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Climb Every Mountain?

April 14, 2012

Last Saturday at 8 AM, my son, daughter and I shouldered backpacks and embarked on a hike up Mt. Marcy, the tallest mountain in the Adirondacks. We followed a well-marked and heavily trafficked path that led through creek beds and dense forest. The majority of the route was covered with snow, and a step from the firmly-packed center to its shoulder caused one to stumble into knee-deep drifts.

This hike was fifteen miles long, and we had read that the average time needed to accomplish it is nine hours. We hoped to better the average, and we started off at a brisk pace.

The first hour was great, at least for me. My daily half-hour stint on the Nordic Track machine paid rich dividends, as I scooted ahead of the kids. “This is awesome,” I called back. “This hiking thing is just like using the cross-country ski machine. I’ve got the rhythm!” I glanced back and imagined I caught a look of admiration on my daughter’s face as her old man pushed forward.

The second hour was awful. The trail’s rate of ascent increased dramatically, and my old ticker labored to keep up. The kids surged past me. “No, no,” I panted. “Don’t wait for me… I’m… right… behind… you…”

Fortunately, my second (or third or fourth) wind kicked in around the three hour mark, and I fell into a steady, upwardly mobile pace. I wasn’t leading the charge up the hill, but at least I was dragging down the rear.

A few days after making this climb, by a strange stroke of fate, I encountered a statement concerning mountain climbers. It was in a book entitled The Upside of Irrationality, and it was located in a section addressing those factors that motivate people to do the things they do. That statement went something like this: After speaking with many mountain climbers, a researcher had determined that, in the majority of cases, the act of climbing a mountain was an experience of continuous misery.

What? I paused my reading when I encountered this statement. My recent experience argued so strongly against it. That first hour had been fabulous! Okay, granted, the second through the seventh hour were misery, but, still… is it right to generalize?

So, mused the author, what was it that drove people to climb those mountains? What were the benefits that made the agony worth the bearing?

Again, I paused my reading, certain I could answer this question. The answer was the summit. The summit had made it all worthwhile.

Three and a half hours of slogging brought us to the crest of a hill. We emerged from the trees and saw before us the final ascent that would lead us to the summit. Feeling a surge of energy, we pushed forward and clambered over ice-covered rocks. The wind whipped at our faces, and our noses and cheeks reddened as we strove for the summit.

And then we were there, at the top! The highest point in New York, reached, summited, attained… and… and… we were freezing.

We took a few pictures, looked around at the spectacular view, and then said, in unison, “Let’s get out of here.” And down we went.

Really? That was it? Did I really think that the goal, the driving force, for climbing the mountain was the conquering of the summit? I shook my head and resumed my reading.

The author continued his discussion by observing that, ultimately, it was the sense of accomplishment, the completion of the climb, that filled the climbers with great satisfaction. That, and the bragging rights during the next holiday dinner.

Ah, now this made sense to me. Yes, there was a certain satisfaction in reaching the summit. But the moment, we left the summit, we realized afresh that we had another three and a half hours to hike before we could ease into our car and drive home. The journey was only half over. And if we thought that the trip down the hill would be substantially easier than the trip up, we were soon disabused of that notion. Our knees and ankles began to ache they absorbed the shock of our downward walk.

The absolute worst hour of the hike, for me? That was the last hour. I kept thinking I saw parked cars through the distant trees, and I would push forward toward them, only to discover that I had been fooled by yet another pile of snow. Painful. Very painful.

And the best moment of the hike, for me? The moment we reached the car and collapsed into our seats, the journey done. Finished. Not another step needed. What a great moment.

The climb up a mountain has often been used as a metaphor, and it can certainly serve as a metaphor for life. I had a lot of time to ponder that notion as I climbed Mt. Marcy, and I came to a surprising conclusion. If, indeed, a climb up a mountain can serve as a metaphor for one’s life, it is most interesting to note how rarely the end of one’s hike coincides with the reaching of the summit.

Yes, reaching the summit is a glorious moment, and, yes, that is the goal that drives the hiker forward, but that moment is only a small part of the hike and is, generally, surrounded by long periods of monotonous effort.

In life, thinking particularly of the spiritual life, I tend to think in terms of summits. I look forward to those monumental moments of spiritual closeness to God, or to those moments when years of spiritual labors will burst forth in fruits for God’s glory. Oh, yeah, I long for those moments and dream of them, and I keep pushing forward toward them.

But the summits are not the entirety, nor the ultimate destination, of the journey. Few die on the crest of the summit, expiring in a burst of glory and they plant the flag of accomplishment.

No, most of us are forced to descend from the summits of our lives, endeavoring to gracefully make our ways to the exit points.

But need this be discouraging? (And this is, oddly enough, where I’ve been headed all along.)

No, we need not be discouraged. We can take satisfaction in the accomplishment of the journey and the certain knowledge that we have walked the path.

At the next holiday dinner with our extended family, perhaps the topic of climbing Mt. Marcy will arise. (I’ll probably try to raise the issue subtly, just for the fun of gloating in our accomplishment.) And there will be a real difference in satisfaction between those of us who say, “Yep, done that,” and those who say, “I’ve thought of doing that.”

In my life, if the Lord grants that I should live into my seventies or eighties, I do not want to be one who says, “I’ve thought of doing that.” I want to be one who says, “Yep, done that.” Maybe I won’t have done it perfectly, and maybe I won’t have climbed the biggest mountains out there, but I want to have the satisfaction of knowing that I have climbed the mountains God set before me and slogged the trails He placed beneath my feet.

What mountains has He set before you?



  • 7 Truths About Encouragement I Learned from the Gym. This article grabbed my attention because it synched with another book I have been reading. That book – The Upside of Irrationality – explores,  through data gathered in social experiments, the extraordinary power of encouragement. Encouragement works, even when it is given in modest amounts. Anyhow, that led me to this article, and I found it a good reminder of some basic concepts:
  • Modern-Day Marcionism. This writer of this article wrote it in response to some very strange comments made publicly by “a Christian who is also an expert in ancient history.” He uses this example to make some interesting comparisons between current theological and sociological trends and those surrounding and infiltrating the pre-Nicean Church. As someone who enjoys reading church history, I appreciated the author’s attempt to reflect on the lessons of church history and apply them to our times. Read it at:

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