Brad and I recently traveled to Anchorage, Alaska from Washington D.C. We spent 13 hours confined to sitting at extreme right angles, knees in our eye sockets, and breathing in air that had been recycled by 250 pairs of lungs and then exhaled for our benefit. This already appealing cocktail of fun was further enhanced by my swollen, black right foot. I had severely sprained it and was supposed to be traveling with an air cast. As I hobbled onto the airplane, I was hoping that I’d be able to baby my foot and sleep as well. I also prayed fervently not to be seated next to anyone who felt it necessary to consume mass quanitites of alcohol! In the past, it seems that ‘fate’ plays the occasional rude joke and I get wedged into a seat next to some bombastic soul who sweats profusely, swears with flourish, and drinks enough to make someone of Slavic heritage proud. In those situations, with beer goggles perched neatly atop the bridge of their nose, the poor soul nearest to them, married or not, can appear to be an available, receptive target.
Brad and I seated ourselves and I sank into my seat with a sigh of relief. Finding just the right position for my foot was difficult, and I finally propped it up against the bulkhead wall. I noticed that my traveling companion also had HIS feet up too and they too looked worse for wear. He was wearing a pair of TEVA sandals and it was apparent that he was missing several toes.
Curiosity piqued, I asked him why he was headed to Anchorage. He indicated that he was en route to climb Denali, the highest and most hazardous peak in Alaska. Denali, for those from the lower 48, is known as Mt. McKinley. On a clear day, you can see Denali from Anchorage. It is breathtaking and spectacular! Most days, however, the top is shrouded in clouds and there is always a cap of snow on top. The steep angle of the mountain is hardly a slope for novices, so I assumed he was experienced and I suspected he’d lost his toes on another climb. I’d also read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakaur and “No Shortcuts to the Top” by Ed Viesturs, as well as several other first-hand accounts.
More recently, he had attempted a peak in South America. It was during this trip that his foot became badly infected. He was evacuated on a litter by men who carried him throughout the night to reach medical care. I believe his toes were amputated as a result of this near-death experience. Many months of treatment and skin grafts were needed to bring him back to health. This trip would be a moment of truth for him. Would the grafts withstand the unique physiological stressors of high altitudes?
“Why,” I asked, “Do you climb?” In my mind, I was wondering why someone would relish the prospect of risking life and limb to climb a mountain. Our companion said that when one is on the mountain, vanity falls away. Unimportant things like what you do for a living, what car you drive, and other inane status symbols cease to matter. I would suppose that in a quest of that magnitude, the significance of self becomes lost in the mighty, awesome, and somewhat terrible power of nature. Life, like a mountain, can not be tamed.
I shared with him that I love running for that very reason. Although I am currently hampered by chronic injuries, I used to run long distance races. Quite simply, endurance running helped me keep my soul tidy and organized. Exerting myself, forcing my body to obey my will allowed me to practice discipline. In order to succeed at long distances, one must take all of the negativity and any thoughts of “I can’t” and replace them with “I will!” For that reason, I love the rhythm of running. While many people have a hard time breathing for long distances, I always felt like the little engine that could. I would start slow, but I always breathed in for two steps and then breathed out for two steps. That first mile or three was always stiff and uncomfortable, but the farther I ran the easier it became. Breathing and channeling pain became enjoyable to me! The act of running forced out all of the miniscule things I worried about and made me concentrate on the next breath or the next step. During those times of intense concentration, running stopped being exercise and became a form of worship for me. As I would run, I could pray and I could enjoy God’s creation. There were simply no distractions to keep me from focusing on God. The phone never rang, I couldn’t be cleaning, or cooking, or attending to all of the needs of others. As strange as it seems, when I was out running, everything else was on pause and that was very helpful both emotionally and spiritually.
I once trained and ran a marathon. It was the hardest thing I have ever done and that includes bearing children! The more I trained, the more running and setting a goal, and achieving that goal became a proving ground for me. I felt that if I could beat back fatigue and stave off despair, triumphs on the road would extend into other areas of my life. During these moments when my body wanted to fail but my mind wanted to win, I found a deeper understanding of who God is. He is a God who never gives up on us and I resolved to finish at all costs. However, running is hardly mountain climbing in its purest form. The only risks to me might have been a couple of blisters, hurt knees, or torn tendons. I could pull over to the side of the road and stop if needed. Barring an unforeseen collision with a car or a massive heart attack, I never risked my own survival to run.
The conversation touched me so deeply. Why does man persist in such endeavors? In my opinion, there is some small kernel deep inside all humanity that makes us fight to overcome. There hasn’t been a day since that flight that I haven’t replayed this conversation and it is very difficult for me to condense my thoughts into words effectively. Truly, the metaphor of climbing an almost infinite mountain parallels many aspects of life.
One idea keeps occuring over and over again in my mind: mountains are important to God! In scripture, specifically the Old Testament, God’s very presence descended upon Mt. Sinai so that he could be known to the Israelites. In fact, Moses spent 40 days on the top of Sinai receiving the commandments. The book of Isaiah says that God’s people are called to pray at God’s holy mountain. In the new testament, Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well. She talked with God’s own son about which mountain she should pray at; the Jews prayed in Jerusalem but the Samaritans prayed at a different mountain. Mountains are symbolic of God because of how immense and infinite they seem. The biggest mountains dwarf us when we stand at their feet. They seem to bridge the gap between terra firma and heaven itself. Whenever I’ve been in the Rockies, I have been aware of my insignificance in comparison to something that seems immutable.
As I write this, my new friend is summiting Denali. I am amazed that in the pursuit of triumph he voluntarily risks his life. He has at times sacrificed his health and even a few toes in the reckless pursit of his goals. I am awed by his fortitude and persistence. At the same time, I can’t help but believe that this is what God requires of us all…that we would seek him so ardently, so passionately that everything else would seem as unimportant as ashes from a fire…that we would ruthlessly chase him above all else and that we would risk it all just to see his face.
We are promised that if we seek him, we will indeed find him. And, when we find him, all of the trivialities in life will pale in comparison to the beauty, joy, and contentment that he offers. God is like a mountain. He is mighty and can not be tamed yet, he seeks communion, relationship with us. King David said it best, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” As I write this I pray for the success of this man. I am also reminded of who God really is and how I need to live my life. I need to work so hard that I leave it all on the mountain, because life is too short to leave any effort unspent.