I know I asked God for a life of adventure and wonder but as I hang from one arm, legs dangling, with nothing stopping my 2000’ fall but a very suspect rope and one inch of my ice axe desperately grasping a frozen vertical wall, I never fathomed this was what that life would entail. What am I doing here? I have never felt more like a very cold spider dangling precariously from its string as the God of the universe decided to either let go or once again show mercy. To be honest, I’m so tired at this point, for a fleeting moment death feels like a welcome reprieve from the 9 more hours it would take to get back to the car. Not to mention the 10 hours of climbing and exposure it took to get here.
“Lord, I can’t do this. I don’t have what it takes.”
“Yes, you can. Get back on the wall. Make your next move.”
Two weeks prior, in early February 2015, I had received a phone call from a good friend of mine, Travis. He invited me to go rock climbing at a gym in Everett, WA. Travis is a strong guy and an accomplished climber. Just being around him brings up these feelings of inadequacy. I never want to be the one that holds people back from their potential and I feel I’m always holding him back. He has graciously brought me along on many adventures in the mountains. I’ve trusted Travis with my life, and he has done the same with me on multiple occasions. I consider him a true brother.
I met Travis at the gym that day to spend time with my brother. After a couple hours climbing I was pretty much physically spent. In true Travis form, he convinced me that I had one more climb left. How could I say no? I roped in as Travis set up the belay. Halfway up the wall my hands, forearms and legs started to all cramp at once. A true sign that the day is over, or so I thought. As I let go of the wall and put my full weight on the rope Travis held at the other end, it was evident that I wanted to come down.
“Alright man, I think that’s it for me. Bring me down.”
“You’re not done. Get back on the wall.”
“No, seriously dude. I’m cramping. I can’t grip the holds. I’m done.”
“Use your legs then. You’re not done. Get back on the wall and make a move.”
I sat there dangling from the rope debating my options. I could sit there and try to out-wait Travis. The problem is he’s as stubborn as me. I could pretend to climb with the hope that eventually he would realize the extent of my exhaustion and let me down. Or, I could get back on the wall and try to make my next move.
I got back on the wall and made another move, putting me a couple feet above where I was previously. Travis took up the slack in the rope. I let go of the wall again and sat in the harness, dangling from the rope.
“Sorry man, I just don’t have any gas left.”
“Get back on the wall and make another move. You’re done when you get to the top.”
“I’m done now. Let me down.”
“You’re done when I say you’re done.”
Now I was mad!
Who does this guy think he is? I’m a grown man. I know my limits. I looked down to see Travis’ grin and realized he was the puppet master and I was on the other end of that string. I was not getting off this wall until I got to the top. So, I made another move, gained another foot, and he pulled up the slack in the rope again. We played this game back and forth and a few minutes later I found myself at the top. Travis belayed me down.
With a smile (and hopefully a bit of nervousness that I would take a swing at him) he proclaimed, “I knew you had it in you.”
A couple weeks after that, Travis, his friend Justin, and I attempted a winter summit of Mt. Baker via the Northridge route. Mt. Baker is not known as a difficult mountain to summit, but any and every mountain has difficult routes and I was soon to learn how difficult the Northridge of Baker can be.
The first day to base camp was pretty typical. Heavy packs and the slow grind through trees and onto the glacier. It’s like a typical hike in the woods, only much heavier. The sounds changed the moment we stepped through the tree line and onto the glacier. Down low the birds chirped and the chipmunks barked in a feeble attempt to defend their territory from the gigantic, panting invaders. The sounds of wind through the trees and running water were replaced by the unchecked howl of wind flying past us on its way to assault the trees down below. The unmistakable crunch of snow and ice under foot as we walked up a frozen desert. After setting up base camp and melting snow for water and dinner the three of us, firmly packed into a small tent, struggled to sleep for a few hours only to wake at 1:00 a.m. and begin our ascent.
We proceeded to cross the Coleman Glacier in order to set-up our approach of the Northridge. It was a beautiful walk at night with the only sounds being the constant crunch of ice beneath the crampons on our boots and the occasional release of some large chunk of ice or rock from the mountain above us. We passed by a house-sized block of ice that had recently fallen. It didn’t seem that big when we had seen it from a distance the day before. Yesterday it hadn’t been worth discussing. Now, as we slowly walked near the block, the enormity of the moment and realization that, had we been there when it fell we would not have survived, was both awesome and sobering.
Glaciers are very interesting places. I think of them as awe-inspiring, icy minefields. One defining feature of every glacier is a network of crevasses. What makes a winter ascent tricky is that these crevasses are covered with snow so you’re never really sure if you’re walking over a massive, cavernous hole in the ice. The hope is that the crevasses are covered with sufficient snow to support a few people walking slowly across them.
We fell into a relatively easy pace for the next couple hours as we walked, each step illuminated only by the lights from our headlamps. All that could be seen were the fresh steps of the man in front of me and what fell within the diminishing range of our lights. In an instant, and before I knew what had happened, I found myself buried up to my hips, feet dangling over a hidden crevasse below me. The moment before the step there had been an unconscious assumption that the next step would end the same way the previous had, on solid snow. Travis and Justin immediately fell to the ground in an attempt to stop my potential fall deeper into the crevasse. We had no idea how big the hole was, how deep it went or how long the bridge would hold me. This is the ever-present risk in mountaineering and the even larger risk of being the biggest guy on the rope. Talk about nerve wracking. You never really know if the next step you take is going to support you. You also don’t know if the cavern you’re walking over is narrow enough to catch your foot or large enough to swallow you whole. It seemed like an eternity dangling there but by God’s grace I was able to self-extract out of the hole fairly quickly and we continued on. The easy walking took its toll in wracked nerves.
Once across the glacier we began a grueling climb. By grueling, I mean kicking our own steps into the ice and using two ice axes on sustained 45-degree ice slopes. To give some context, the stairs in most homes are 30 - 35 degrees. Imagine a 2000’ high sheet of ice steeper than your staircase and you’ll get an idea of how exposed we were. No place to rest. Nerves continued to be on edge as I thought about every step and ice axe placement. Just stopping to take a drink of water seemed precarious. This lasted 8 hours and ended at a 100-foot vertical ice wall 1000’ from the summit. I was anchored into the ice wall with Travis in front of me and Justin behind. I was absolutely spent and I could imagine they felt similarly. This is why we took this route right? To get some solid ice climbing in. The wind started to howl and I began to freeze. Travis looked over at me.
“You’re going to belay me as I climb this thing. You won’t be able to hear me or see me in a second so pay attention to the rope. When I get to the top and set-up another anchor I’ll tug the rope three times. When you feel the tug, take me off belay and start climbing. I’ll cover you from the top. Stay sharp, our lives depend on it. You got all that?”
“I hear you Trav. Be careful.”
Travis proceeded to disappear around a vertical, icy corner. I have a picture I sometimes use as a screensaver on my computer of the moment right before Travis left our view. If you didn’t know the story, the picture seems fairly plain. You would never know that below us was more than 2,000 vertical feet of air and ice. For what seemed like an eternity, I stared at the belay device and paid rope out to Travis. All three of us anchored together on that rope, held to the mountain by a few unimpressive ice screws. We were all in this together. Falling was not an option.
After about 30 minutes I felt three tugs on the rope. Travis made it to the top. Praise God!
At this point the sun had risen on the other side of the mountain. There was light but not direct enough to warm us as we hung, anchored to that sheet of ice. It was cold! Knowing that Travis had me on belay, I began to prep myself to climb up to him somewhere above me. Just as I was taking the two ice screws that had been my anchors out of the ice Justin called over to me. He couldn’t feel his hands or feet. He was well on his way to frostbite and things would get exponentially worse if he sat still while I climbed the ice pitch. He informed me he was coming with me. He also asked me to pull all the ice screws out as I passed them because his hands were in a bad way. So, Justin and I climbed together and I pulled out all our protection as I passed it. It was risky, but the right choice.
In these types of situations, I’m really focused. I become acutely aware of everything going on around me. It’s almost like a ballet of movement. Left axe planted above my head, weight the axe. Kick my left foot into the ice followed by my right foot creating a triangle between my two feet and my left axe. Stand tall on my feet and repeat the sequence with my right axe. Plant, kick, kick, stand. Plant, kick, kick, stand. Over and over again.
My happy place is in this spot; the shattering sound of an ice axe punching into the ice; the sound of the wind as it whips up snow into your face. The silence otherwise. My wife thinks I’m crazy. Mid-climb, I stood up on my crampons and took a swing with my left ice axe. The ice shattered like glass as it always does but this time I could see that it had shattered in a compromised way and would fall when I put weight on it. I called down to Justin to make sure he knew ice was soon coming his way. As the ice fell he was able to dodge the chunks and by God’s grace none of it was caught up on the rope as it fell the 2000’ to its final resting place on the glacier we crossed earlier that morning. I took a deep breath and relaxed knowing we had dodged a potentially lethal situation. As I swung the left axe a second time what happened next is still a slow-motion blur in my memory. Instead of the solid thud of the axe penetrating the ice, the axe skipped off the ice and simultaneously both my foot holds failed. In an instant, I found myself dangling from one arm with about an inch of one axe-tip in the ice.
First came the desire to panic. Just for a second. It felt cold like the blood had been drained from my body. Then came the acute focus. Everything was quiet and I started to have this very quick conversation in my mind.
“Lord, I can’t do this. I don’t have what it takes.”
“Yes, you can. Get back on the wall. Make your next move.”
“No, seriously God. I’m exhausted. I can’t do this. I’m done.”
“You’re not done. Get back on the wall and make another move.”
This was a very familiar conversation. It was also no coincidence that Travis was on the other end of the rope that we were all attached to. A flood of memories with Travis and me in the gym two weeks prior assaulted my mind as I got my footing back and placed my left axe in the ice. It stuck this time and before I knew it I was anchored in relative safety next to Travis.
I would love to say that it was easy after that experience but that would be far from the truth. The reality is that the exhaustion, stress and mental fatigue took its toll to the point that I started to mentally breakdown. Shortly after we had summited the mountain and began our descent I started hearing things. A few months prior I had been climbing Mt. Whitney with another group of guys. During that climb, my wife had recorded my daughter singing me a song about how much she loved me and texted the video to me.
“I love you more than kisses and hugs, la-la-la-la, lala-la-la-la. I love you more than kisses and hugs. I love you more than ice cream cones. I love you more than strawberry ice cream, la-la-la-la, lala-la-la-la. I love you more than all these thingggggsssss!”
I can still hear the song as I write this. It was such an encouragement to me to hear that song while on Mt. Whitney. However, as we descended Mt. Baker, I starting hearing the song again. My body was physically spent and my mind was playing tricks on me. At the time I didn’t realize what was happening. I frantically started looking for my daughter on the mountain. I couldn’t understand why she was up there with us and was adamant we needed to get her on the rope so she would be safe if she fell through a crevasse. A few minutes later I realized I was just hearing the song in my head.
That was a really scary place to be for the next 9 hours. In due time I found myself back at the car in the parking lot. I had never felt so exhausted in all my life.
Why does this story matter you might ask? In God’s providence, He had prepared me for the future eventualities I couldn’t even begin to comprehend at the time. In God’s sovereignty, He displayed His supreme power and authority to work for good the trials that I was to be faced with. I had reached my breaking point on that mountain, but God was there. He was holding the rope. He didn’t let me give up. He would see to it that, on this occasion I would make it home. Never was there a time when He was surprised by my circumstance. In fact, He had prepared me for this moment two weeks prior when Travis and I climbed in the gym. The same guy was holding the rope. The same script was playing through my head. Except, instead of it being Travis’s patronizing voice, it was God’s encouraging voice that got me up and over that mountain. How can we even begin to comprehend God’s goodness? How can we ever wonder if He’s there or if He cares? How, in the midst of our experience could we wonder if He loves us?
We can trust the sovereign, providential hand of God to do only good to us, even in the midst of our suffering. What I know is that, even though God may be silent, He is always there. His blessing, favor and presence are not a result of where I am or what situations I find myself in. His blessing, favor and presence just are. I don’t claim to understand God’s plan. I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment of clarity in my life when it comes to what the future holds. What I do know is that God is good, He is sovereign over all things and my hope and trust are in Him alone.
The icing on the top of my Mt. Baker story happened in January of 2016, about a year after the climb. I was on my way to meet with someone at a coffee shop. As I was driving I was praying for the guy I was meeting with, something I often do when driving to appointments. For some reason, I felt as if God asked me why I didn’t pray in tongues like I used to when I was younger. If you’ve never heard of praying in tongues it can seem like a weird thing. The Bible talks about different spiritual gifts that God gives His people and tongues is on the list. This isn’t a discourse on the legitimacy of tongues or how and when it should be used. I hadn’t prayed in tongues in years because it honestly seemed like gibberish and not very useful. It’s not that I don’t believe in the gift, I just felt I didn’t know enough about it or felt as if it caused more confusion than was helpful in moments of prayer. Regardless, I hadn’t prayed like that in a long time. My response to what I felt was God’s question to me was basically what I just wrote above.
“Lord, you know my heart, and when I speak in tongues I don’t feel like I’m saying anything. It would be nice if I knew what I was saying, if anything.”
I showed up to the coffee shop for my appointment and the guy was a no-show. Well, now I had time to get some work done at least. As I drank my coffee and pulled out my laptop I felt like God asked me the question again.
“Lord, I don’t even remember what I used to say.”
In an instant it all came back. I wrote the words down phonetically as best I could so I wouldn’t forget. Then the thought occurred to me. What if the words are actually words? What if it’s a real language and not just gibberish? It’s conceivable, right? I have the internet, right? Why don’t I take a couple minutes and type these into the search engine and see what pops out? Little did I know what I would find.
It took me a bit but here’s what I found. The words are Shalah Sadu Yah Abba Kannah. Each one of them are languages used in the Bible.
Shalah (Hebrew): to be at rest, prosper, be quiet, be at ease.
Sadu (Hebrew/Assyrian): word for mountain.
Yah (Hebrew): the name of God.
Abba (Syrian): word for Father used by Jesus.
Kannah / Elqunah (Hebrew): This one could mean a number of things. It could be the word that describes roots or the support of a tree. It can also mean jealous. The word Elqanah means that God has taken possession of, He has created, He has redeemed.
By no means do I know anything about the Hebrew language other than what I learned on the internet. However, my best guess to a rough translation would be as follows.
Be quiet and be at peace. The God of the mountain, your father holds you in His hand. He has purchased and redeemed your life. You belong to Him and He is your root. He is jealous for you.
Are you kidding me? Is this for real? He had been speaking this to and through me for decades and in that moment chose to show me what it meant. His words are true. He was the one holding me in His hand. I have nothing to fear. He’s my Father and He spoke that mountain into existence.
I sat at the coffee shop starring at my laptop, in tears and full of wonder. What an amazing God I serve that would speak to me so clearly at moments like these. If what He says is true then I don’t belong to myself, I’m His. That changes everything. But I get ahead of myself. There’s been evidence of this my whole life. What’s your story of God’s sovereignty and God’s providence? When was it evident that God was working things on your behalf? When were you being prepared for something that God knew you were going to be going through? What is God preparing you for now?
You might be in the midst of hell right now. Trust Him in the process. Your story is not over yet. He will get you through!