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Alumni stories: AO brothers and the 'adventure of a lifetime'
When we received this alumni story submission, it was a Doane story too good to pass up!
Below is an account written by 1986 alumnus Rick Sparks of how he reconnected with two Alpha Omega fraternity brothers and the trip that gave all of them lifelong memories.
It’s a story that epitomizes the Doane experience because it's not just the lessons that last a lifetime—it's the relationships, too.
-Lucas Fahrer ’11, Doane Blog Editor
Call it the adventure of a lifetime. Call it crazy. Call it a bucket list item.
Call it anything but easy.
When Greg Bruening ’86 pitched the idea of “doing a big trip” to me, neither one of us fully grasped what we were getting ourselves into.
I was living in Bloomington, Illinois, and Greg was in Omaha. But despite the more than 400 miles between us, our close friendship that started 33 years earlier—on the second floor of Smith Hall at Doane—gave us the legs for one more adventure.
Where we wound up more than a year later was on an epic 22-day, 234-mile hike on the John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Madres Mountains throughout August and September 2015.
Our friend and fellow Alpha Omega brother Lew Martin ’84 even joined us for the last five days of the hike, and made the trip up from Vacaville, California. Along with Greg’s good friend and fellow Omaha native Rod Bates, the four of us climbed Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States at 14,508 feet.
We had a long list of things we hoped to avoid: rock slides, falling trees, wildfires, hypothermia, early-season snow storms, dehydration, bears, getting lost, the plague (which was in the area the week prior to their departure) and major injuries. Fortunately, the only setbacks we encountered were a water filter that crapped out, some nasty blisters and a couple lost toe nails.
The adventure officially started in Yosemite National Park, where the John Muir Trail starts. We launched our trek from Glacier Point, which provided a magnificent view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, El Capitan, Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall.
The next morning we were making a 400-foot, 45-degree climb up Half Dome, the iconic granite formation that makes up The North Face’s logo.
We covered 100 miles in the first nine days, and passed through beautiful meadows; slept by serene lakes and creeks; climbed mountain tops to see nothing but valleys and peaks in every direction; and crested our first of six mountain passes, crossing from one mountain range into another. Ansel Adams Wilderness was particularly memorable with its massive picturesque granite peaks and slabs, and the spectacular sunset on Lake of the Lone Indian was amazing. We even saw Devils Postpile National Monument, one of only three sites in the world with a unique columnar basalt formation.
At the end of the ninth day, we arrived at Vermillion Valley Resort for a day of rest, showers, beds and a hot meal. After nine days in tents and on dusty trails, it was like an oasis!
But we had a big decision to make about our hike. A wildfire that started in July had caused numerous other hikers to abandon the trail and rangers to abandon their stations. Smoke was almost always present in the afternoons, but it was particularly alarming when smoke came in the middle of the night, not knowing if it was smoke from a distant fire or a new fire nearby.
But we decided to press on and hope for the best!
We hit the trail again and kept gaining elevation. After getting our trail legs, acclimating to the altitude and our day of rest, we were ready for a string of 12 days that included cresting five more passes, freezing temperatures and The Golden Staircase (an engineering marvel of switchbacks and trail built up a narrow mountainside). Ultimately, we wound up at our ultimate goal: on top of Mount Whitney.
Our daily routine started by waking at 4:30 a.m., breaking camp under spectacular star light and making a good dent in our daily mileage by lunch time, where we were always able to find a lake or stream for a well- needed break.
Breakfasts were typically honey buns (48 honey buns to be exact, and they wish they would have packed another 48!) plus oatmeal and coffee or cocoa. For lunch, we had an endless supply of tortillas, salami, peanut butter and honey. At supper, we reconstituted dry, bagged meals with hot water.
When Lew joined us on Day 18, he brought much-needed provisions. Trail rules required us to use bear-proof food canisters which could only hold a maximum of about eight days of food. Lew’s resupply was one of three along the way, and he represented a logistical lynchpin of the entire trip! He gave us housing and transportation on both ends of the trip. We always knew Lew was an avid hiker and outdoorsman, but he’d never accomplished one of his goals, reaching the summit of Mt. Whitney.
On Day 20, we found ourselves above the tree line, setting up camp at Guitar Lake at the base of Mt. Whitney. The view of the mountain was breathtaking; a high-pointed peak framed between two massive granite slabs. The rest of the day was spent in its intimidating view as we prepped for the next day’s climb.
We tried to guess where the trail would lead up to Mt. Whitney, but we didn’t know for certain until the next morning before sunrise when we saw tiny headlights bobbing and snaking their way up the face of the granite slab to the right. As we watched the headlights head up the mountain, we could see the crest of the slab and watched the brilliant light of Mars slowly rise over the mountain. It’s something we’ll never forget, watching the planet rise in the darkness while facing the magnificent view of the mountain in the moonlight.
Before striking out for the final climb, Lew had a surprise. He broke out three vintage Alpha Omega shirts he had packed, one each for Greg, himself and I. It was a great way to start the four-hour climb!
The path to the top was some of the narrowest and most treacherous trail of the trip, but also provided some of the most spectacular views. When we finally peaked reached the pinnacle, at 14,508 feet, we took plenty of well-earned pictures and exchanged hugs and congratulations. The trip down was an adventure as well, descending 97 switchbacks to get to our final camp.
Looking back, we realize we were fortunate to have even finished the trip. Only 20 percent of hikers that set out to complete the John Muir Trail actually finish, and we won a lottery drawing that only allows 20 people a day to access the trail from Yosemite.
We were lucky to see amazing wildlife; countless black tail deer, coyotes, pica sand fat marmots. We passed through burned and storm-ravaged forests, walked among dozens of waterfalls, lakes, meadows and mountain peaks—and did it all with such great friends.
Few people get to experience such wonders, and these three Doane alumni are among the lucky few.
All photos courtesy of Rick Sparks '86.