Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mountain Climbing, Extreme Skiing, and the Art of Losing Everything, Part 3

Yesterday I mentioned that one false move while I was glissading would have meant almost instant death. It certainly wasn’t the first time I could have died on the alpine slopes.

When I was sixteen, my dad, brother and I decided to climb the western slope of Glacier Peak. It was our first climb up this particular mountain, but for three of our friends it was their first time ever mountain climbing.

A couple days earlier, my dad had dutifully explained all the rules about what to do and—more importantly—what not to do at high altitudes. One of my friends, Jeff, couldn’t have acted more bored. In his mind, some of the rules didn’t make sense. Like the rule about not resting on large boulders when you’re tired. “Don’t even go near them,” my dad had warned.

Two days later, after reaching the top of a particularly large snow field, Jeff went behind my dad’s back over to a car-sized boulder. All Jeff could think of was sitting down. Instead, he found himself falling headlong beneath eight feet of snow. We heard his cries, dug in the soft snow that had caved in above him, and with some difficulty used a rope to pull him back onto hard pack.

My dad was angry. “Jeff, what did I say about going near boulders? They’re a magnet for heat from the sun, melting the snow around them. Never go near one again. What if we didn’t hear you? The snow covered up almost all trace of where you went in. You could have died up here.”

The next day when we broke camp, Jeff was still stinging from my dad’s words. Carelessly, he didn’t securely tie his sleeping bag to the top of his backpack. A couple hours later we were walking along the top of a high ridge, drinking in the spectacular views in all directions, when Jeff’s sleeping bag fell off and dropped four hundred feet to our right.

“Go down and get the sleeping bag,” I told Jeff. “You have to get it. You’ll freeze to death up here tonight without it. Jeff, go down and get it now.”

He refused, so in my anger I grabbed my ice axe and started making my way down the steep slope. That coward, I thought. I’m never taking him mountain climbing again.

As I got close to Jeff’s sleeping bag, my heart almost stopped. It had snagged on the smallest of alpine trees on the edge of a sheer cliff that dropped hundreds of feet in front of me. I was so angry. That stupid Jeff. Now what am I going to do?

Get the sleeping bag, of course.

I gripped the snow with my left hand, swung my ice axe for all its worth, made sure it was secure, reached down, and pulled the sleeping bag from the edge of the cliff. Now, with no free hand to grip the snow, I had to swing the ice axe above my head, pray to God that it went into securely, pull myself up as best as I could, create as much friction as possible between my body and the slope, and swing the ice axe again, twelve to eighteen inches at a time, all the way back up to the top.

“There’s your stupid sleeping bag, Jeff.”

As if it mattered anymore.

My dad just stared at me in anger and disbelief. Earlier, he thought I would come to my senses, stop, and come back. But no, in defiance of every rule in the book, I deliberately risked my life.

In my brand-new book, If God Disappears (due out in stores by the first day of fall, September 22), the third chapter is called “Anything Goes.” In that chapter I ask: If you and I lack self-control, who’s in control of our thoughts, speech, and actions?

One option is we’re giving in to the desires of the nature we were born with. That nature’s passions and desires are anything but self-controlled.

Another option is we may be manipulated or controlled by the Devil. Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that the thief (Satan) comes only to steal, to kill, and to destroy. If we let Satan control us, he will rob us of everything that’s good in our lives. He will tempt us to take risky, dangerous, physically destructive, or suicidal actions that could kill us.

Believe me, I did some pretty stupid things as a young man. None of those actions, including glissading, were motivated by God.

Only by God’s grace did I live long enough to get married to Renée, let alone watch Steep with her in the comfort of our living room earlier this week.

You may not be given to mountain climbing or extreme skiing. But what’s your story?

When do you find it easy to cross the line from self-control and courage to recklessness and worse?

You can write to me (if confidential) or post a comment below (if you’re open to letting others read what you have to say).

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