A Modern Day Yosemite Legend
By John P. DeGrazio
Some legends are made. Others are born. Every once in a while you cross paths with someone so extraordinary that their accomplishments seem unfathomable. Before I begin the story of Luke Milam, I’d like to share that his twin sister Virginia is one of the strongest, most courageous eleven year old girls I know. She is an outdoorswoman who is brave beyond her years. Das Boot is a tale about strength, courage, determination, and an undying sense of adventure in the mountains of Yosemite.
This story is dedicated to the memory of George Wendt, an outdoor adventure pioneer who recently passed. He will always be remembered for his courage, leadership, and vision. We are eternally grateful to the Wendt family and O.A.R.S. for our partnership with this amazing outdoor industry leader.
“What do you think Das Captain?”, I overheard Mike asking the eleven year old astronaut as we made our way up the steep lunar-landscaped slope of Mt. Hoffman. “I want to keep going!” was Luke’s reply. The entire group put their collective heads down in amazement as we inched closer to the summit. Many were dealing with their own issues but refused to give in because they were inspired by this young dynamo. Mike was my guide counterpart from O.A.R.S. We were on a multi-sport adventure with a two day rafting trip on the Tuolumne River that ended with three days of hiking in Yosemite National Park. It is called the Yosemite & Tuolumne Hiker and is offered annually as a once in a lifetime opportunity we have been co-leading with our trusted travel partner since 2009. This was a larger group so we also had two other leaders, Alex from YExplore and Crystal from O.A.R.S.
We typically receive our client information a couple weeks prior to the trip’s launch. For this adventure, there were some last minute amendments to our roster. The information stated it may be reduced by three people because one of the participants (Luke) suffered a hairline fracture of his ankle just two and a half weeks prior to the adventure. Luke was given a walking boot, and his mom Lisa decided they would make the journey from Atlanta, Georgia to California to at least participate in the rafting portion of this unique excursion.
My co-leader Alex and I met the cheerful group at the Sentinel Dome trailhead on a bright summer morning. They were understandably moving slowly the day after their two day river run. We made a final head count and were pleasantly surprised to see the Milam family had decided to attempt the hike. There was Lisa, Virginia, and Luke in his walking boot. By the time the group arrived that morning, Luke had already earned the nickname Das Boot, and we were happy to oblige in building this modern day legend. By the end of the first day of hiking, Luke received other nicknames, including Das Captain.
We all were impressed by Luke’s stamina throughout this 5.5 mile hike. More impressive was the fact that this precocious eleven year old boy never complained once about any pain he felt in this crucial joint used to support every step he took. Unlike many others his age, Luke decided not to dwell on the discomfort of this obstructive accessory but instead found positive motivations while climbing over rocks and posing for photos. Toward the end of the day, he expressed that his leg was sore but he managed to complete the hike with aplomb. When we all said our goodbyes, Lisa thanked us for the care we provided to Luke, and she also informed us that there was an excellent chance we would have seen the last of Das Boot for the trip.
We met our group at the May Lake trailhead for the start of day two with a trek to the summit of Mt. Hoffman. One by one, each hiker piled out of the van. There were Fred and Edel from Texas whose love for adventure matched their charming personalities. Then there were John and Jill from Seattle who appreciated every inch of the Yosemite nature they explored on each trail. Claus and Bente were from Southern California but emigrated from Denmark years ago. They brought their sons Alex and Chris, an aspiring naturalist and geologist, on a family adventure to discover the natural world of Yosemite National Park. Then there was Nicole who was traveling alone on a personal journey to find wild adventures in the vicinity of her home in the American Southwest. She was originally from New Jersey, and we shared a spirited discussion of what constituted good pizza and cheesesteaks that left me with a “don’t mess with a Jersey girl” feeling within the first hour of meeting her. Nicole’s quest ran a little deeper than the rest, and she stayed in Yosemite for an extra week in an effort to rise to an ever greater challenge than Mt. Hoffman. Nicole reached the summit of Half Dome later that week on the day I arrived in the Little Yosemite Valley campground with another group. We shared our delight in seeing each other in the campground after her spectacular achievement, and I was happy to share “The Legend of Das Boot” with her hiking group at their campsite as night fell.
The legend grew the moment Luke emerged from the van with his mother and sister at the trailhead. “He’s going to give it a try” was all Lisa had to say as we made our way up the dusty trail to May Lake. Alex and I asked Luke a series of questions about his condition and were convinced it would be alright to attempt the summit while realistically planning for the family of three to spend a relaxing day at May Lake while the rest of the group labored on the two mile stretch of steep slope on the upper mountain. By then, a pattern emerged. There was never ever any quit in Das Boot. He continued beyond the lake into the rock cut trail leading from the lake to Mt. Hoffman. He became more determined as his plastic boot would slip on the exposed ancient sea floor of the Pacific Ocean connecting the granite peak to the moraine surrounding the glacial lake.
Hiking above ten thousand feet is no small accomplishment for anyone. Now, imagine yourself traversing rocky, sandy terrain with an unwanted anchor attached to your foot as you approached the summit on a section of trail angling around forty degrees. Despite these very long odds, Das Boot never complained once as he continued along the inhospitable conditions for his less than aggressively tracked footwear on his right foot. That is the area he officially earned the moniker of Das Captain. He spent the day side by side with me in the lead of the group and transformed from brave hiker to motivator and captain of the team while providing inspiration to all who followed. Some admitted later that they wanted to give up but continued to draw strength from our hobbled hero.
We arrived at a cornice at the base of the summit for a unique view of the Ten Lakes Basin below and paused for a cool break with some fun in the snow. The group decided to eat lunch at that spot and were careful not to share our spoils with the gregarious marmots who were all too happy to approach. After lunch, we made one final decision to scramble over car sized boulders to reach the peak. Once Das Captain decided he would attempt the summit, nine others followed him, and we climbed like spiders through the cracks. Luke’s boot slipped on more than one occasion, but I was positioned to support him the entire route to the top. I was able to keep a watchful eye on the group and relished in the admiration each had for this young emerging legend. Once the summit was in reach, Luke and Virginia rightfully shared the honor of being the first from our group to reach the highest point. It was an amazing accomplishment for all who drew inspiration from these eleven year old superheroes. We took time to enjoy our symbolic Can O Peaches in the form of a chocolate bar we all shared.
Day three was a “mellow” eight mile roundtrip hike to Lower Cathedral Lake for an extended relaxation break and swimming. Luke finally admitted to some pain and soreness in the ankle, but nothing precluded him from reaching the lake for a well deserved dip in a subalpine tarn.
The group reflected on what an amazing journey they all shared as they passed bags of chips and other tasty delights prepared for them as part of an impressive spread of gourmet trail food provided by O.A.R.S. All were pleased with the extra time spent swimming and napping in a secluded area of the lower lake. We each signed Das Boot to be forever remembered as a badge of courage by Luke and his family.
Hugs and goodbyes were exchanged at the end of our adventure together. Mike and I knew we would see each other in a few weeks on the next trip together, but I felt a sense of loss as the van pulled away. There was something really special about this group that could never be duplicated. The beauty of leading groups in Yosemite is that each will have its own unique character that makes it special. All twelve individuals contributed to the incredible fiber of this unit and each had their singular characteristics that made it so special. However, for this particular trip, there is one boy who sewed the fabric of the team together so effortlessly. He will forever be remembered for his tremendous ability to motivate and inspire his team. Most importantly, his story will be told by future generations as The Legend of Das Boot!