Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mountaineering Memoirs

by Julie Lidbeck, a guest writer on MainStream

I kicked my crampons into the steep slope and clung to the embedded ice axe. Leaning forward to catch my breath, my heart thudded in my ears. I chanced a disheartening glance upwards and wondered if Mt Baker continued indefinitely higher; its crown the very floor of heaven. I wondered at the seeming boundless energy that I had enjoyed just twenty-four hours earlier. Fearfully, I wondered if there was any strength left to place another step toward the elusive summit.

It was about 2:30 AM that Saturday morning in June when the five of us hefted our packs and set out at the Heliotrope Ridge trail-head. Tiny snow flakes swirled sparkling in the beams of our headlamps as we started through the forest. Just one hundred yards into the trek, however, we came to an impasse. Deep snow banks engulfed the trail; we were supposed to cross a bridge but could not even see the river. GPS was consulted and we decided to hike up the snow-covered river. An hour later, we reached the avalanche chute: a steep climb that brought us out of the valley and onto the mountain.

Heavy fog set in as the sun rose and we were shrouded in a world of white. There was no mountain, no up or down, cliffs or crags. All was indistinct and measureless in the frozen mist. We hiked solely by the direction of the compass and GPS, discouraged that the river valley led us onto the mountain so far from the intended path. Despite the set-back, the experience was exciting to me as I anticipated the reward at the end of our efforts. Meanwhile, I got to dig out my first-aid kit and pad a few blistered feet while we were resting on a ridge. And the duct tape came in handy in patching a glove.

We spent the morning navigating our way through white nothingness to where the GPS indicated Coleman Glacier to be. We roped up and hiked past the crevasse-risk area. By 2 PM, my legs were burning, eyelids heavy. To the team's relief and delight, the veil of mist lifted to reveal Mt Baker's craggy face. We set up camp at the 7500' level; we could see teams, like ants, busily setting up their tents on the glacier below. The sunshine and vistas were immensely rewarding as we rested and rehydrated.

I slept for a few hours in the tent, then woke with Bethany and Katie in time to enjoy the last of the sun's warm golden light as it sunk into a frosty horizon.

Michael and Daniel gave the 1 AM wake-up call. All I recall was feeling acutely cold. My toes were numb, and to my chagrin, the inner liners of my boots were frozen, despite spending the night in my sleeping bag. Everything outside was covered with a new frosting of snow; it was beautiful, but the cold made my fingers cumbersome when lacing up boots and tying on crampons. We roped up and started hiking toward the infamous Roman Wall.
The sunrise was slow and spectacular above the fading lights of Bellingham. I enjoyed the steady rhythm of our ascent, the grippy feel of the crampons as they bit into icy slope with each step. Inhaling the clear crisp air, I enjoyed the silence of the morning. In the darkness, it felt like it was just God and me, and in that moment I loved the challenge and beauty His creation presented.

We periodically stopped for breaks, but inside I just wanted to press on, to get to the top. "This is do-able. The summit is so close," I thought.

My adrenaline suddenly wore off mid-way through the final push. The last 900' elevation gain was at a steep climb, and suddenly I wished that I had taken better advantage of our breaks. Crevasse-footed cliffs angled off on either side of our narrowing trail. The scent of sulfur saturated the air and reminded me that I was ascending an active volcano. As the morning sun climbed in the sky, the snow became more soft. Each step took focus to maintain traction with the mountain.

It was at this point, at the end of myself, that I recognized my utter insufficiency. Asking Jesus for help, I appreciated comparisons between the Christian life and ascending a mountain. Placing one foot in front of the other, I considered what God would have me learn.

The first lesson I felt acutely: Enjoy the opportunity to rest when God gives it. I had been feeling a bit guilty about the ease of my American life in contrast with how it had been in Sudan. But that was wrong. God gives seasons of life and its important to take the time to regenerate spiritually and physically. Best of all, God wants us to cease striving and simply enjoy fellowship with Him; "Be still and know that I am God," (Psalm 46:10); "He restores my soul," Psalm 23:3.

Just as Paul alluded to running a race, life is spent on the uphill journey. He warns Christians to "lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus..." (Hebrews 12: 1-2). I thought how easily my Droid and my agenda distract my focus from godliness. Thinking about the mountain climb, I was glad to leave behind camping supplies for the final ascent; how much easier it was to have less to carry that day. Likewise, God wants me to hike this life un-encumbered by sin.

Thirdly, the GPS was essential to the success of our ascent. Despite our eyes playing tricks on us in the white mist, the GPS knew our coordinates, the compass kept our direction. Likewise, I need to trust God for my direction, not how I feel about something. Proverbs 28:26 states, "He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but whoever walks wisely will be delivered." Also, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths," (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Like gearing up for a climb, its also important to count the cost of following Jesus, and to prepare accordingly. I was reminded of the armor of God described in Ephesians 6, and to "be strong in the Lord."

At about this point in my reflections we crested the summit. After chugging down all the water that I could get, it felt great just to soak in the spectacular panorama that surrounded Mt Baker and marvel at God's dangerously beautiful creation.

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