Two years ago last December I was hanging out in my Waikiki condo watching the evening news when the top story was about a hiker lost on Mauna Kea. Michigan resident Brian Murphy, age 67, left the Visitor Center at the 9,000 foot level to hike up the Humu'ula Trail toward the 13,796 foot peak wearing only light clothing, prompting the ranger on duty to warn him of an incoming storm and high winds.
Murphy left anyhow, and two hours later it snowed, driven by 70 mph winds. When the Park closed that evening, Murphy's car was still in the Visitor Center parking lot. The next morning Park Rangers, Big Island Firefighters, a canine team, and even the Coast Guard searched for the missing hiker through a foot of new snow in blizzard-like conditions. They found no trace of Murphy.
I had told my wife I knew a guy from Wisconsin named Brian Murphy. He was my teammate on the UW-Milwaukee track team back in '65 to '67. I agreed there are a lot of Brian Murphys out there, just like there are a lot of John Smiths and Joe Blows, and I had to admit the bald-headed guy in the TV photo didn't quite look like the Brian Murphy I remembered. Of course that was 40 years ago. Who looks like they did 40 years ago?
Then the following day I caught the news again, they had a photo of Murphy playing with one of his grandchildren.
“That's him,” I told her. I was sure this time.
For the next few days I thought about very little but Brian Murphy. I remembered how cocky he was. I had never met anyone that self-confident before, or since, who could actually back it up! He had spent four years in the Marines and seemed to know everything, all you had to do was ask him. He became my self-appointed mentor, and I would listen to him because, well, because he didn't really want to listen to me.
His main event was the decathlon, the ten events that require strength, speed, *and* endurance. Although I tried the decathlon too, I was mostly a middle distance runner and a pole vaulter. He was better than me in nearly every event, and reminded me at every turn, but he also helped me and gave me good advice. Murphy was bigger, stronger, and a step faster than me. I could beat him in the 400, sometimes, and the 1,500 meters, but the other eight events were his.
The event I hated losing to him the most was the pole vault. I had been a pole vaulter in high school before the fiberglass pole, when the pole was either steel or aluminum. In those days you really had to work to get over the crossbar. Most pole vaulters before the fiberglass pole were wrestlers and gymnasts with well-developed upper bodies for pushing off from the pole. Between jumps we used to walk around on our hands like we saw the world record-holder Don Bragg do at meets.
Bragg's record was 15' 9” and he just could not get over 16 feet with his aluminum pole. Then a lanky guy named Brian Sternberg emerged with the new fiberglass pole and sprang over 16 feet for a new world record. Bragg immediately lodged a protest, but the A.A.U. let the record stand and Bragg retired and so did the old metal pole.
Murphy would charge down the runway with his 160 pound test fiberglass pole and really make that sucker bend, catapulting over the bar set at 14 feet and higher, whereas for me, weighing just 130, I got very little bend out of that pole, and the 14 foot mark eluded me.
He also started the Milwaukee Track Club, and put on meets every few weeks in the Summer. One Summer I entered in every event except the 35-pound weight throw. The event I hated most was the 3000-meter racewalk. My shin muscles got so tight I just broke into a jog after crossing the finishline in utter relief! It might have helped if I had practiced a little.
In the Summer of '66 I placed third in the Wisconsin State A.A.U. Decathlon. Murphy won of course, as he did every year, and got good enough to go to California for the '68 Olympic Trials, and eventually finish fourth (at least that's what he claimed) behind the great Bill Tommey, who went on to win Gold at the Mexico City Olympic Games.
Because Mexico City was at 7,200 feet elevation, the US needed a venue that would be approximately the same altitude. They found Echo Summit, California in South Lake Tahoe at, of all places, a middle school. Yeah, how many middle schools have held the Olympic Trials? Good question. I think the answer might be just that one.
As most people know, the higher you go the harder it is too run long, but your speed improves in the thin air. It usually takes a few weeks to get acclimated, and that's why many distance runners like to train at altitude to build up their lungs, then when they return to sea level it's easier to kick ass. It was no surprise that the Mexico City Olympic records were broken in every running event up to 1500 meters, including Bob Beaman's incredible 29' long jump.
Murphy's daughter and sister-in-law flew out from Michigan to help with the search, but after six days, with still no sign of Murphy, they officially gave up.
His daughter was quoted as saying that Murphy was in “good physical condition, being an active skier and holder of numerous national records for the decathalon. Also very knowledgable about safety and survival skills.” She added, “I see him as a person who would not panic in this situation, even if hurt, he overcomes pain extremely well.”
Well, I agree with most of that, but I don't believe Murphy broke any national records in the decathlon. UW-Milwaukee records, sure, and no doubt Wisconsin records, maybe even Michigan records, if he continued in the sport, but I never heard from him again, and my guess is his sister's claim is more the old adage, “The older you get, the faster you were.”
Anyhow, I waited two years to write this because I first wanted to go up to Mauna Kea myself and talk to the ranger who was the last person to talk to Murphy, and it took this long to finally make the trip.
Mauna Kea is not only the highest mountain in the Pacific but the highest mountain in the world from the ocean floor — over 30,000 feet. But the real interesting thing about Mauna Kea is it's one of the best sites on earth for astronomical observations. There are thirteen observatories on the mountain, home to astronomers from fourteen nations. The most technologically advanced are the Keck observatories, with the two Keck telescopes remotely controlled by technicians in Waimea and Hilo.
My wife and I eventually moved to the Big Island and bought a house in Waimea, a town of cowboys (paniolos) and astronomers, set at 2500 feet between the Kohala Mountian to the northwest and a perfect view of Mauna Kea from our backyard to the southeast. When it's clear, the domed observatories sit like giant white marbles delicately placed on the very top of the mountian.
I like to tell people Waimea has to be the only town in the Country with more astronomers than homeless people, but when I told a Mendo nice person that, she replied, instructively, “Do you mean astrologers?.”
It wasn't until a few weeks ago that my step-daughter Joanie came out from San Francisco to visit, prompting me to take her to the mountain top. We took my 4-wheel drive pick-up, as they won't let any vehicles but 4-wheel or all-wheel drive past the Visitor Center.
Turned out the ranger who last talked to Murphy was off that day, so we joined others waiting by some picnic tables for the scheduled one o'clock caravan up to the top, over what turned out to be the worst washboard road ever until the last half-mile of paved road to keep dust down for clearer air for viewing distant stars.
When we got there we saw a few people hanging out by some picnic tables, and just as we sat down some guy starts telling this story about a tourist who left here to hike up the mountain and got lost in a blizzard...I looked at Joanie like wow, unbelievable, after two years the first tourist we meet starts telling the Brian Murphy story. Unable to stop myself, I cut in and said I knew that guy...bla bla bla...but I could tell the way they looked at me they thought I was some big-mouth bullshitter. So I shut up.
When I stopped talking, they turned away and the conversation was over. It was just too far-fetched that after two years a stranger would walk up just at the moment someone starts telling a tale about a missing hiker and claim he knew the guy 40 years ago in Wisconsin.
I wished I'd just kept my mouth shut and listened, but that's another thing I never did very well, except when Brian Murphy was talking.