next photo, a second later, shows a fishing line across the water, and a cow moose nose out of the water, ears up, looking at Stuart – the source of the strange line across the water.
Not usually one to laugh at the misfortune of others, my best friend Stuart is the exception. Because I was laughing, trying to pack my camera and gather my fishing gear, it was hard for me to yell over to Stuart that the moose was walking directly towards him. Stu was doing his best to make me seem an alarmist with plenty of, “Who brought the Mutual of Omaha expert,” or “Ranger Rick says the Moose is dangerous.” But Stuart’s wit only exacerbated my delight in his plight. The rest of the gang is, by now, laughing at our exchange as the moose wades quickly to shore, fixated on the man at the other end of the fishing line. When Stuart finally saw her, his entire demeanor changed. The look on his face is still worth a hundred “I told you so’s.”
It was at that point that things began to change (for me), and the joke we were having at Stuart’s expense quickly began to find another focus. About 25 yards separated all six of us. By the time the moose reached the shore and started gently trotting toward us, we were all half walking, half jogging through the meadow. Even as the moose’s ears flattened down and she began to really chase us, I kept laughing mostly because of Stuart’s cocky attitude, and, of course, because I saw it coming. And then, like a cross-examination at trial of an expert when you realize you didn’t ask the right questions in deposition, it dawned on me that my legs were shot, and the closest thing I had to speed was my mind racing for a way to explain how I conquered Gannett but was no match for a moose.
My buddies later recounted that they could clearly hear me laughing loudly until the moment Stuart ran past me. Stuart flew past me, reminding me again that he had Wyoming’s best time in the 800-meter run his senior year in Evanston. This is the part where he usually chimes in, “Mighty Melvin stopped his giggling pretty fast when he was in last place.”
True enough. Once Stuart “gazelled” by me, the gravity of my predicament became clear. I was last. There was no place to hide, and I had 50 yards to the trees. I put my head down and begged my rubber legs to move. I watched two of my fleeing friends climb the nearest tree. Two others scrambled up the rock face that was just beyond the trees. I followed Stuart, frantically lumbering all the way back to camp. When I finally had the guts to turn around and look, I realized the moose had stopped at the trees. I like to think she was intimidated by this big man’s sprint, but more likely, she realized I wasn’t worth the chase.
I learned some good lessons. He who laughs last, laughs best. (Stuart loves to tell this story more than I do). If you are thinking of climbing Gannett, talk to Bill Miller about the route. And, most importantly, I can give you details where to fish, but if you do, I’d pack your running shoes. You’ll never outrun a moose, but (as Stuart loves to tell me), you’d rather outrun your friends anyway.
Melvin C. Orchard, III received his undergraduate finance degree from Washington State University in 1988. He received his J.D. from the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1992, where he also served as student body president. After a law clerk position with the 9th Judicial District Court, Mel joined the "AV" rated firm of Meyer and Williams in 1994, specializing in civil trial litigation and practiced there until early 2005.
During his tenure with Meyer and Williams, Mel was a part of several record breaking civil jury verdicts in both Wyoming and Arizona, and tried over 25 major cases in state and federal courts throughout the West. In early 2005, he was asked to join Gerry Spence's team of litigators. Mel has been a partner in The Spence Law Firm since 2005.
Mel is a board member and past president of the Wyoming Trial Lawyer's Association and current Wyoming Delegate to the American Association of Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America).
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