We had already been hiking for two hours and covered three miles with an elevation gain of over a thousand feet. Although I was already somewhat exhausted and light-headed from the altitude, I had no idea just how difficult this endeavor would prove to be. My nephew, Rich, and I were enjoying a day trip to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area just south of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We were attempting to climb to the summit of Mt. Toll. It wasn’t supposed to be all that challenging, or so we thought, just a few hours of mild adventure hiking in this beautiful wilderness. Mt. Toll had always intrigued me due to its distinctive shape (steep, rugged, with sheer cliffs on two sides) and its location directly on the continental divide. I had always anticipated that the view from the summit must be spectacular, hoping one day to see it for myself.
Stopping for lunch at Blue Lake, a picturesque alpine gem still partially frozen over in early July, we planned our route ahead and rested up for the most grueling part of our climb. We were already sitting at timberline, just above 11,000 feet. But our goal was almost 2,000 feet higher! Across the lake Mt. Toll rose above us like an armed sentry, rigid, unyielding, and equipped to repel any intruder. Its east face resembled a steeply sloped pyramid that had been sheered off leaving a near vertical precipice a thousand feet high. Our strategy was to climb to the base of the summit pyramid and then traverse around to the southern slope which was a longer trek, but far less steep and much less dangerous. What we didn’t count on was snow. The slopes above timberline were still buried in it. Apparently a harsh winter had made for a late snow melt. Adding to our difficulties, from this point on there would be no trail. We would have to blaze our own pathway scrambling over rocks, picking our way through patches of thick brush, and crossing perilous snowfields. Progress would be slow, hard fought, and even more exhausting.
By mid afternoon we had made our way to the base of the summit pyramid. We decided to head toward a rock chimney which was filled with snow and ice. If we could negotiate our way up the chimney we could save a great deal of time. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how steep the chimney truly was. After a few steps onto the ice we realized how dangerous of a predicament we were in. Without ice axes or rope we were at the mercy of the snow and ice. One slip and we could slide for a thousand feet only to be stopped by some jagged rocks, or worse, fall off a cliff. Reluctantly we worked our way back down losing valuable time in the process.
Returning to the route we had originally planned we soon discovered that it was also covered with snow and ice. This time of year a snowfield can be quite dangerous. With repeated daily freezing and thawing, the surface might look stable but could be hiding deep holes and cracks underneath waiting for the unwary hiker to fall in and break a limb. Unfortunately, the snow covered the entire southern slope almost to the summit. The only way forward from here was to climb up the steep, rocky ridge in between the snowfield to the left and the sheer cliff to the right. It was already 4:30 pm. I had originally said that wherever we were on the mountain, by 5:00 pm we needed to turn around and head back down. Perhaps we can extend that deadline to six o’clock and still make it down the mountain before it gets too dark, I thought. But we had no idea what still lay ahead for us.
The ridge was perilously steep and we were forced to use our hands as well as our feet to maneuver our way upward. This was not exactly the kind of adventure we were expecting. However, once we got started we realized it was actually less dangerous to continue climbing than it would be to go back down. Inch by inch, hand over hand, gasping for breath in the rarified air, we engineered our way up the final thousand feet to the summit.
The view from the top was indeed spectacular. To the east we could see all the way to downtown Denver and beyond. To the west we could see all the way to the setting sun. The setting sun!? Pulling my watch out of my pocket I gasped with unbelief at what it showed. It was 7:30 pm. We had maybe an hour and a half of daylight remaining.
“Let’s take a few pictures and get out of here!” I shouted above the wind which was blowing furiously at 13,000 feet. “We’ve got to get back down to the lake and find our trail before nine. Otherwise, we might be spending the night on this mountain.”
I knew that with darkness would come freezing temperatures, and the higher on the mountain we were, the colder it would get. With our light jackets we were ill equipped to bivouac for the night. We had to lose altitude, and fast! Our cell phones were useful only for taking pictures. We were some thirty miles away from anyplace with a decent signal assuring that calling for help would be futile. Everyone else that had been on the trails below had long since gone home. Other than God, we were the only ones left on the mountain.
By nightfall we were still a few hundred feet above the lake and a good mile away from the start of the trail. Rich fumbled around in his pack and eventually pulled out a flashlight which was sorely in need of fresh batteries. Still, it gave us some degree of illumination and allowed us to move on. The terrain was a glacial moraine, piles of rocks that were dumped by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age. Every step was treacherous. After reaching lake level we still had to traverse around the lake and find a way to ford the outlet stream on the far side. Swollen by snowmelt, the stream resembled more of a river than a creek. Finding a way across proved to be tricky and quite time consuming.
At last we arrived on the east side of Blue Lake near where we had eaten lunch many hours before. Unfortunately, with no moon and in pitch darkness, everything looked entirely different. With one dim flashlight we were unable to find the trail. Above timberline there is no way to blaze the trails. About every fifty yards or so, someone had piled up a small mound of rocks to mark the path. Okay, so we were in the middle of the Rocky Mountains looking for a pile of rocks, in the dark! For nearly an hour we crisscrossed the landscape hunting for a small pile of rocks, searching for the pathway that would lead us back to our car and home. Although I had been praying silently all the way down the mountain, in desperation I now called out to God with my full voice.
“Father, we need to find the trail. I know our families are worried sick about us and we’re still much too high up to think about spending the night. Please, Lord, help us find the way home!”
Within two minutes of my prayer we were back on the trail rejoicing in our merciful Father. We still had three miles of trail to hike in the dark, however, before we would get back to the trailhead where our car was parked. Holding the flashlight as high as I could above my head I was able to cast a dim light on the trail beneath our feet as well as see a short distance ahead. If I kept the light too low on our feet we would often wander off the trail. If I shined the light too far ahead we would often trip over rocks and tree roots. For two more hours we stumbled our way down the trail finally reaching our car by about 1:30 in the morning. We had been hiking for nearly fifteen hours. Exhausted doesn’t even begin to describe how we were feeling! We walked through the door of the home where we were staying in Colorado at 2:30 am to find our wives still anxiously waiting up for us. Yes, we were in trouble (I doubt if Rich and I will ever be allowed to go on another hike together), but thank God we were safe!
So what’s the point in my sharing this tale with you? I believe that God often speaks to us in our circumstances and I have definitely heard His voice over this experience. No, He didn’t speak to me about being better prepared or turning back before it gets too late. Those lessons were obvious. The message was all about faith, and I learned that faith is spelled r-i-s-k! God usually has a much higher goal in mind for us than we imagine. Often that goal will involve getting off the beaten path, moving away from the well worn trail that previous generations of Christ followers have carved out of the mountainside. Venturing off the established trail forces us to place our trust in God and not just rely on doing things the same way everyone else has done in the past. Without listening to God this is suicide. But if we are in tune with His Spirit, we will hear when He says “This is the way; climb up this slope.” “Go back; this way is too dangerous.” “Be careful; a trap lies here just below the surface.” “Don’t give up now; you have almost reached your goal.” “Hurry; you are running out of time.” “Talk to me; I can see what you cannot.” “Don’t be afraid of what lies ahead; my light will lead you home.”
“We live by faith, not by sight.” – 2Corinthians 5:7. If only that could be true every moment of every day! I have at least discovered what the Psalmist meant when he wrote: “Your word is a lamp to my feet (to keep me from stumbling) and a light for my path (to keep me from straying off the trail).” – Psalm 119:111.
Where would living by faith lead you? What summit would God have you reach for if you were willing to risk stepping off the familiar path? Remember, His goal for your life is likely much higher than you realize. Perhaps He has already been hinting at some new direction for your life but you have delayed stepping out for fear of the risks involved. Yes, blazing a new trail can be a lot more difficult, but it also can be a lot more fun. For my wife Babs and me, venturing off the established trail has meant walking away from the traditional church and becoming simple-church missionaries. It has been an adventure filled with many dangers, including physical (during our first year “off road” Babs was diagnosed with breast cancer), financial (most of our income no longer comes through ministry), and relational (we have experienced the loss of some Christian friends who have turned their backs on us and others who are convinced we have strayed from the faith). Yet I can honestly say it has been the most exciting, rewarding, and faith-building time of our lives—not to mention going beyond exhaustion! And through it all, thank God, He has kept us safe!
“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” – Romans 15:20. This Scripture has become a lot more meaningful to me these days. Being a trailblazer puts one in good company. The Apostle Paul knew more than most what it means to walk away from the established trail. But Jesus knows better than anyone. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” – Luke 9:23-24. The way of the cross is the way of faith, and the way of faith requires risking it all, even facing the terror that may be waiting for us on the mountain.
Bill, a child of God hiking off the established trail