The camp’s director, named Sandy, writes a weekly news letter to parents. A letter he sent on August 4, five days after the boy disappeared, was also signed by his wife, Laura. They started with a few sentences about “exciting trips, creative projects at camp and lots of fun.” Then, in the second paragraph, they discuss the missing camper. “Counselors immediately notified the camp and a search began immediately,” they wrote. “The search has since expanded to include up to 140 highly qualified rescue personnel and up to five helicopters.” The missing boy’s name is Bill, Sixteen years old. “We are confused, but no one has given up hope,” they continued. Bill was “resourceful” and “trained in hiking and survival techniques.” He had no sleeping bag or tent, but was carrying a backpack containing lunch for the eight members of his climbing trip.
It was exciting to be in camp at that time. Some of the programming was cut short, and, since Sandy was feeding the searchers, our meals felt a little frugal. No one I know complained about it, though. Most of us would happily give up all our daily activities and just eat cereal if Sandy asked us to join the search. I didn’t know Bill, but I knew what he looked like: tall and thin, with short brown hair and glasses. Holy Cross is over seventy miles from camp, but even if I’m just descending from my tent to the bathroom, I’m keeping my eyes peeled.
In my next letter home, I wrote, “This morning at breakfast, a helicopter flew into camp and landed on the baseball field.” We all ran down to welcome Bill back, but the helicopter turned out to belong to a rich kid. Parents, they are showing off. I was one of a group of boys who surrounded my father and urged him to set out again for Holy Cross immediately. (He objected.) “Searchers found a few traces of what they thought were Bill’s, but nothing really significant,” my letter continued.
As far as I know, not a single child was removed from camp by angry parents threatened with lawsuits, and no local news crew showed up to ask us campers if we were worried our counselors might lose us, too. Bill’s parents came to Colorado from the East Coast to join the search, and they, the camp staff, and many others must have been in a state of near despair, but on the surface everyone I met seemed calm and collected. . We hunted for treasure, watched a melodrama at Cripple Creek, and visited the Air Force Academy chapel. One of my tent mates and I, with the help of a counselor, conducted a midnight raid on the kitchen at a girls camp a mile away. We stole ice cream, cookies, two boxes of cereal, and an ear of corn. Camp is still camp.
At two o’clock in the morning on August 6, Terry, the counselor in the tent next to me, set out to meet the rescuers at Holy Cross Church. “Now they have 200 soldiers and 100 locals,” I wrote to my parents that night. “They were 15 feet apart, picking up every scrap of paper, etc. Then they asked Bill on the radio if he had anything they found.” I continued: “Some people thought he might have escaped or something like that. Another theory is He’s camping out at the campground. . . . They’re going to start putting a counselor in the cabin at night just in case he sneaks in and gets something to eat.”
On August 11, after Bill had been missing for 12 days, I wrote to my parents that in the morning I would be leaving for a five-day climbing trip to Mount Holyrood. “We’re not a search party or anything like that,” I told them, “but HC is supposed to be the most beautiful country in Colorado.” I added that if Bill didn’t show up by the end of the day, the search would be called off. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that two weeks is a long time for a resourceful sixteen-year-old to survive in the place where he disappeared. “I’m glad to hear that Nixon won the Republican National Convention,” I concluded, “but what about Spiro T. Agnew?”
We originally planned to start climbing to the summit at 4 o’clock yesBut there was new snow on the mountain at night, and we didn’t get off the bus until 7:30. When we reached the summit ridge, five hundred feet from the summit, a blizzard struck us. “You couldn’t see 20 feet and it was very windy,” I later wrote to my parents. We turned around. My hair was frozen into a helmet of ice and I could barely feel my hands and feet. We returned to base camp just before 1:30 and found that most of the tents had been blown down. My tent mate and I re-erected the tent and zipped it inside. The wind and rain made building a fire impossible, so for dinner we had what we would have for lunch: American cheese, canned B. & M. brown bread, an orange, and a chocolate bar. I pissed off my roommates by reciting all the lyrics to the Animals’ 1965 hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” We talked about Bill and wondered how he would be doing, assuming he was still alive.
Of course, the weather the next day was very nice. We hiked back down to twelve thousand feet and camped near Hunky Dory Lake. In the morning we returned to where the old school bus left Camp Fat Albert. On the dashboard is a letter addressed to our counselor. It said that at two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon—the second day of our trip, two weeks after Bill’s disappearance—a group of backpackers from the Outward Bound center had found him, and that he was still alive. In a letter I wrote when I got back to camp, I told my parents that I’d heard Bill say when he saw Sandy, “Will this ruin my chances of coming back next year?”
I myself didn’t go back for my second year; I worked as a counselor at a day camp at home. But I never forgot Bill. Not long ago I met a member of the camp board, his name was Jerry. He was working at the camp while I was there, and he remembers the agony of those two weeks. Jerry agreed to put me in touch with Bill. Early last month, Bill called my cell phone.
We reminisced about the camp and looked back at each other’s lives since 1968. Soon after he was discovered, he sent me a hundred pages of his handwritten account in two spiral notebooks. Using that and three topographic maps I ordered from the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as clues from our conversations, I began mapping his route. Late in the morning of July 30, he and three other campers reached the top of the mountain as thunderclouds approached. They signed the mountaintop scroll and took a few photos. It was raining and Bill was worried about lightning. (Before our trip, a counselor told me that if I felt my hair standing on end, I should kneel down and bend forward because I was about to become a lightning rod.) They headed toward the summit ridge, and Bill Walking very fast, at one point he went so far ahead of the others that he could no longer see them. “I thought I was lost,” he told me, “but I ended up back where I had camped the night before.” He wondered if the lightning had killed anyone else. Then a counselor showed up and asked if he could take food further down the mountain to the group members who were returning to the cabin they had hiked through the day before. Bill and the counselor exchanged backpacks.
As Bill started down the mountain, he thought the creek he saw in the valley below was the creek he knew flowed past the cabin. But it was actually a different stream, to the west, in another valley: he went left when he should have gone right, and ended up on the other side of the mountain. The slope was steep and he had to navigate boulders and rock surfaces made more treacherous by rain and wet pine needles. When he reached the bottom, his clothes and boots were soaked and he was shivering. The sun is setting. He shouted for help. He covered himself with the poncho from his counselor’s bag. “This was the longest seven hours I’ve ever spent in my life,” he wrote in his account. He used a lighter as a space heater in his makeshift tent—a bad idea, he later realized, because he couldn’t start a fire when the fuel ran out. (The friction stick didn’t work. He used the lighter’s flint to get a spark, but couldn’t ignite anything.)
During the two weeks that Bill was lost, he was never more than a mile from where he last spoke to a counselor. He often saw helicopters; he would take off his shirt and wave, but they were either too far away or flying too fast. He had never seen hundreds of people on foot looking for him. Searchers likely believed he came down a different route and focused their efforts on areas where they had no chance of finding him. One day, a single-engine plane circled directly overhead. He stood in the clearing and waved, but the plane kept flying. He tried to climb up the slope he came down, but he fell off the ledge and believed he must have been knocked unconscious. (He remembers falling, but not landing.) He made an arrow out of a fallen tree, pointing to where he’d slept for several nights, just below a large rock where he turned two counselors’ T shirt and compass case, which was bright red, turned into signal flags. But there was no sign of him.