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Don't Hug the Mountain

In his book Waiting: Finding Hope Where God Seems Silent (InterVarsity, 1991), Ben Patterson, a man I treasure as a friend, tells a story from his personal life:

"In the summer of 1988, three friends and I climbed Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. Two of us were experienced mountaineers; two of us were not. I was not one of the experienced two. ... The climb to the top and back was to take the better part of a day due, in large part, to the difficulty of the glacier that one must cross to get to the top. ... As the hours passed, and we trudged up the glacier, the two mountaineers opened up a wide gap between me and my less-experienced companion. Being competitive by nature, I began to look for short cuts I might be able to take to beat them to the top. I thought I saw one to the right of an outcropping of rock--so I went up, deaf to the protests of my companions. ...

"Thirty minutes later I was trapped in a cul-de-sac of rock atop the Lyell Glacier, looking down several hundred feet of a sheer slope of ice, pitched at a forty-five degree angle. ... I was only ten feet from the safety of a rock. But one little slip and I wouldn't stop sliding until I had landed in the valley floor about fifty miles away! ... I was stuck and I was scared" (pp. 100-101).

Patterson's words are non-religious ways of describing the predicament that more than a few of us fall into. People get stuck because they're competitive; they want to make an impression. They think they have all of life under control, so they take short cuts to beat other people. They take the right-hand turn around an outcropping of rock, suspecting that at the end there will be nothing but joy and roses. Instead, they find themselves stuck.

Back to Ben Patterson, who was stuck and scared: "It took an hour for my experienced climbing friends to find me. Standing on the rock I wanted to reach, one of them leaned out and used an ice axe to chip two little footsteps in the glacier. Then he gave me the following instructions: 'Ben, you must step out from where you are and put your foot where the first foothold is. ... Without a moment's hesitation swing your other foot across and land it in the next step. [Then] ... reach out and I will take your hand, and I will pull you to safety. ... But listen carefully: As you step across, don't lean into the mountain! If anything, lean out a bit. Otherwise, your feet could fly out from under you, and you will start sliding down.' "

Patterson says, "When I'm on the edge of a cliff, my instinct is to lie down and hug the mountain, to become one with it, not lean away from it! But that was what my good friend was telling me to do as I stood trembling on that glacier. I looked at him real hard. ... For a moment, based solely on what I believed to be true about the good will and good sense of my friend, I decided to say no to what I felt ... to lean out, step out, and traverse the ice to safety. It took less than two seconds to find out if my faith was well founded. It was" (pp. 101-102).

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