Why do we climb mountains? You can get almost as many answers to that question as you can find climbers to ask. Some will say because the mountains are there, others because of the challenge, and others just because. But deeper down I think there really is something about climbing that mirrors a profound human urge to overcome and surmount obstacles.
I think that desire is something we tap into with things that are important to us, as in the Christian goals of growing and overcoming. And I don't think I'm the only one who sees the parallels between climbing and some of our higher goals. As Edmund Hillary, celebrated “conqueror” of Everest, wrote, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
We call it "the Christian walk", but I often think it's more like a climb than a walk - both in terms of when it gets tough, and the rewards of accomplishment. I used to enjoy rock climbing, and although I don't do it anymore, I can't really think about climbing without thinking of some of the analogies between it and the Christian life. The parallels may be basic, but I know many of climbing's strategic and tactical lessons have helped me, so I discuss some of them here.
• Plan the ascent. Climbers know that many mountains may be safely scaled only by one route which is not necessarily the easy path. We can’t succeed without a path to follow, and it’s not just a matter of memorizing a set route. Sometimes we need course corrections, and we have to continue to plan as we move upward throughout the climb or the Christian life. Proverbs 22:3 says: “The prudent person sees trouble ahead and hides, but the naive continue on and suffer the consequences.” Do we plan ahead to circumvent problematic situations, to avoid slippery paths and treacherous spiritual terrain? We must live one day at a time, but planning our daily walk is a big part of getting where we want to go. How much time do we actually spend in doing this? Darkness falls fast in the mountains, you have to plan your activities to be ready. Do we plan where to best fit in our spiritual activities, or do they get relegated to whatever time, if any, is left at the end of the day?
• It’s a group activity. Mountains can be wonderful places to be alone, to hike, enjoy the serenity and meditate. The Gospels show that on many occasions Jesus went up on a mountainside by himself to pray (e.g., Matthew 14:23). But ascending the highest peaks profits from teamwork. Although even great mountains have been scaled by individuals climbing alone, the lone climber has no one to help him or her and helps no one else – so everyone loses something. The same principle applies in obvious ways in our Christian lives. In spiritual climbing, you need a climbing buddy, or several. It’s a group activity.
• Safety in humility. Experiencing the majesty, vastness and age of mountains can be humbling, as many climbers and others have written. From Jane Austen’s “What are men to rocks and mountains?” to veteran climber Robert Macfarlane’s “Mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made,” humans have frequently extolled these awesome pinnacles of creation. But every climber knows that staying humbly aware of one’s own vulnerability is a necessary part of climbing safety. So too, basic humility can be a big part of realizing our spiritual vulnerability to potentially deadly mistakes. “Let he who thinks he stands beware, lest he fall” (I Corinthians 10:12).
• Use the right equipment. Some of the most basic climbing equipment is similar to the gear mentioned by the apostle Paul in the military equipment analogy he makes in Ephesians 6:10-18. Take, for example, the helmet of faith. In climbing a helmet is not so much for if you fall, but if things fall on you such as falling rock and ice chunks. Faith is a good helmet too, against unexpected onslaughts of life that seem to hit out of nowhere. Much of the equipment the climber uses is different, of course, but it carries its own reminders - for example, ropes. There is nothing like dangling from a rope with hundreds of feet of empty space below to help you appreciate the value of a lifeline. I think of prayer as a lifeline I don't want to be without. If I let it slip, I usually find myself dealing with a hard fall.
• Don’t look back/down. More accurately, don’t focus on the down. Fear and vertigo can sometimes happen to even experienced climbers. There is also a spiritual vertigo. We can erode our ability to keep climbing by focusing on the past and the abyss of past sins. You have to believe in the rock to which you are anchored - what climbers refer to as a “bomber” or “bomb-proof anchor”. Psalm 121:1 (a song of ascents) talks about one: "I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord…” As Christians we know what that bomb-proof anchor is in our lives. “Though the mountains are shaken and the hills are removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord ...” (Isaiah 54:10).
• Focus on the goal – and on the around. There is a weird thing about climbing. Looking up the climb ahead you get what is termed “perspective foreshortening” - the mountaintop may seem close at first, but it can seem to get further away as you climb. Life can feel that way, too, sometimes. You just have to be committed to keep climbing no matter how far the goal may still appear to be. On the other hand, while climbers have to focus on the goal in climbing, they try not to miss the pleasures of the spectacular views as they climb. Life should be enjoyed, too. Focus on the top, but don't miss the scenery on the way up!
I knew a Christian climber who used to say he thought that God loves the mountains and climbed them, too. He quoted Amos 4:13 as indication of this: “He who forms the mountains … and treads on the heights of the earth…” I’m not so sure this verse actually means climbing the heights of the earth, but I do know that climbing mountains – or just reading about climbing them– can remind us of principles we need to keep in mind for the more important climb to which God calls us.