Tribal members Koby and Steve Lawson took on the challenge of hiking the highest point in the contiguous United States — Mount Whitney in California. Descendants of the Laframboise family, the father and son enjoy all outdoor activities. Being outside helps them feel connected to nature and Mother Earth.

In a recent interview, Koby told the Hownikan he believes that love comes from his Potawatomi heritage.

“I really started connecting with it whenever I was in middle school. And I started spending more time outdoors and getting into hunting and fishing and all that and kind of realizing that that’s how my ancestors lived back then,” he said.

Koby called the trip an once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Physical exertion

The two hiked roughly 70 miles through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park along the John Muir and Mount Whitney Trails. The summit sits at an elevation of 14,505 feet, and Koby admits, the challenge of hiking 10 to 15 miles a day for a week intimidated him.

“I thought it was insane,” he said. “I was like, ‘How do people go hike … to the top of this mountain? I would never do something like that.’ And my dad, he immediately fell in love with the idea of doing it, and I think he saw it as a challenge for him to do that before he turned 60 years old.”

After agreeing to take the trip in 2019, Koby trained three to five days a week for two years. That meant cutting back on fast food, increasing his exercise endurance, learning how to carry a 40 to 50 pound backpack and running — lots and lots of running.

“I absolutely hate running,” he said and laughed.

However, the training paid off and prepared the Lawsons for unanticipated hurdles and allowed them to push themselves further.

“There were a couple of days where we had 5,000 feet of elevation gain,” Koby said. “And we would leave one area, and we’d be hiking for an hour, and we looked down, and we had a satellite GPS with us, and we could check how far we’d gone. It had been an hour, and we’d only gone one mile.”

One afternoon, they even arrived at the day’s stopping point early but continued, which put them at their final destination right on schedule. They reached the peak after seven days.

“We just got to watch the sunrise from the top of the mountain. And so that feeling of accomplishment — we’ve been talking about doing this and watching videos and training for it for two years — and finally being there was just a completely surreal experience,” Koby said.

Environmental connection

Home to some of the world’s most beautiful scenery, Sequoia National Park attracts visitors from all over to hike to the top of Mount Whitney. Koby appreciated the chance to experience the terrain and wildlife of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in a unique way.

“It was worth seeing and really getting out there and not just staying in the park and on the roads and looking at everything,” he said. “You get a completely different experience actually heading out into the backcountry away from everyone.”

On day one of their journey, Steve and Koby stumbled upon a black bear after hiking for only a couple of hours.

“And all of a sudden, (my dad) just stops, and I almost run into the back of him,” Koby said. “And he just kind of turns and just says, ‘Bear, bear!’ And so I look around the side of his pack, and there’s a bear no more than 15 steps away, like right in the middle of the trail, just staring at us.”

They froze, and after noticing a rustling in the bushes, a cub emerged to follow her lead. She never took her eyes off the hikers but eventually moved her child up the side of the mountain and into the forest, leaving them behind.

The next day, they hit one of the country’s preeminent hiking destinations — Precipice Lake. The crystal clear water reflects back the vertical granite cliffs, creating a stunning mirror effect. Koby saw many pictures and videos of the site online beforehand but said standing in front of it felt different.

“It almost makes you dizzy because you can’t even tell where the water starts. … The water is so still, it just looks like that cliff just goes straight down into the water. And so seeing that was just absolutely incredible,” Koby said.

California wildfires hit Sequoia National Park last year, and on their fourth day, the Lawsons hiked for almost two hours through parts of the forest blackened and ravaged by the heat and flames. Koby called the experience “extremely eerie.”

“You’d have thousands of trees standing, no leaves. Just black trunks sticking up towards the sky. … And so every step you’re walking in, the ash is poofing up from the dirt. And you pass by these giant granite boulders the size of a house, and the heat from the fires had been so strong that the boulders had actually exploded,” he said, noting they also saw the forest’s undergrowth returning.

They enjoyed bathing in a hot spring along their trail and the many other notable lakes, meadows and pit stops they made throughout the week.

Family bonding

Originally from Oklahoma, Koby now lives in McKinney, Texas, and works as a preconstruction manager for CORE Construction. Steve acts as chief legal officer for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company in Oklahoma City. They remain close despite the distance. The trip offered them the chance to bond like never before and recognize each other’s strengths.

“I learned that I got some of my dad’s work ethic and kind of his determination to accomplish my goals,” Koby said. “I definitely got that from him. And it was apparent that we have that same drive when we’re both out there hiking the trail and everything.”

Fishing together is one of their favorite activities, and they created memories pulling colorful trout from the pristine Alpine Lakes and small rivers throughout the mountains.

“That was probably the best fishing experience that I’ve ever had, and I think (my dad) would probably say the same thing,” Koby said.\

The two also recognized their larger CPN family when they summited the mountain. They marked the small research shack at the top of the mountain with a large Tribal seal sticker next to others from countries, schools and organizations around the world.

“I just thought it would be cool to kind of display my heritage or to show that someone from the Potawatomi Nation had accomplished something like that. So I hope that it inspires somebody else from the Tribe to go and try it. I’d love to see another sticker right next to that one up there,” Koby said.

He plans to continue the tradition and climb Mount Whitney with his two sons someday.
See more about the trip on Koby Lawson’s Instagram account @High_Sierra_Trail_21.