Sunday was Easter; in our family, it’s a big deal. It is a day of carefully crafted, beautifully lazy moments and memories, of figurative bunnies, baskets, love, prayer, and gratitude, off mass and grace – an opportunity to reflect on the divine in our every day lives and to celebrate hope, rebirth, and the goodness within each of us.
You may be rolling your eyes. I hope not. But you may be. And I understand completely.
It’s a strange thing…faith – a word wrapped in considerable doubt, angst, and lore. Divisive, even.
But, if there is one thing being a mother and an athlete has taught me, it is that faith (in anything good) and a strong moral compass are as essential to adventure, safety, and happiness in the mountains as an actual compass.
That will require some explanation…thus, let me explain.
Faith, Fitness, & Mountains
Faith in the context of fitness and extreme sports seems unnecessary, superstitious, even dangerous. On the surface, I completely agree. Our lives may seem random, our adventures reckless. But to exist (and persist to play another day), we depend on accurate predictions and measurements, numbers and data fields, calculations and expert opinions and assessments. When a misstep could mean the difference between life and death, we take our steps (however fun they might be) seriously. Here, our lives depend on choosing the right terrain, the right action, the right route, the right amount of risk. And thus, we adore and lean heavily on certainties.
You don’t climb mountains without a team; you don’t climb mountains without being fit; you don’t climb mountains without being prepared; you don’t climb mountains without balancing the risks and rewards. And, you never climb a mountain on accident – it has to be intentional
Faith, in the face of this certainty, can appear to be a funny and seemingly out-of-place condition. Many of the wilderness babes I have met over the years have openly denounced and even been hostile to the notion of a big man upstairs, of mystical saints and risen Lords.
However, to say that faith is useless in nature would be to deny the inherit mystery and majesty of wilderness. There is simply something about the mountains.
The mountains are calling and I must go
In scripture, mountains are frequently referenced and utilized as both a literal and figurative metaphor for the unknown mysteries of the universe. Their power and brilliance, their capacity for awe and violence, their seemingly endless majesty is a bridge between the human and the divine. Servants of that divine power found themselves drawn to the mountains again, and again, climbing through desolate and beautiful wildernesses (within and without themselves), called by something they could not touch, see, feel, or hear into a land that they could not imagine nor understand. In the face of fear and uncertainty, they climbed. They rose. They soared. And in the process, they discovered something profound.
And we still follow in their footsteps.
For behold the LORD is coming forth from His place He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth
Mountains also have a special place within our culture – from religion to literature (and everything in between), from Abraham to Christ, from Greek mythology to Zen Buddhism, from prophets like Mohammad to Beatnik Poets like Gary Snyder, mountains are both a literal and figurative symbol of something beyond us. Mountains are elevated, literally – separated geographically from the rest of the world, distinguished from the world of man (and thus from the sins of man) – a physical representation of freedom, power, and enlightenment as well as the embodiment of the wilderness and the unknowable mysteries of life.
It is a place where we are stripped down to our barest, our most raw and exposed. And we often attempt to navigate that exposure, to guard against the dangers of the mountain, with plans, training, gear, and science (all of which are necessary survival tools). We criticize and ridicule those who wander into the mountains unprepared; we guard against the silliness of superstition and faith…
The Best Laid Plans…
…And generally, I agree. The tools of our trade (equal parts gear and knowledge) are critical to successful adventures and pursuits.
However, while I avow my commitment to science and planning, I admit that I do carry a good luck charm in my back pack (a Sedona red rock cut into the shape of a heart given to me by a kind hippie dressed in nothing but a speedo and a large turquoise necklace). I never assumed, however, that my happy rock did more than add some extra grams to my pack. I wasn’t a fool. I know that no amount of luck prayers or hippie speedos could guard against the weight of a poor calculation. It is what I love about the mountains. In an urban world of endless gray areas and “maybes,” the mountains offer violent and concrete certainty. If you make a mistake, you die. It is black and white; my destiny and my future are in my own hands.
Until it isn’t.
There is something about the mountains…and that mysterious something has teeth.
Nature is both predictable and completely unpredictable. There is always the known – then the unknown, that mystery. One can do seemingly everything right, make every right decision, have all the right gear and training…and still tragedy can strike.
This group did everything right and the only thing they could have done differently was to not go there in the first place.
In regards to my close escapes, I also did almost everything right. Then, things went wrong.
In retrospect, I could analyze and deconstruct every choice I made (not putting my foot there, perhaps not hitting that jump, turning just a few seconds before hand, taking ski conditioning more seriously…), but in all reality, the only way to know for certain was to not be there in the first place.
I was in control of my actions, my choices, my responses. But I was not in control of the mountain.
In the mountains, we are face to face with our power and our powerlessness. Connected with the divine and infinite, we become aware of our mortality. As we embrace our ability to control our own actions and lives, our agency, we simultaneously must embrace our inability to control the world around us.
It is why, often, in our moments of joy and despair, we find ourselves reaching out towards something unknowable and impossible. In the hard, concrete world of granite and physics, we discover mystery. And it is this mystery that brings me back to faith, to my Sedona rock and prayers, time and time again.
Understanding Grace and Faith: a Mountain Perspective
And this brings me back to my original argument: faith is essential to a modern mountain life. Note: I am not saying that religion is essential or necessary (while grace and faith are largely attributed to religious ideals and practices, they are not unique to them).
Grace, actually, has two definitions. On one hand, it refers to the Christian notion of the divine spirit, the essence of God and his mystery as experienced by man. On the other, it refers to movement marked by purpose, elegance.
As a mountain girl, I found peace and continuity in the unity of these two definitions. Through our calculated movements within these desperately beautiful and raw spaces, truly alive and unified in mind, body, and spirit, we discover the divine within ourselves and our world – the divine being that which is beyond us, some measure of goodness realized through utter simplicity, action, and trust.
Faith, then, refers to this trust. It is the ability to visualize an outcome, a future that cannot be known, and to then trust, with absolute certainty in the realization of this possibility. It is hope – to the next level.
Faith and grace, however, are fundamentally useless if not lived. We must live as thought that hope, that future, that possibility is certain. And seek grace by living in that faith. And in this sense, our mountainous pursuits, depend upon faith and grace just as much as we do our scientific calculations.
We must use the powers of science to plan our ascents and adventures; we must depend upon our knowledge and skill to walk the path; we must utilize our gear appropriately and effectively.
But we must TRUST in each other. We must move with grace through the unknowns and the mysteries of the wilderness. We must navigate both the terrain as well as our own souls. We must move graciously, trusting to hope and in the certainty of a summit that is not certain.
The mountain life, in its harsh reality, breeds confidence and humility simultaneously. It rewards both caution and action. It demands focus and skill. In the mountains we MUST assume total control over ourselves, our emotions, and our actions. We are entirely within the present – mind, body, and spirit are unified towards a single task and the forward movement required to realize that goal.
It is exhilarating – the essence of being truly alive.
But it also means embracing our limits, recognizing that we are NOT in control, and that to realize the summits within our life and beyond, we must move with grace and embrace faith – faith in oneself, in one’s partners, in one’s training, in one’s calculations, and faith in that great unknown, in hope and grace, in the mysterious powers of the universe.