An Unrealized Hazard
A Sermon for Mountaineers*
Frank E. Gaebelein
IN the little town of Moose, Wyoming, there is a log chapel. A small building, it is known far and wide, because behind the altar there is a spacious window through which the worshipper may see one of the grandest of mountain views—the jagged Teton peaks thrusting their snow-streaked spires heavenward. The church is named "The Chapel of the Transfiguration,” after that strange and mysterious scene so vividely described in the New Testament, when Jesus went with Peter, James, and John to a high mountain—perhaps 9000-foot Mt. Her- mon north of Galilee—where, while He was praying, His divine glory broke through His humanity, His face shone with the brilliance of the sun, and His garments gleamed with the dazzling whiteness of Alpine snows. And then, after a cloud came and overshadowed them, a voice spoke from the cloud, saying, "This is my beloved son ; hear him.”
Let this scene be a guide to our thinking about some of the intangible aspects of mountaineering. In regard to their religious background, a group of mountaineers generally presents a broad diversity. Yet Jesus Christ is not a denominational figure, but the Saviour of the whole world. Therefore, He is not the possession of any one church, and His truth is for all of us.
Every climber knows how fully a holiday in the hills brings refreshment from daily cares. The sense of physical renewal after days of hard climbing belongs only to those willing to pay a price in self-discipline. Nor are the rewards just physical; the perseverance gained through going on putting one foot after another when dead tired, the consideration learned through group effort, the subtle but powerful influences of mountain grandeur, even a quiet kind of courage—these are some of the deeper rewards.
There is, however, another aspect of mountaineering that calls for recognition. And that is its danger. The responsible climber knows the major natural perils, such as loose rock, unstable snow, thinly covered crevasses, electrical storms. But by no means every responsible climber knows that the mountains also have their unrealized hazards. Ours is a fascinating recreation, laying compelling hold upon its adherents. A leading token of its power is the distinguished writing that it has stimulated. Other sports have their dedicated followers; few, if any of them, have produced a literature comparable to that of mountaineering. Yet in the very devotion that high mountains inspire there lies a hidden peril.
One November day several of us were scrambling up the fractured boulders piled over the summit of Mount Princeton in the Sawatch Range of Colorado. On a nearby ridge, slightly above us, was a sturdy figure, clad in windbreaker and shorts, ice axe in hand, climbing strongly to the top. We met on the summit, and, as we talked, spoke of climbing and what it meant to us. Our new acquaintance had driven many hundreds of miles through the night to climb this peak and several other fourteen-thousanders. And in answer to a remark about his obvious love of the mountains, he quietly said: "Mountains are my religion.”
Now it would hardly be possible to put the chief spiritual hazard of climbing in fewer words than those. You see, such an affirmation or credo, which is by no means unique, betrays a confusion of values. For one thing, it rests upon a common but erroneous misreading of the opening words of the One Hundred Twenty-first Psalm, in which the hills, rather than the Lord who made them, are seen as the source of our help. Quite otherwise is the true meaning of these oft-quoted words, as the beautiful paraphrase by the Duke of Argyll so clearly shows:
Unto the hills around do I lift up My longing eyes;
O whence for me shall my salvation come,
From whence arise?
From God the Lord doth come my certain aid,
From God the Lord who heaven and earth hath made.
Writing in The Alpine journal on "Alpine Mysticism and Cold Philosophy,” Arnold Lunn says: "Mountaineering is neither a civic duty nor a substitute for religion. It is a sport, for we climb not to benefit the human race, but to amuse ourselves . . .”And then he makes a wise observation: "All evil, as a great medieval thinker remarked, is the mistaking of means for ends. Mountaineering is not an end to itself, but a means to an end.” What, then, is the answer to this misconception in which the means is mistaken for the end and recreation substituted for religion? The answer comes from the mountains themselves, as they speak by implication to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Those who can discern behind the geology of the great hills the Lord who made them cannot but learn the lesson of the reverential awe, the authentic fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom. This is a lesson that the world needs to learn all over again. For behind the problems of our times is the fact that men, having given up the fear of the Lord which humbles and ennobles us, have substituted for it the fear of man which enslaves our spirit.
But the voice spoke from the cloud on Mount Hermon and said: "This is my beloved Son; hear Him.” The New Testament does not hesitate to make the tremendous spiritual equation of identifying the Son of God with the Creator of all things. In one of the most spacious sentences ever written, St. Paul puts it this way: "By Him [Christ] were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities or powers ; all things were created by Him and for Him : and He is before all things and by Him all things consist.” The spiritually sensitive climber in the Alps can hardly help being moved when he sees the cross on the summit of the Matterhorn and when he passes the wayside shrines on the trails to the high huts. For there is no incongruity in meeting these reminders of the Son of God in the high mountains. The Lord and the mountains belong together.
Mountains are great ; we are small. Every climber has been reminded of this as he has seen another party on a glacier below him or on a ridge above him, looking like tiny specks in the vast landscape of snow, ice, and rock. And God is great, and we are small. In a higher realm than the physical, God is great in His infinite power and wisdom, in His enduring love and unchanging holiness. But we are small and finite, imperfect and unholy. Thus our littleness in comparison with the bigness of the mountains speaks of our need of help through Him who is the Rock of Ages.
On a May day in 1953 two men, Tenzing Norkey and Edmund Hillary, stood on the apex of the earth’s surface. On the same day, men were doubtless at work in the deepest mine in South Africa. The differential between the deepest mine and the highest mountain is great. But whether on Everest’s summit or in the deepest mine, men miss the stars. So it is with humanity in general. Despite differences in character and morality, all of us have missed the heavenly standard. As St. Paul says in a great universal statement to which none of us is an exception: "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Therefore, we need the Lord to whom the mountains point to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and fit us for the glory of God.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, there is a sentence that mountaineers can appreciate. J. B. Phillips, in his Letters to Young Churches, translates it like this: "It was right and proper that, in bringing many sons to glory, God . . .should make the Leader of their salvation a Perfect Leader through suffering.” There are many climbers skillful enough to ascend high mountains leaderless or guideless. But no man can reach God through guideless climbing in the journey of life.
One of the distinguished contributions to mountaineering in recent years is the Sierra Club booklet, "Belaying the Leader,” with its precise tabulation of rope stresses and its classic exposition of the dynamic belay. Its beginning is impressive: " 'A leader,’ wrote Geoffrey Winthrop Young, 'absolutely must not fall.’ ”
But the leader does fall; occasionally he does slip. We need constantly to be reminded that all human leadership—and this includes climbing leadership—is liable to err, as those of us who have seen a leader fall will never forget. But there is for this troubled age, beset with problems of a complexity undreamed of by other generations, a Leader who can never fall. Because He is the Perfect Leader, made so through suffering on the cross that He might bring us to God, we may reverently say, He needs no belay. And it is of this divine Leader that the mountains speak; through their greatness, they remind us of "the Lord who heaven and earth hath made.” Silently but eloquently they are saying, "Hear Him.” And really to heed their message will keep us who know and love the mountains from mistaking means for ends and substituting even the finest recreation for faith in the living God.
* Based on a sermon given at the annual Sunday service at the Goodsirs Camp of The Alpine Club of Canada in the Ottertail Range of British Columbia, 1 August 1954.