I got the SMS around 3:00 PM on Friday. “Abba, I’m OK. But we’re kind of stuck on top of a mountain.”
It was our 14-year-old son Aviv who was out with five students from his school, plus one of his teachers, on a “preparation hike.” The idea was to scout the route before the entire school set out on their tiyul shnati – the annual hiking and camping trip that is de rigueur for Israeli students.
Participating in a tiyul shnati starts from a young age: grade schoolers spend the day outdoors; by junior high, there’s an overnight day or two. And in high school, the annual hike can last up to an entire week. Depending on the school, you may camp outdoors and cook your own food (barbequed tuna is a favorite), or you may stay in a local youth hostel (not sure the food there is any better).
Aviv and his comrades had set out to map Nahal Tze’elim, a challenging but beautiful hike in the Dead Sea area. They started at 5:30 AM and should have been back home by mid-afternoon.
But to paraphrase the opening lines of the new J.J. Abrams’ TV series Alcatraz, “That’s not what happened. Not at all” (watch the show and you’ll appreciate this somewhat obscure pop culture reference).
The problem was that, halfway through the hike, the kids’ teacher became ill during the trip. Nothing life threatening, but his hiking speed was significantly reduced as he coughed his way up and down the rugged Judean Hills.
And that was how the intrepid hikers found themselves at the top of a mountain as the sun went down. Not expecting to still be in the desert at that hour, no one had thought to bring a flashlight. They were also all out of food. There was a full moon, but it wasn’t due out until later in the evening.
They had no choice to hike down, on the edge of a cliff, in the pitch black. What should have taken 20-30 minutes took over two hours.
In the meantime, the ill teacher’s daughter had driven down to meet the students at the end of the hike.
When the hikers hadn’t returned an hour into the pitch black, the daughter thought about calling the emergency services. Would they have to send a helicopter to rescue the presumably stranded hikers? No one knew: There was no cell phone reception in that part of the wilderness.
Fortunately, it wasn’t much longer until the weary crew emerged from the nahal and returned to the cars. It was 8:00 PM – five long hours after Aviv’s first call, and well into Shabbat.
Aviv was back in Jerusalem at 10:00 PM to tell the tale while devouring his mother’s world-famous chicken soup. No, he never felt in any danger. Yes, he was scared. Mostly he was tired. We were relieved, but mostly kept it to ourselves.
Two days after his unexpected adventure, there was a second “preparatory hike.” Aviv decided to pass. We didn’t complain.