In Praise of Climbing Mountains

“So there I was,” halfway up a frozen headwall, skis slung over my shoulder, praying the 40 mph winds don’t throw me off balance enough to send me sliding into the heap of jagged boulders far below and over the precipice. My partner was below me somewhere, I hoped, trudging up the same slope toward the small ledge that promised a modicum of shelter. The snow washed past my headlamp, rendering any sight of him impossible, and the wind quickly engulfed my calls. We were all alone, together, working toward a goal that could certainly get the better of us.

“Why climb?” That question has been asked of everyone who goes vertical more than once. George Mallory famously responded, “Because it’s there…”; a seemingly flippant reply from a man who would eventually end his climbing days forever on the side of Mt. Everest. In reality, that was the only response he could muster for those who had no experience of what he did. Why take the risk? Why choose misery over comfort? Why push yourself to such limits when it could end so badly? Because, once you’ve been there, you’re fundamentally changed.

I’m not George Mallory. I rarely don boots and ax these days at all. My days are filled with the much more mundane and ill-defined challenge of being a decent husband and father. I often wish my obstacles and goals were as clear in my daily life as they are on the mountain. Surely, this is why mountains are such a favored metaphor. And yes, I crave adventure. Not like some adrenaline junkie in search of another fix, but as a human who wants to explore, to grow, and to take in all there is to see while I’m here to see it. I hear the hedonism in that statement. I am the first to acknowledge that the dirtbag lifestyle of living out of a van and seeking adventure can be a selfish endeavor. But so is risk avoidance.

I’m not aware of any Bible translation that has Christ telling us to go climb a mountain. There are many instances, though, where people are rebuked for coveting safety and security. The wicked servant buried his master’s coins because he was afraid to invest it, and would-be followers are rebuked for putting their affairs in order before seeking Christ. We are warned about building bigger storehouses for grain and collecting treasures on earth rather than in heaven. Consider the lilies of the field! It all seems like hyperbole in a world of misadventure aimed at increasing personal safety and security. Risk has been defined as “the potential to lose something of value,” and I think a life of comfort puts us at risk of losing something immeasurable.

Neuroscientists tell us that our brains are wired for adventure, that we need to explore and discover to reach our full potential. If God has created our desires, as John Piper says, then that drive for adventure is His fingerprint, warning us to never settle. Before I spent a night in -25 degree weather in northern Minnesota, I didn’t know what cold was. Now, I can’t fathom how generations have endured it. Until I ventured to Guatemala with my one-year old little girl and watched the Mayan women cradle her as their children gathered around, I didn’t know hospitality. My Lonely Planet guide assured me the locals would mug and rob me.

Never have I been more humbled than when adventuring. It has shaped me powerfully. Keep death always before your eyes, says Saint Benedict. Remember you are mortal, finite, vulnerable. Your time here is short and your treasures will fade. Life is a wondrous gift and woeful burden. There is much to lose and much to gain. What a shame to waste it, never climbing a mountain.

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