I recently joined some friends on a hike to the summit of Mt. Wilhelm, Papua New Guinea’s highest peak at 14,793 feet. As she so diligently does, mother nature provided a humbling glimpse into the bigger picture. I couldn’t help but see this hike as a surprisingly accurate metaphor for our human experience – a lifetime crammed into 24 hrs. So, below is a pondering of life told through a walk up a mountain. What it lacks in cohesiveness, I hope it provides in thoughtfulness.
“Before lines were lines, before time was time, the Author wrote a story in the sky and earth below.”
A 4 hour drive brings our crew of 6 to the trailhead – a vacant lodge at the terminus of a dead end rocky road – where high hopes balance out our heavy packs. We’ve prepared for what lies ahead, despite the reality that we honestly have no idea. Where are we headed? Up… to the top of PNG, where the earth meets the sky.
Two hours through the cool rainforest dumps us into a savannah spotted with stunted palm trees, seeping wet earth, and thick grass reminiscent of Jurassic Park. Another hour in the sun brings us to the head of the valley where we scramble up a waterfall and arrive at base camp – a high elevation plateau hosting a clear mountain lake and 2 little huts for sleeping. A cold dip and some lakeside fellowship precede sunset and a hot meal. We go to bed in good company, knowing that tomorrow isn’t possible without each other.
Alarm sounds at 1 a.m. and we start the ascent. Much of life is like this walk in the dark – only ever seeing a few steps ahead, relying on the constant light of the moon should the temporary batteries of our headlamps fail. One step at a time we trod, sometimes losing balance, scrambling along a narrow path only inches from a drop-off of unknown depth. Up goes the trail… always up. Occasionally it flattens out or descends a short bit – a welcomed change of pace accompanied by the discouraging realization that every step down is another step up. Trees & grass quickly fade to stone. Tiny flower blooms hide from the elements and sparkle occasionally from little crevices – it is the smallest things that bring the greatest joy amidst our hardest challenges. Remains of an airplane crash from the last world war remind us of those who have gone before, and that this is not a game. Layers of insulation increase with altitude as the climate grows ever colder and the air grows thin. Our local guide, a complete stranger, holds our only knowledge of the path. A necessary trust in someone we’ve barely met exemplifies our innate dependency on our commonalities, not our differences. The strongest of our company grow distant ahead. Frustration swells from aloneness. Have our friends abandoned or forgotten us? No, they are simply focused on their own two feet at the moment. The demands of life on their attention do not discredit their friendship. I can’t see them, but I know they are there. I wonder how many times I have left others in the dark. I am forced to find the trail on my own, leading the weary souls behind me despite my inadequacy. The path blends in with our surroundings, and the straight line of progress becomes more like a wandering, scrambling, calling out with chapped lips and a shaky voice for someone in the darkness to lead us. I hesitate to take a step, not for fear of the worst, but because I don’t want to waste it… but some things are inherently worth doing even if they don’t take us directly to the goal. In these times, a general direction guides us – just keep going up. It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s better than standing still. Someone says, “look up”. Are you serious? I’ve been looking and walking up for hours! “No. Stop. Rest. Look UP.” Galaxies lie before us, clearer than I’ve ever seen… like the glitter of sunshine on sand seen through a magnifying glass – the finer the resolution, the more radiant it shines. Stars. One shoots across the sky… inches to my eye yet thousands of miles in reality. I am so small. A group of local school boys showing no sign of fatigue pass us on their leisurely adventure for the day. One is wearing flip flops. All my expensive gear seemed so critical to my success, but maybe it’s not that necessary after all. Onward. How much farther? We won’t know until we get there. Is the finish worth the struggle? I think I’m actually having fun… in a miserable kind of way. This whole endeavor is truly silly in a practical sense, but it’s grandeur and uniqueness pull us past logic into meaning. Lost energy is replaced by anticipation. The summit approaches, indicated by the lack of any other peaks blocking the uninterrupted canvas of stars. But first, one last disappointment – we’re early. Turns out we covered ground faster than anticipated. Impressive, except now, at the brink of glory, we must sit and wait. The world will awake soon below us, but in this moment, it’s constancy and timeliness is terribly inconvenient. But we’ve somehow made it this far. Ten meters from the top, extremities numb, body shivering, oxygen deprived, and utterly exhausted… we hide from the wind and wait for the light.
“Little do we know we have only what we’re given. Light up the sky. We’re going where no man is forgotten.”
The first tint of a new day appears. A fury of wind blasts our faces as we top the highest point. We look to the east. The clouds have given substance to the once invisible wind. Below, air currents carry whisps of powdery clouds at ridiculous speeds. As they approach the mountains, they turn upward and shoot over ridgetops creating rainbow-shaped streaks of white across the landscape. The world below seems to shift with the winds as the entirety of the sky displays every shade of orange in the color spectrum. For a moment, our sense of time is widened into a vast expanse we cannot fathom, yet somehow we can still enjoy. Not in spite of, but because of every hardship, we have arrived… together.
The descent flies by. I reflect on the last 12 hours of walking and, nearing the end of it all, one thing captivates my mind… an insatiable desire for a Big Mac. A reminder we are human. Our spirits are inspired by the highest heights, but ultimately our bodies are fueled by the simplest essentials of life – food, shelter, and community. This, however, is not a restriction. There is a grace in this simplicity. Each one of us is so utterly insignificant – a single flower in a landscape of stone, one star in the galaxy, a grain of sand. Yet, love creates significance… not because it’s logical, but because it’s meaningful. That the God of creation would die for me is, quite honestly, a silly and impractical proposition. But He climbed that mountain anyway.
“All You are is all we want. It burns inside us all. We’re finding heart in giving soul. We’re walking home into thin air singing…”
So what’s the point of such a venture – a hike to the mountain top or the walk of life? What drives the human spirit to endure such extremes? Is it just to show our friends a grainy cell phone pic of 6 misfits standing on a bitter cold peak of bare stone? No, the photo is only for memory’s sake, to satisfy our fear of forgetfulness. The purpose of the venture, I believe, is the sunrise alongside our brothers and sisters. It is the rolling whisps of clouds set against a canvas of orange. It is the majestic and simple truth that we are all slowly, with an unexplainable and undeniable hope before us, walking each other home.
Mountains draw us. The Father calls us. Love guides us. Heaven awaits.
~ Song Lyrics: Empire by August Burns Red