Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

Beating Fear with Seven Words for Seven Summits

NOTE:   This is from a chapter entitled, “Exposure”.  I deal with the deadly life shrinking nature of fear in this post.   Sorry it’s long… it’s from a book!

August 7th – Glungezer Hut sits at 2600m.  We arrive there feeling strong, whole.  Part of the reason is because we shaved 1000 meters of our ascent off quickly, easily, by riding the gondola from Innsbruck rather than hiking, thus shaving time, and calories, and muscle expenditure dramatically.  It’s around 2PM when we come inside, out of a biting wind, to the warmth of a fire, the smell of pasta, and smooth jazz wafting through the speakers of this quintessential Austrian hut.  Our host welcomes us with a shot of peach Schnapps which we, neither of us hard liquor fans, are too polite to refuse. 

After a marvelous meal of pork medallions and sauerkraut, the proprietor shares that he’ll be offering a final weather update regarding tomorrow at 8:30, at which time he’ll tell us whether to take the high or low trail to Lizumer hut.  Without internet, and with only spotty phone coverage, nearly everyone up here is dependent on the weather report offered by the hut host, and in this case, the report will determine both the route, and the time breakfast will be served.  If thunderstorms are predicted, breakfast service times will be adjusted early enough to allow people 7 full hours of hiking before the anticipated time of the storm. 

The main hall is crowded at 8:30 as the report is offered by this stout man with a full grey beard and enough of a twinkle in his eye that you both know he loves his work, and you wonder if, when the huts close in October, he becomes Santa; the real one.  The report is a full fifteen minutes and there’s uproarious laughter along the way, but it’s all in German, so I sit at the edge and wait for Jonathan, the German speaking American from Cleveland, to come translate for me when the meeting’s over. 

As people disperse, he says, “It’s supposed to pour rain all night along and then clear before sunrise.  Thunderstorms are anticipated tomorrow afternoon, so breakfast is at 6:30 and he says we should be in the trail by 7:30.” 

“High or low?” I ask. 

“He says tomorrow will be an amazing day to take the high trail – views in every direction.  The trail is on the ridge the whole way.”  I smile, nodding.  I know the meaning of the word “ridge” and “trail”.  Little do I realize what they will mean when taken together.  I ask what else he said because he spoke to the group for fifteen minutes.  “Nothing important” he says and we leave it at that as we start to hear the pelting rain on the roof of the hut, the sound we hear even louder an hour later as we drift off to sleep wondering if the weather report will turn up true in the morning. 

I’m up at 6 and a quick step outside reveals that we’re starting our day above the clouds and will ascend from there.  Seven summits await us, as we travel along a ridge to the south and east, covering a mere 14k, but taking nine hours to complete.  This is because, as we’ll discover later, this is an alpine route which, according to one website, “should only be attempted by those who have appropriate mountaineering skills and experience” which is no doubt part of what the host said the night before in German while I was reading a book in the corner. 

This isn’t much of a concern for me because I have the appropriate mountaineering skills.  I’ve climbed enough in what might considered dangerous places to feel comfortable on exposed rock ledges and ridges.  My experience has given me confidence on the rock, and ironically, confidence begets a relaxed yet utterly alert and focused demeanor, which makes the exposure feel even easier by virtue of familiarity.  You come to realize, after not falling time after time, that you’re as likely to fall as a good driver is likely to simply veer into oncoming traffic and die in a head on crash.  Yes, it could happen, but probably won’t, so you don’t worry about it.  Good drivers aren’t constantly thinking “don’t drive in the ditch – avoid the ditch – watch out for the ditch”.    They’ve moved into a different zone of quiet confidence; it’s like that with rock climbers and high places.

alps 2As the day progresses, I realize quickly that although I have this assurance on exposed rock, my wife doesn’t.  As we ascend, a few summit crosses come into view, and we’re struck with the realization that each of summits must be obtained today if we’re to progress.  It doesn’t matter how we feel about attaining them, whether excitement or dread.  The path forward will be up and down, along this ridge, for the next 8 miles. 

This, in itself, is daunting, but the true nature of the hike doesn’t reveal itself until after the first summit.  Beyond the cross there’s a descent that, by the standards of any hiker who doesn’t climb, would be harrowing.  There are vertical, nearly vertical, and beyond vertical drops, at least 1500m down, just beyond the edge of the “trail”, but that’s the wrong word.  In fact, there is no trail, simply red and white paint on boulders, showing hikers which rocks to scramble down, but its clear that a single misstep at the wrong place would mean certain death. 

For those with experience, this is not intimidating.  You simply don’t fall.  You inhale deeply, relax, and focus on each step.  For those lacking experience, this is terrifying because every step is saturated with the fear of falling, which creates anxiety, which creates muscle tension, which creates rapid weariness.  My wife’s in the latter category, as are the two German girls with whom we’re hiking, Felicitas and Inge.  They’re both 17, and are here in the Alps in search of their first grand adventure.  On this day, on this ridge, they’ve found more than they bargained for but they, like the rest of us, press on. 

I loved this day of seven summits, and if the truth must be told, the exposure of, the sense that every step matters, is what is so energizing?  This is because when it comes right down to it, I love activities that are so demanding that my mind is reduced to consideration of the single thing in front of me.  Here’s a ladder bolted to rock face.  We must descend it.  On the one hand, it’s a ladder.  The fact that ladders have been part of our lives, that we’ve climbed down dozens, hundreds of ladders in our lives, means that we know this much:  we can climb down this ladder. 

alps 3On the other hand, this ladder, suspended in space, will be especially unforgiving should a hand or foot slip during descent.  We can see that there’ll be no recovery, no next steps.  Instead we’ll begin a fall through space until we hit the slope somewhere beneath, crushing bones and breaking our bodies open before continuing our rapid descent.  After another bounce or two, we’ll likely end up 1500 meters below in the river valley, our spirits having left our bodies for eternity, while our families await news of our demise. 

So yes, though this is ‘just a ladder’, this is an important ladder.  The stakes are high.  The ladder requires something different than the two states of being that are often our default positions in life, for neither fear, nor familiarity, will be helpful.

It’s here we must take pause because both fear and familiarity are deadly poisons.  They’re robbing people of living the life for which they are created, deceiving them into settling for far less, for slavery really, instant of days filled with meaning, joy, purpose, and hope.  So we must consider these robbers and expose them for what they are, liars and thieves who prey on our weakness to make us weaker still.  There’s a third way, utterly other than the way of fear or familiarity.

Fear:

Subsequent to my sabbatical, as I write this, the fear factor in the lives of Europeans and Americans is rising exponentially.  We’re afraid of shootings, of terror, of wacky politicians coming into power, of corrupt politicians remaining in power.  We’re afraid of failure, rejection, myriad forms illness, poverty, betrayal, loneliness, and o so much more.  Fear has become a strong enough force in our culture that people are increasingly defining success as “not failing” which means not falling victim to any of the things we’re afraid might happen to us.

This is a very small way of living.  It would be tantamount defining climbing as not falling, which would be silly of course, on two levels.  The objective of climbing rock face or a mountain, is to get to the top.  Calling it a “good day” because you failed to fall is essentially what more of us are doing, more often than ever before.  We’re defining health as avoiding illness; defining calling as being employed; defining intimacy as staying married; defining security as money in the bank.  By changing the rules and lowering the bar regarding what constitutes the good life, we can feel ‘good’ about ourselves.

…Except we can’t.  As we watch TV, or cat videos on youtube, or fall in bed at the end of another tiring day of obligations with an early dread that tomorrow we’ll need to do it all over again, there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t the life for which we’ve been created.  This “don’t fall” mentality infects people of faith too, with what I call a fixation on sin management.   When faith is redefined as “stay sober, stay married, tithe, pay your taxes, read your Bible, and go to church”, we’ve functionally changed to goal from reaching the summit to “not falling”  It’s sin management.  It creates judgmentalism, pride, and hypocrisy.  And worst of all: it’s boring.

In contrast, God’s text, offered to point to way toward real living, is shot through with invitations to the kind of wholeness, joy, strength, and generosity that looks o so different than simply avoiding common notions of sin.  God has a summit for us and it looks like this:

Vitality – “…those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31  We’re promised a capacity for living that’s beyond the norm of just surviving, promised a strength not our own which will enable us to enjoy life for a long time without the prevailing weariness, boredom, fear, and cynicism setting in.  This promise alone is enough to wean me off of the sin management paradigm, but there’s more.

Abundance  “…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jn 10:10  This word “abundance” implies a capacity to bless and serve others, even in the midst of our own challenges and messes; even if, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet on the night of his arrest and impending execution, we’re about to die.  I long for this capacity to be fully present each moment, listening, loving, serving, blessing, encouraging, challenging, healing.  I’m invited, called even, upward to the high country of actively blessing my world, rather than just surviving. 

Wholeness  “…(God) made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” II Corinthians 5:21   Yes!  The invitation goes beyond “not sinning” as we religious people typically regard not sinning.  The vision is much more positive, more summit like.  God letting us know that we’re invited to nothing less than displaying God’s character in our daily living.  The good, generous, gracious, righteous, wise, loving, and holy God is inviting us to nothing less than these same qualities finding expression in our own daily living.  Summits.  All of them; they’re ours to enjoy – and yes, getting there will require conquering fear. 

After the third summit, we take a photo with our companions, the two 17 year old German girls who are out in pursuit of their first adventure.  We survey the descent that’s yet ahead, followed by yet four more exposed ascents on rocky ridges with carefully placed cables as aides.  It looks daunting, and is.  Inge speaks of the challenge ahead, how frightened she’s been, and how she’s not so keen on continuing, but then adds “and yet we must do it”. 

Exactly!  The beauty of this particular day of seven summits is that not ascending is simply not an option.  I must proceed forward if I’m to reach the destination of the next hut.  The only other option is returning to last night’s hut and then hiking all the way back to Innsbruck.  It’s go forward miss the whole reason we came here.  No, simply not falling won’t cut it on this trip.   And for this, I’ll be forever grateful. 

alps 4Fear of falling must be overcome, lest we settle for sin management and religious propriety.  We must climb the high exposed ridges of generosity, where giving is sacrificial and leads to trust.  The cliffs of freedom from addiction must be transcended, and this requires the risks of vulnerability and the courage to face our pain.  The steep rocks of love for the stranger and refugee are vital terrain in this age of fear, but it requires living with the realization your open heart and home is at risk by the very nature of opening to people you don’t know, and sometimes even people you do know!

The faith mountaineers who have gone before us have shown us the way.  They opened their homes, hearts, and wallets.  They stood for the disenfranchised and oppressed, some at the cost of their lives!  They risked vulnerability in their pursuit of wholeness and healing, coming clean about their addictions and infidelities.  They forgave betrayals in Rwanda, England, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, even when it hurt to do so.  They rose above the valleys of mediocrity.  Had their paradigm been merely “not falling” they’d have stayed home.  But alas, the focus of the life for which we’ve been created is the summit, the high calling of being voices of hope and mercy in a despairing world.  When the is the vision, the risk of falling is, by comparison, inconsequential. 

Are you “living small” by focusing on not falling, or do you have a vision for the summit?   When the voice of fear starts whispering lies and inviting me to live small, I’m careful to listen to a different voice – it’s the voice of Jesus, who went the distance, and he offers seven words for seven summits:  Fear not – for I am with you!

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