We left on a rainy Friday afternoon from town. Our destination was Mt. St. Helens, the Cascade volcano that had destroyed much of itself in 1980. We had carefully packed our loads the night before trying to get the right balance of necessary equipment and weight. I have been known to cut labels off clothing in order to save weight. After watching it rain all day, we decided to try the mountain, much to the dismay and scoffing of our co-workers.
The rain continued unabated as we arrived at the climber's bivouac parking lot. The rain still came down as we strapped on our packs and began hiking up the trail. Our goal was to camp at treeline 1000 feet above and two miles away, in order to get an early start the next day. We wanted to be first on the summit. About halfway to timberline, the rain turned to snow and soon, we were enveloped by clouds.
When we arrived at our campsite, the wind and snow blew cold against our sweat-soaked clothing. Gore-Tex is not all it's cracked up to be. We set up our two-man tent to cram the three of us into it. We ate and drank to prepare for tomorrow's adventure. We didn't know if we would attack the mountain or the mountain would attack us.
The wind blew and the snow continued to come down during the night. None of us slept well at all. I never do. I always think of my family and how crazy I am to be away from them. Only if I can stay focused on the goal at hand can I actually proceed with it. At times, I have aborted climbing attempts because my thoughts were on my wife and children, not the summit.
Very early the next day, we "awaken" and get dressed. This always seems to take longer than expected. I felt only 15 to 20 minutes would be needed to get up, get dressed, and get moving, especially since we packed our loads last night. We take forty-five minutes to get going. We had decided the night before to ascend a very steep chute that paralleled the normal route.
Luckily for us, it was very foggy and very dark, so we couldn't see exactly how steep the chute was. The mist seemed to swallow up our voices as we talked, muting and subduing them. We gained a great deal of elevation in choosing this route, but expended massive amounts of energy. I remember thinking that I could hardly wait to get to the top of the chute because I was very hungry and my feet were cold. We could not stop in the chute because it was too steep and too dangerous. On the way up I had noticed large rocks lying on top of the snow, a sign that, during the warmer parts of the day, rocks fell down the chute. At the top of the chute, we had to step over a wide tension crack running across the snow. We had been traveling up an avalanche chute. Although we had realized this before, we hadn't really given it much thought due to the lateness of the season and the dry winter we had just had.
At the top of the chute, we stopped for breakfast on some rocks. I was so thirsty that I drank almost a quart of water. It was one of the most delicious drinks I have ever had. Breakfast consisted of a handful of hard candies, chocolate, and an oatmeal/fruit bar. I felt satisfied, but this satiated feeling was not to last. During our break, my feet warmed up. I was a little worried because when we had stopped my toes were numb. By the time breakfast was over, the sky was noticeably lighter and the sun had begun to rise.
As we continued upwards, we began to break through the clouds. What a glorious day! To the west we could see the shadow of the mountain cast upon the cloud deck below us. The higher we climbed, the clearer the sky became, and more we could see. Other volcanoes of the Cascade range stood out. Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson were visible to the south and soon, we could see Mt. Adams to the east. Above us we knew lay the crater rim, but we couldn't tell exactly where it was. The angle of the slope hid the abrupt end of our climb. Occasionally we would see chunks of snow blowing up over the rim of the crater.
We continued upwards, using the alpine techniques taught to us by mountaineering instructors on previous climbs. We would stop every thousand feet for a "calorie break" to get some food and water. One of the best things about climbing is that I can eat like a pig and not feel guilty.
St. Helens is a deceiving mountain. Although it is not rated as a "technical" mountain (meaning that it does not take a great deal of skill and equipment to climb), it does take much endurance. From the parking lot, it is over 4500 feet of elevation gain, with only 1000 feet of this being taking up by the first horizontal half of the climb. For this reason, many people come unprepared. Some turn back, some are successful, some require rescue, and some die.
Suddenly the climb ended. We linked arms and finished the last few feet together. On top we were treated to some of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen. Peering down into the crater we could see the lava dome, wispy steam streaming off it. Looking to the north we could see the crowing jewel of the Cascades, Mt. Rainier. Lenticular clouds had formed on the top, indicating that high winds were above us. We basked in the sun, resting from our journey. Below us we could see scores of people following our tracks up the slope. We drank and ate, knowing that our climb was really only half over.
As the first few climbers below us began to arrive, we loaded up and began the descent. As we passed our fellow climbers, we would try to offer encouraging words.
"Only a half-hour to the top!"
"See all those people? That's the crater rim."
"It's a beautiful view from the summit!"
"You'll be through these clouds in about a half-hour. It's totally clear on top!"
"It's windier here than it is at the rim"
After what seemed ages, we finally arrived at our timberline campsite. It was foggy and cold down here. As we packed up, it began to mist slightly. By the time we were at the parking lot, the rain had increased to a downpour. Tired, sunburned, and cold, we were glad that we were down. Despite my weariness, I had had an excellent time.
I climb to enjoy the wilderness that we have left. In that wilderness I can see God's creative hand and glory. Climbing to me is a metaphor for life in general, and the Christian life in particular. The Christian life can be compared to our climb up St. Helens. When we saw that the weather in town was not indicative of good weather on the mountain, we decided to go on. When we first become Christians, we must make a decision to go the route and count the cost. Sometimes our friends and family will scoff at our decision.
We also climbed as a group and stayed together to encourage and help each other. Traveling together in groups is important in our walks with God. Fellowship is necessary because we can encourage each other and teach each other the things we need to know to go on.
As we climbed the mountain, we needed endurance and nourishment. I had physically trained to able to climb this and other Northwest peaks. Like the food and water we consumed up St. Helens, Christians need to stop and get nourishment from God. This nourishment comes from His Word. We need to take in His food to have the energy to continue.
Sometimes our walks with God are slow and we can't see where we are going. Like on the mountain, sometimes we couldn't see the summit due to darkness, fog, and the slope of the mountain. But we know that the rim is somewhere above us. It's not going anywhere. We just need to continue on.
When we were descending we would encourage other climbers, telling them of the views above and how long it should take. Other saints that have gone before us offer encouragement. Like John in Revelation, telling the saints of his glimpses of heaven, we would tell others of the views from on top.
I have never been particularly introspective about why I climb. Part of the reason could be the challenge, both physical and mental, as well as the beauty of creation. I do know that when I am in the wilderness, I can see and feel the glory of God easier. In His wisdom, and in these places, God teaches me about Himself and my journey with Him. That is why I keep returning to the mountains.