August 8, 2008
“On belay!” I shouted as I checked my climbing harness one last time. I took a deep breath and glanced down the steep cliff beneath my feet. One mistake here and this mountain would be my final resting place.
“Belay on,” replied my brother, David, from his perch about 50 feet farther up the face of the sheer rock wall.
It was a perfect morning for climbing. The late spring air was fresh and cool; winds were light. A totally clear, azure sky reflected off dozens of small, glacier-fed lakes scattered in the partially snow-covered valleys below as though the Creator had carefully wrapped a handful of precious sapphires in soft, white cotton and deposited them in this high alpine treasury for safe keeping. The Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho had never looked more beautiful.
I had looked forward to this adventure for weeks. I loved exploring this rugged wilderness area and had spent many days hiking the challenging trails. But this trip with my brother, four years my senior, would be special. David, an accomplished rock climber, was going to teach me some more technical aspects of the sport. The previous afternoon we had backpacked up to our base camp at a tiny, ice-covered pond a few hours’ hike from Redfish Lake. The next morning we donned our day packs and continued climbing. We had already negotiated a snow-filled, rock chimney when we came to the base of our objective, the steep, granite cliff that formed the back side of Mt. Heyburn. >From here we would be roped together for the remainder of the climb.
Rising 4,000 feet above Redfish Lake and the Salmon River valley, Mt. Heyburn is an imposing rock formation with towering, needle-like spires reaching toward the heavens. Visible for miles around it is perhaps the most notable landmark in the entire mountain range, and it has attracted rock climbing enthusiasts from all over the world. Now it had lured us to attempt to conquer its rugged beauty. David had already scampered up the first pitch while I braced myself against a rock and gradually fed the rope to him by passing it around my waist in a maneuver called belaying. In case he slipped I would be able to arrest his fall. Now it was my turn to follow him up the cliff while he belayed me.
“Climbing!” I shouted as I turned to face the mountain offering up a prayer for strong handholds and firm footing.
“Climb away,” David called back.
My heart began to pound so fast I thought it might bounce me right off the cliff. With equal amounts of excitement and fear I reached for a handhold and began to climb. After a few steps I started to relax and enjoy the exhilaration of scrambling up a sheer rock wall. Suddenly my right foot slipped out from underneath me while at the same time the handhold I had just reached for parted company with the mountain. In a moment of absolute terror I watched between my legs as several boulders shaken loose by my clumsiness bounced down the face of the cliff and shattered on the rocks far below.
“That could have been me!” I thought with increasing panic while dangling by one hand over the valley floor and what could be my untimely demise. But then I was calmed by the grateful remembrance that my brother was holding onto the other end of the rope. “My brother will not let me fall,” I reasoned to myself. “After all, what would he say to Mom if he allowed my body to be dashed to pieces on the rocks below?”
However, at precisely the moment of my nearly disastrous plunge into oblivion, David shouted down to me from his belaying perch above.
“Hey Bill, that’s a terrific pose. Hang tough a minute while I take your picture!”
The sense of calm that had returned to me vanished in an instant as I fearfully imagined how he could possibly hang onto the rope and take my picture at the same time. In a split second my brother went from being one of my heroes to occupying the top spot on my worth-a-life-sentence-for-murdering list.
It is fascinating to discover what goes through your mind during intense moments of extreme terror. I can still recall the following three philosophical truths born out of my near catastrophe:
1. Gravity is an equal opportunity employer!
2. Anyone who calls himself your brother, yet takes delight in your perilous predicament, is to be highly suspect and not worthy of your complete trust.
3. The thought that your final moment in this life might be caught on film is not terribly comforting.
I later found out that I was in little danger due to the fact that David had not only wrapped the rope tightly around his body but had also securely anchored himself to the rock with a series of pitons and nylon straps. Nothing but my pride was going to tumble off that mountain. We never did reach the summit that day, but we shared a glorious wilderness experience and created some wonderful memories. Well, most of them were wonderful.
Since then I have had many mountaintop experiences, most of which have been spiritual in nature. As I have spent many years climbing up the mountain of Christian maturity I have discovered several spiritual truths, most of which have come from pondering over my own missteps.
1. Although all are invited not everyone is allowed to climb. “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…” – Psalm 24:3-4. Sin is also an equal opportunity employer and falling is a constant peril. Of course, it helps to be related to the guide. “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” – John 1:12. “…So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” – Hebrews 2:11. Now here is a brother who will never delight in our missteps!
2. The way up the mountain is extremely treacherous. “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” – 1Corinthians 10:12. It pays to stay securely roped together with other believers. “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” – Philippians 2:2. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together…but let us encourage one another…” – Hebrews 10:24-25.
3. Make sure whoever you are roped together with is securely anchored to the “Rock.” Many are the stories of teams of climbers, roped together, who have fallen to their deaths because one climber’s misstep led to the subsequent fall of the rest of the team. Their pitons all came loose from the rock; their anchors did not hold. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock in whom I take refuge…my stronghold.” – Psalm 18:2. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure…” – Hebrews 6:19.
4. If you ever do slip there is no need to panic. “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.” – Psalm 37:23-24.
When the Lord says, “Belay on,” we know we can trust Him to hold us securely. And when He says “Climb away,” it is our invitation to do so without fear!
Bill, a child of God, still climbing