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What I learned climbing Mt. Baker

What I learned climbing Mt. Baker

by Dr. Dave Currie

Summiting Mt. Baker last month was “epic” for me. That became our team’s catchword of the day. My adult children had decided to give my Mt. Baker dream as a birthday gift. You see, from our house, we have an amazing view of Baker and I had often retorted that I’d love to be able to say, “I was on top of that mountain once looking back at my house.” Now I have. It was epic.

And even for Matt, our friend and faithful guide, the climb that day was a grand feat. Though he had conquered Baker many times, the trek was extra challenging because of the conditions: winds to 80 km/hour; heavy snow driven mercilessly by a storm; and whiteout conditions. No visible markers anymore. The climb became a legendary, larger-than-life, benchmark moment. For me it felt even heroic. The summiting details alone are revealing. You park you vehicle at 3,600 feet, set up base camp at 6,000 feet and summit at 10,700 feet. Put simply – it’s 10 km straight uphill to the top of Mt. Baker and then 10 km back down over snow, ice and rock. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

Running marathons, Tough Mudders and bungee jumping in the last 10 years, are mere child’s play compared to my Mt. Baker experience. That day, around 40 climbers tented at basecamp planning their early assent to the top. Then the crazy storm hit between 2 and 5 am and greatly changed the climbing conditions. Because of it, only our group made an attempt for the top. The rest turned back. For me, this was not a reasonable option. Age has a funny way of driving your decisions. With every year I didn’t conquer Baker, it lessened the chance that I ever would. And through my Mt. Baker summit, I learned a lot about life and about myself. Let me share my observations:

1. STAY ROPED TOGETHER. Climbers are attached to one another for safety. If one person loses footing and begins to slide on the snow and ice, others dig in and brace themselves to hold the one falling. The rope which seems often in the way and unnecessary, is actually life-saving if one of your group starts skidding toward a cliff. You can stay in communication with one another, encouraging and warning of any perils ahead. You go the same pace – often that of the weakest link. The implications are clear. It’s best to journey through life connected to trusted people – family and friends who can be relied on. Genuine and caring attachment is a good thing. Don’t do life alone.

2. BE PREPARED. I was shocked at the detailed, extensive list of items we needed for the climb: harnesses, crampons, icepicks, rope, helmets, 100 per cent UV sunglasses for the assent and even more gear for camping in snow. Being in shape sure didn’t hurt, but I knew I wasn’t in my best condition. After we got basecamp set up, our guide gave us a few hours of snow and climbing tips and self-arrest training (stopping yourself sliding down a slope). There is such wisdom in being equipped and trained. It makes the journey doable. The same is true in life. Prepare well with solid training by trusted sources to make the most of every step and every opportunity.

3. FACE DANGER BRAVELY. There were more hazards in our climb than I care to acknowledge. They were calculated risks but life-threatening ones nonetheless. Slopes. Drop-offs. Cliffs. Crevasses. Ice. Snow blindness. Wind. Whiteouts. You have to be constantly aware. You assess each threat. One crevasse is too wide we have to go around it. Another is only three feet across, so keep the ropes tight and we’ll jump it. This slope is so steep so be sure you kick in with your crampons on every step. Stay back from that cliff, the snow edge might give way. As in life, you watch out for dangers but keep moving. You must tackle your fears. You don’t know what’s ahead. It’s about handling the hazards wisely.

4. BE IN THE MOMENT. Though it’s important to know where you are going, don’t be looking too far ahead. Three or four times the skies cleared briefly on our assent, and we were able to see ridges, vistas and ranges that you’d never get to see from the inhabited world. The sun and blue sky were a welcome hiatus from the driving wind, snow and clouds. We’d stop and look around in amazement. We’d take it all in and breathe. Here I was, climbing Mt. Baker with my kids. What a moment! So phones and GoPros came out shoot the breathtaking views and our battling the elements. We captured the moments both mentally and digitally. We need to do this in life too. Right now. Stop and enjoy how far you’ve come. Be thankful. Soak it in. Cherish these times whether simple or momentous.

5. GIVE ENCOURAGEMENT. My kids are aggressively trained athletes and I was clearly the weakest link. So they affirmed and showed concern. With less than 1,000 feet to the top, I was reminded by one, “Everyone is good if you can’t make and we have to turn back. You don’t have to do this for us.” I replied that I was doing it for me. Another said, “We haven’t gone this far to give up now. Take the time you need. You can do this.” A third spoke out, “You are doing really good. I know you can make it, Dad.” Though the thinner air and demanding slope were gassing me, the encouragement was like a shot of adrenaline. The support came in practical ways too. One carried my daypack (an extra 15 pounds) the last and steepest 500-foot climb to the top. Encouragement in life builds, lifts and strengthens people. Be an encourager. It creates a significant bond.

6. PERSEVERE. You’ve already grasped much of the incredibly challenging conditions of our climb. This was not just another hike. It took sheer will for me. The blowing snow ripping at my face, the intense cold biting into every limb, wind gusts that actually pushed me off stride and the whiteout that robbed me of a sense of direction all paled beside the growing exhaustion and thin air. On the hardest part of the assent known as the Roman Wall (a demanding 45 degree slope) I took only 40 steps before resting for a minute. Resolve. “One step at a time. You will get there. You’ll always regret if you quit now.” With Churchill-like grit I tried to just stay calm and carry on. Life can be equally demanding at times. To overcome challenges, determination is mandatory. Never, never give up. Persevere because it will make a difference.

7. WALK WITH GOD. Take every step into your future knowing that God is there already. He knows what you will face. When I started the day, I didn’t know we’d be traversing around crevasses so gaping you could drive 10 buses into them or so deep you couldn’t see the bottom. I didn’t know how challenging the storm conditions would be or how hard the climb. But in my heart, I was walking with God every step. We prayed as we started and prayed again rejoicing standing at the top. We faced a new obstacle to even get off the summit as the dense cloud and whiteout buried our tracks for the descent. We wandered, lost in the whiteness, for nearly an hour all the while breathing prayers of guidance. We finally found our exit route – tracks hardly visible. And yes, we prayed together back at basecamp. “In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him” (Psalm 95:4). In ascending Mt. Baker as well as all of life, God’s got you covered. He is with you every step of the way (Psalm 139:1-6). No matter what you face, trust your future to an all-knowing God.

I’d love to hear from you about what your life challenges have taught you. And Billy from Cincinnati (who joined our team on our ascent and now like an adopted son), I’d love to hear from you too. Send your comments or questions to me through our website – May God bless you and yours in Doing Family Right.

Author: Steve Almond

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