Given that I don’t have much of a head for heights—I get nervous and dizzy standing on tiptoe, and I am not much for the cold; I also swapped the Colorado Rockies for the Florida beaches—it’s perhaps a little strange that I have a thing for mountain climbing.
However, I have a mini-library of accounts of dramatic ascents. I’d never want to actually try it myself, but I’m fascinated by the lure of the summit, what it is that compels people to go up. A Christian climber-friend once told me that he believed there was a spiritual dimension to the pull of the peaks, something to do with the high places.
Be that as it may, there’s undoubtedly inspiration to be drawn from the challenge of scaling great heights. But the greatest lesson I’ve learned from my years of armchair Alpinism came not from a triumph, but from a disaster. Rather than a mountaintop salute, it was a mountainside surrender.
The story is told in the remarkable book Touching The Void. British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were descending from a successful summit in the Andes when Simpson fell, badly breaking a leg.
Yates began lowering his disabled friend down the mountainside on a rope, as bad weather and darkness closed in. Then the rope went taut. Unable to see or hear, Yates didn’t know that Simpson had slipped over the edge of a cliff and was hanging there unable to move or help. All Yates knew was that he couldn’t pull his partner up. In fact, the dead weight was slowly dragging Yates down to the edge. He was going to fall, too, if they both did not freeze to death first.
Eventually Yates made the painful decision to do the only thing he could. He cut the rope. To find out what happened next, you need to read the book, or watch the documentary of the same name.
The South American drama came to mind when I was stuck on a personal mountainside, desperately holding onto a situation I wanted to change. But I finally realized that there was nothing I could do to make things different. Keeping a tight grip was just ignoring the reality that it was out of my hands. It was slowly sucking the life out of me. I had to let go.
Doing so wasn’t easy. Hearts, like cold fingers, get stiff. Each morning I’d get up and tell God I was cutting the rope. I’d mime the action with a small pocket knife. After a while I began to move slowly. In time I made it down safely. And, as in Touching The Void, I discovered that what we think is an end may be something else, something we’d never even dream.