I like to climb mountains. And at the base of all my alpine hikes is a single goal: to stand on the summit, muscles singing, lungs burning, head spinning with lack of oxygen, and survey the landscape from the highest point like a god assaying her creation. If I carried a flag with me, I would plant one at the top and make a little speech in my own honor. So when I work really hard to bag a mountain and find myself thwarted just 50 feet from my goal, I am, to say the least, nonplussed.
But there are all kinds of summits.
But there are all kinds of summits.
A few weeks ago, I climbed Timpanogos, a popular scenic day hike in the Wasatch range, with my 13-year old son. He was fine on the way up, but as we began to descend, the unfortunate effects of attitude sickness began to plague him. “I can’t go any further, Mom,” he gasped at Emerald Lake, more than 3,000 feet above the parking lot we had to reach before sundown.
I stared at him, puzzled. “Can’t go any further” wasn’t actually one of the choices on the menu. We had climbed the mountain—ascended past the tree line, hiked through verdant alpine meadows, traversed rock fields strewn with granite boulders, inched along the narrow switchbacks carved into the nearly sheer rock face to reach the summit. No one was coming to save us. We had to get down—altitude sickness or not. I let him rest, urged him to drink water…and we hiked.
He survived, just like I did when I had to hike down from the top of Mount Whitney with a torn calf muscle. Of course, I hiked up Mount Whitney with a torn calf muscle as well—which tells you everything you need to know about my relationship with my mother. I tore the muscle on the very first step of the hike. Admittedly, I was showing off when I injured myself—testing my new hiking shoes’ Vibram rubber soles without warming up first. As I sprinted up a nearly vertical granite boulder, I felt the pop, then the agonizing flood of pain, and I knew.
“I can’t hike, Mom,” I told my 64-year old mother when I made it down.
“But we have permits,” my mother replied. That settled the matter. I hiked 22 miles on a calf muscle roughly the size and color of a county fair-prize winning eggplant—then didn’t walk again for four months. (In case you are wondering, I credit the liberal topical application of cayenne pepper mixed with mudwort, coupled with the fact that climbing typically relies on the quadriceps—for my physical ability to make the hike. And yes, it hurt worse than natural childbirth).
On my first backpacking trip to the Sawtooth National Wilderness in Idaho, I found myself in a similar predicament. And when faced with the opportunity to make a decision that could adversely affect my life and the lives of my four children, this time, I made the right choice. I chose not to climb the last 50 feet of a mountain. It was a whole new kind of hurt—and it opened up vistas of possibility hinting at a new kind of freedom.
At 10,190 feet, Mount Regan is not the highest mountain in Idaho—or even in the Sawtooths—but it presents a challenge worthy of the most experienced climbers. My hiking buddy Nate and I braved seemingly sheer metamorphic cliffs to reach the point of no return—a rope anchored into the side of the mountain at the edge of a 25-30 foot deep crevasse that separated us from our summit goal. We had unwisely chosen the North Ridge route; at a 5.3 rating, we would need ropes and other equipment to access those last 50 feet(according the Yosemite Decimal System for rating hikes, a 5 or higher is described as “technical free climbing involving rope, belaying, and other protection hardware for safety. Un-roped falls can result in severe injury or death”). And you don’t even want to know what the previous 50 feet were like. Let’s just say that death was definitely an option on the menu.
Nate was all ready to make the jump (We had left one more sensible member of our party behind on safer ground). I am not going to even pretend I wasn’t tempted—a sudden picture of Jesus standing on a mountain top with Satan, surveying the world, flashed through my mind. But my confidence factor was a mere 25%--in other words, I was only 25% sure that I could cross the space beneath me and cling to the other side. Nate started playing with his rope, putting a few “Man vs. Wild” moves into practice as he swung the teal nylon cord across the abyss, catching it on the opposite side. I had already made my decision when I said to him, with utter calmness, “Crossing that crevasse is a selfish act. If you want to do it, I will stand here and take your picture when or if you reach the summit. But it’s selfish. And I will not follow you.”
I was speaking to myself. But Nate heard me. For several minutes. he thought about what I said, and in the end, he too decided not to cross. I knew exactly how courageous that decision was.
“Why do we do this to ourselves, Mom?” my son had asked a few weeks before, as he moved with aching slowness down the back face of Timpanogos.
Why do we climb mountains? I think there are two reasons. We climb because we want to push ourselves to the limits of our physical endurance; we want to see just how far these sacks of skin and bone can take us. And we climb because there simply isn’t any other way to experience what we feel when we stand on the summit, feeling for a brief moment what the gods feel. No photograph, no mere description, can do it justice—that sense of absolute awe and wonder and pure freedom that assaults your every sense when you are quite literally on top of your world.
Why then do we choose not to summit a mountain? That question is more difficult for me. We choose because when we reach the moment of decision, we find ourselves insufficiently aware, informed, prepared. We choose not to succeed at some things because the risks outweigh the benefits. To give up something that you value greatly for those you love is to know the meaning of sacrifice in the Biblical sense. As I turned back from Mr. Regan’s taunting summit, as I wedged my body between sheer rock faces with vertical drops of more than 30 feet, as I scavenged for handholds in flaking granite, I thought of Abraham, knife poised above the body of his innocent son. Why does God give us these urges, then tell us not to act on them?
Every major religion on earth eschews desire, in all its forms. If I can free myself of the desire to conquer this mountain, if I can surrender my will to God’s, only then can I discover what it means to be truly free. I will not attain the summit that I seek in this life, constrained as I am by the limits of human desire, by the fallibility that pits my hubris against God’s will. But I can try. Faith can move mountains. It can also move climbers to abandon unworthy summits and seek new heights. And as I learned on Mt. Regan, to give up your pride might be the greatest sacrifice of all.
Next time I go up there, I’ll have rope, rappelling equipment, and a flag.