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Reflections on a Theme: Majestic Mountains

Considering that the region where I was born and raised had been scraped flat by glaciers thousands of years before, it is almost ironic that one of the primary metaphors of my life would be the mountains.

In the home where I spent my teen years was a large reproduction of a painting of mountains. They looked the way mountains ought to look -- rising majestically out of the flatlands to touch the sky. They aroused in me a wistful longing for which I had no words to describe, let alone hope to fulfill. Often in the lonely years of my youth, I found myself absorbed by those mountains.

It was in the Wasatch Range outside of Salt Lake City that I had my first taste of the mountains. We were on break from a conference, and our hosts had invited us to go up to a ski area. We rode up a ski lift; and when we reached the top and got off the lift, I was transformed. Something had shifted in me. Instead of seeing things through the eyes of a flatlander, I had gained a new perspective, and I wanted more!

A few months later, I was in New England serving a summer internship in Rhode Island. When the young adult group decided that they wanted to climb Mt. Chocorua, I had my opportunity. There began for me a lifelong odyssey of self discovery, and I had a metaphor by which to understand it.

I learned early that one meets a mountain -- even a small one -- on its own terms. But, at the beginning, I looked upon a mountain as something to be conquered. Spurred on by my father-in-law and my brother-in-law, I flung myself into the mountains every opportunity I had, the raw strength of my youth carrying me along at a pace that surprised even me. Only later would I understand that hiking and climbing is more about conquering one's self through learning from others, acquiring experience and skills, and accepting one's limits.

Soon I discovered The 4,000 Footer Club of the Appalachian Mountain Club for those who had climbed the 48 separate 4,000-foot summits in New Hampshire's White Mountains. I wanted them! I wanted my name on the list. I became a "peak bagger." The list took me into terrain that I would not otherwise have visited, challenged me to the edge of my capacity, and, on long hikes alone, exposed me to risks I needed to take. Now the mountains were beginning to uncover a compulsive quality of my nature.

Where I reached the modest summit of Mt. Isolation and could finally "check off" the 4,000 footers, my son Craig, who was seven years old at the time, said: "You're really proud, aren't you, Daddy." I was proud, probably for a lot of wrong reasons. As I look back, I am more proud of him. He trusted me, let me lead him, even push him, to the edge of his capacity to complete a sixteen mile hike with me so I could say: "I did it." It pleases me that he has become a splendid outdoorsman, still hiking in the mountains [now with his family], better prepared, more skilled, more sensible -- achieving his own mountain dreams. Perspectives change over the years, but it took time. And the mountains still had much to teach me.

My family hiking days were drawing to a close -- the casualty of a failing marriage. As it turned out the last family hiking experience was to be a bittersweet affair, exhilarating and somber. Uncle Augustus, with whom we had hiked with many times, did not return from an expedition to Mt. Katahdin in Maine's Baxter State Park. As the days wore into weeks, we knew that he had perished. A legend in his native Vermont, we thought he would go on forever. He was still hiking into his 80's; he was our model. It seemed only fitting that we try to find his body. His brother had some hunches as to where he might be.

Hiking at Katahdin can be risky in September. We had been driven off the mountain by snow in June several years earlier. But we caught a break, and the weather was crystal clear for the entire time we were there. Our search was fruitless - his body would be forever lost in the mountains he loved - perhaps that is the way he wanted it. Resigned, we took advantage of the glorious weather to climb some of the most spectacular terrain in the northeast: The Knife Edge, Baxter Peak, and all of the nearby northern peaks.

I was not prepared to be confronted with my limits the way I was there. The Knife Edge puts the "fear of God" in you. A windswept "trail" of nearly two miles, it falls off over 2,000 feet on both sides. One misstep risks disaster. The rewards are spectacular; the risks are enormous on a good day. But it was on the Hamlin Ridge Trail that I learned my most significant lesson. My climbing partner wanted to go back down into the north basin again. I had my doubts. We were not well enough prepared. As the pitch steepened, I felt our margin of error disappearing. Finally, I said, "I am not going any farther." Despite his urgings, I refused, and he gave it up. To this day I am convinced that it saved our lives. To that point, it was my most important lesson from the mountains, and it had multiple layers.

The first lesson was that one can die in the mountains. The second, linked to the first, was that the possibilities of death happening are increased if one is unprepared, ill-equipped, or careless. The third lesson was the "linchpin": one must have a good understanding of and a healthy respect for one's limits, however they may be imposed! Those lessons have served me well ever since.

The family times in the mountains all but ended with my divorce and the jealousies I encountered in a new marriage. There were occasional small trips, but nothing significant until years later when I was single again. In the intervening years, something huge was missing from my life. It was then that I learned that, when one has entered the embrace of the mountains, there is a staying power that waits in reserve until there is another opportunity to summon its strength. In that time the memories of what had been accomplished sustained and encouraged me. Once you have been in the mountains, the possibility of your return still nurtures you.

My first major hike in almost fifteen years was with my son Craig into the back country west of where The Old Man of the Mountains used to be. As we neared our campsite, rain began to sprinkle. We quickly unpacked, stowed our gear in a dry corner of the lean-to, got all our necessary work done, and had dinner before the rains came. The worst of it broke at dusk. We were experienced enough to know it was coming. We realized that there was nothing we could do to prevent it, and it was too late to flee from it.

We were as prepared anyone could be for a storm in the mountains. As my son has grown into his manhood, he has developed the ability to plan well. We make a good team when we hike together. We carry the equipment we need, and we prepare for as many possibilities as we know how. We may carry more weight than most hikers do, but it's worth it. We recognize each other's capacities. We encourage each other's strengths. The only thing we didn't know was how bad the storm would be. For seven hours or more, wave after wave of storms pounded the area. We were camped only a few hundred feet below the summits: the lightning was closer than I had ever experienced it before, alternately blinding and suddenly pitch dark; the thunder was magnified as it echoed back and forth between the mountains. We didn't sleep a lot that night, but neither were we afraid. Somehow in the midst of the storm, we experienced a settling inner calm that carried us through the night.

As I have reflected on the calm with which Craig and I bore that storm in the mountains, I have come to believe that a major factor was that our experience had taught us not to lose hope. We'd seen enough storms in the mountains to know that they do come to an end. I must confess that it did cross my mind at least that if I were hit by the lightening, I would end my days in a place where I had gained my fuller wisdom. But that was not a major concern for me. Hope, when it is tempered by experience and wisdom, is the means by which a person lives into the future. That night in the mountains was spent with someone I loved and trusted. Our relationship is such that we bring out the best in each other. And I learned then that it's always easier to walk through the dark night of the spirit with someone like that.

About five years later I was beginning to grow weary of ministry. Done well, it is hard work. Invariably one runs into situations where entrenched interests resist even the best efforts of ministry and even the gospel. Retirement was still a way off; but I had begun to think about all the freedoms it would afford, especially all the hiking I wanted to do when I had the time to do it. Somewhere along the way I came to the realization that, if I didn't start now, by the time I retired, I might not be able to do all I wanted to do and get into the mountains again. Within a month, I was enrolled in a mountaineering school in Wyoming's Grand Teton Mountains - the very mountains that were portrayed in the reproduction of a painting that had hung in my living room forty years earlier!

A mountaineering school provided an education in the technical aspects of climbing, with ropes and harnesses and all the equipment associated with mountaineering. I had been a hiker. This was different. This is about ascending and descending where a single misstep can mean death. When I rented my special rock climbing shoes, I had to sign a waiver that my estate would not sue the company if I died while climbing in their shoes! For two intensive days, I learned how to be harnessed into ropes, to function as a part of a team, how to pick my way up steep rock walls, and how to rappel a hundred feet off a mountain cliff. We learned to trust our equipment, trust our guide, trust members of our team, trust ourselves.

One of the most important lessons for me was the four-point climbing technique: simply put, the hands and the feet form four support points on a climb. I have since learned that the butt is a convenient fifth point. When the climbing becomes difficult, one simply anchors three points and moves one, then anchors three new points and moves one, and so on. It has become a life principle for me in times of risk: keep anchored, but keep moving.

I wasn't able to climb the Grand Teton as I had hoped; the conditions and my skill level made that unwise, but nevertheless the training shaped me. And I was able to hike for several days in the shadows of those summits I had first seem in my living room years before. I saw deer and moose and bear and eagles. The following year I hiked in the Grand Canyon. That introduced me to the vast reaches of time and to the very shapings of creation. A few years later, I hiked at Mt. St. Helens and stood a short distance from the crater of an active volcano on a ridge that was still a moonscape from the eruption twenty-five years ago. And I hiked to a glacier on the massive Mount Rainier, considered to be one of the most dangerous active volcanoes on the continent. Hiking in the west has humbled me.

Of late, my hiking has become more modest; and I am content with that. I will hike in the mountains as long as I am able, returning to my mountain roots, applying the lessons I have learned over the years to compensate for my lesser capacities - hiking smarter. The compulsiveness is gone. It's not about me. It's about the mountains and the maker of the mountains.

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, calls Psalm 121 "A Pilgrim Song." The mountains have taught me the meaning of this beloved Psalm. I have become a pilgrim, learning from the mountains, and walking in the strength of the Lord.

See Richard Garland's hymn, "Majestic Mountains."