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Climb Rainier for a little awe in life

Church Corner

A few weeks ago, I attempted to climb Mount Rainier with some friends. The operative word here is “attempted.” We all made it to base camp (Camp Schurman); a few made it further, but none reached the summit. Most important of all: everyone made it back to the car safe and sound. Funny how a little mountain climbing can bring perspective to your life.

On the first day of our adventure, we hiked out of White River Campground to Glacier Basin. From there we went up the Inter Glacier; picture in your mind a beautiful, tranquil snow-covered field – then tilt it on its side so that everyone has to hang on for dear life. Part way up the glacier, thunder and lightning arrived, but since it didn’t strike any of us directly, we decided to press on. Besides, someone else had the metal shovel strapped to his pack, so the odds were on my side.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached the rocky ridge that looked down on Camp Schurman. We were wiped out – I felt like someone had snuck a few concrete blocks into my pack on the way up the mountain. Where was a sherpa when you needed one? We decided to descend to the edge of the Emmons Glacier and make our way up to base camp. By this point, we were too tired to rope up (and too close to our destination). So we carefully followed the boot path along the Emmons, inching ever closer to camp.

Suddenly, our group came upon a small crevasse. I came to the edge and peered down into it. Big mistake. This is just a guess, but I would say it was 17,000 feet deep. Harsh blue ice that turned pitch black. Sure, it was only two feet across, but with a heavy pack and wobbly legs, it seemed like the arctic version of the Grand Canyon.

Time was running out, though, and there was no other way to camp. Up ahead, I could see other climbers safely at base camp, watching the rest of us finish our route – this was encouraging to me. (Later, however, I found out they were watching us and saying, “Those guys are idiots, they should really be roped up.”) So I backed up, took a running leap and threw my body across the chasm.

Unfortunately, just as I planted my foot to leap across, the snow under my foot collapsed – which led to a much shorter leap.

Instead of landing safely on the other side, I landed halfway in and halfway out – my upper body was on firm ground, but my legs were dangling down into the abyss.

In the midst of this “exciting” moment, I thought to myself, “This will make a great sermon illustration!” No, just kidding. My actual thoughts at the time are unprintable, at least in this newspaper. Luckily, my heavy pack weighed more on top, and I was able to leverage up and out of the bottomless void, finally arriving at Camp Schurman to everyone’s immense relief.

Why go through this kind of ordeal? Why suffer through a strenuous alpine climb, why risk bodily harm by jumping over crevasses or navigating crumbling rock ridges?

I have written before about the need for awe in our lives, a shared hunger we have for something bigger than ourselves. I think mountain climbing (at least for me) is an attempt to meet that need – to renew that sense of awe that gets lost so easily in our daily lives.

Along with awe, though, I also think we do these things in order to “lose control.” We spend so much time trying to control our environment – fluorescent lighting, air conditioning and gas heat, TV remotes, garage-door openers, indoor plumbing – we often forget the limits of that control.

When we go climbing above tree line, we quickly realize how little we really control in our world. We feel small, dwarfed by the geology around us, the scenery that goes on forever. The snow, the ice, the weather, the conditions – everything is out of our hands.

I think that is what draws me to the mountains – that sense of awe for sure, but also the reality check that I am not in control of the universe.

For me, being up in thin air reminds me that there is a creator behind this magnificent creation and that creator is the one who is in control.

What about you? What do you do, where do you go, to get your reality check?

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