Mountains & Slavery
It was sometime between dawn and dusk. To be honest, the night and day blended together in a frozen, windy, and wet flurry. Time seemed to stand still, due in part to the fact that I kept losing my phone in my sleeping bag; our only clock. What added to the confusion was that we would fall asleep for short bursts but wake up thinking a longer chunk of time had passed than had actually went by; 30 minutes felt like 4 hours. Time droned on. It was definitely the most miserable night of Levi and Seth’s life. It was certainly on my top 10 list for miserable experiences.
We were together, dad and sons, sleeping in a tent on glacier ice at 7000’. Sometime during the night we started to hear movement outside our tent. We weren’t certain what it was at first. The mind plays tricks on you when you’re trapped in a small tent, confronted with the sounds of the natural world outside doing what it does every night. As our sense of sight dulled, our sense of hearing and imagination became acute. What may have been a small mouse quickly became a mountain lion in our minds. The sound of the wind blowing someone’s stove over was for certain a bear rummaging through the camp in our tired and tormented imaginations.
Then came the terrifying assault. The scratching on the tent. The pitter patter of small feet searching for a way in. They were coming and we had no way of stopping it. The initial uncertainty of the source of sound became very clear in a moment. In the dull light of sunset (or sunrise for all we knew) we saw the shadow of a small creature walk across our tent and stop just above our tireless heads. Rodents!
The boys and I laid motionless, not certain what to do. I could not believe that, on top of the already miserable conditions we found ourselves in, I would have to battle an onslaught of large mice or small rats in a desperate search for a way into our tent for food scraps. I’ve heard stories that they will chew through tents and sleeping bags in their search for the tasty morsels we unwittingly provide. The last thing I needed for better sleep was the fear of waking up to one of these little tyrants running across my face. I looked over at the boys. They looked at me as if to say, “Dad, this is normal right?” As the rodent sat on the tent and pondered its next move in the game we found ourselves, I could only think of one thing to do. I thought to myself, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” and punched the shadow of the unsuspecting body as hard as I could and launched it clear across the glacier. The boys looked at me stunned for a quick second, unsure of how to respond. As the initial shock of the act wore off we all started laughing hysterically. We laughed for at least 10 minutes. Maybe it was 1 minute. Who knows? I still couldn’t find my phone.
We sat there as the laughing died down and joked about what must have been going through the mind of that critter as it was launched off the tent. We wondered if we would find it the next morning frozen on the glacier. Did it enjoy the ride? Does it think it knows how to fly now? If given the choice, would it climb back up on the tent and wait for the next ride on the Dad Cannon Ball Express? Laughing felt good. It gave us reprieve from our misery. We all settled down to try and sleep again.
Then we heard the sound again. The tiny feet searching and climbing. This time, instead of dreaded fear of the unknown, we waited in wide eyed anticipation to see the shadow of the small body on top of the tent come into view. It did. Again, I reacted. Another rodent launched. More laughter. We played this game all night and into the morning. What could have easily led to more misery and frustration became the best thing that happened to us in the moment. God-ordained entertainment for a miserable group of guys in a tent by helping us teach rodents to fly.
For the record, there wasn’t a slew of tiny frozen bodies strewn about the glacier the next morning. It may have even been one critter coming back repeatedly because he enjoyed the ride. We will never know. I’m convinced God ordained this epic game of reverse whack-a-mole half a dozen times throughout the night for our joy. It was really funny!
There was a specific reason why we were sleeping on a glacier and also why our misery was appropriate. We had joined a team of climbers who set their sights on climbing Mt. Baker in Northern Washington State. While the summit was the goal for most of the dozen people on the climb, the true prize was the money being raised to rescue women and children out of the sex trade. The idea that an injustice like human trafficking, particularly sexual slavery, could exist in this world drove us all to be there. The group we were with was Climb for Captives and they have a motto for climbs like this. “Do what you love to fight what you hate.” There is nothing I hate more than the fact that we live in a world where women and children are enslaved and sexually exploited.
I’ve had the honor of being on a number of mountains with the Climb for Captives team over the years. Most of the times there are moments of misery. On one particular instance, we were doing a winter climb of Mt. Whitney in California. We had a film production crew with us recording a TV show pilot based on philanthropic adventures. I’ve been known as the guy who hangs back in the pack and makes sure everyone gets to where they need to be. The reality is, I’m usually the slowest climber and being in the back is a great spot for me to set my own pace and enjoy the incredible sights mountains have to offer. From base camp at 11,000’, we opted to start our summit push later in the day as opposed to the typical midnight assent through the dark. Daylight climbs lent themselves to better camera shots. Instead of summiting at sunrise, we ended up summiting just prior to sunset. This was one of the most incredible sunsets I had ever experienced. Seeing a sunset on a clear day at 14,500’ is a sight to behold!
I took up the rear as we made our way off the summit and was joined by one of the production crew on my way down. His name was Mike. We took our time down climbing since this was his first time on a mountain. To this day I’m impressed by these film crew folk who chose to attempt a winter climb of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states with cameras, sound gear and batteries in tow. What a bunch of studs!
Since our pace was slow, Mike and I soon found ourselves the last two on the upper mountain as the sun went down. I radioed everyone else who was at base camp that Mike and I were going to be in eventually but may be a couple hours behind the pack. If I’m honest, it wasn’t the best spot to be in. While I don’t mind climbing up in the dark, I know that most accidents on the mountain happen when people descend. This coupled with the fact that it was now dark, icy and I was responsible for a guy without much mountain experience made for a stressful time.
I reassured Mike we were just on a leisurely walk and would be back down in short order. I encouraged him to focus on one step at a time. I talked his ear off and asked him a ton of questions to keep his mind from wondering into dark places. Regardless of all my attempts, the tension was palpable. We arrived to a spot in the climb where every step counted. It was icy and there was a significant risk that, if we were to stumble, we would fall a considerable distance which would most likely end in our demise. We walked slowly. I continued to ask questions but didn’t really listen to the responses. I radioed base camp to let them know where we were. The response was a short, “Be safe and let us know when you’re through it.”
At this point we were both quiet. The only sound that could be heard was the crunch of snow and ice under our crampons as we deliberately walked slowly down the mountain. Out of nowhere I heard the crack of the radio mounted to my shoulder strap. It was the voice of a girl with a thick Indian accent. It was difficult to understand what she said at first. Both Mike and I listened intently to the transmission as our brains tried to catch-up with what our ears were hearing. When I realized what she was saying, and connected the dots as to who she was, I broke down and cried. This was a recording of a girl rescued from sexual slavery in one of the many safe houses we were raising money to support as we climbed. She read a Psalm out of the Bible that spoke about God’s protection and saving grace. A Psalm of hope.
Mike had no context for what was happening and asked who it was that spoke on the radio since he knew that there was no one waiting back at base camp that matched the voice we had just heard. Through tears all I could say was, “She’s the reason we’re here on this mountain right now.” That little girl was the reason why we suffered. We had a choice to suffer. We could have turned around at any point on the climb up. At most, our suffering would be momentarily. For these kids stuck in slavery, they don’t get to walk away. Their suffering is measured in years, not days like ours. We get to do what we love to fight what we hate. In doing so, we get to participate in God’s plan of hope for these kids. I can’t image a greater reason to spend my life.
As Levi, Seth and I suffered in a tent with sleeplessness, rodents, rain, bitter cold and wind I reminded them why we were there. We talked about what we would do if it was their sister who was caught in slavery. I’m proud to say that both my sons had a moment where they voiced their choice to suffer whatever it took on behalf of those who can’t fight for themselves. Those boys are warriors. They are princes in God’s Kingdom. Their hearts beat to the same rhythm of God their Father and I’m proud to have children who would choose to stand in the gap for those who can’t defend themselves.
I’m reminded of a quote by Francis of Assisi. “Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received - fading symbols of honor, trappings of power - but only what you have given: a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.”
I pray we never forget that there is joy to be found in suffering. A joy that can only be found in shared suffering with others, even if we hardly know the ones we’re suffering for. I hope my children learn to spend their lives in a worthy manner. I pray their hearts always beat to the rhythm of God their Father. I hope we all have, “… full hearts enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.” I also hope to remember that we serve a God who has a sense of humor and may use critters to make us laugh. I’m grateful for that!