The Endless High Tide
A Nexus of Faith
I rappelled to a ledge, where Clarke was soaked and waiting. We were still high up in the Sierra Nevada, with soaring rock all around, our thin shells snapping in the wind. Water sluiced down the walls of our escape gully. The gray mountainside across the canyon was lost in white behind a curtain of falling flakes. We didn’t know where we were, or how many rappels waited below. I ate from a tiny packet of trail mix before passing it to Clarke, who shivered so badly he spilled it all. I picked grains of granola out of the wet gravel at our feet.
When a sudden storm turns a climb desperate, two mountaineers confront their differing beliefs.
That morning, we’d crossed a snowfield in the dark, on our way to climb Venusian Blind on Temple Crag in the Palisades group west of Big Pine, California, just shy of thirteen thousand feet. Though big and exposed, the route was easy for us—about 5.7 on the Yosemite difficulty scale. In climbing shape, we could have soloed it, but we brought a rope and minimal rack: cheap life insurance for forty-something dads who live by the beach.
Clarke gave a quick prayer while I tied in, and we happily climbed skyward as dawn unmasked a soaring fin of rock. As we gained height, the ledges and arêtes fell away, as did carpool schedules and tax brackets achieved or missed. We were simply humans again, doing something ancient. We moved with quiet minds, and drank in our surroundings. Every hand placement was an event, every feeling, a revelation. A piece of red webbing shone brilliantly in a gully far below; someone had rappelled there before. As I climbed, I saw my young son making the same movements in a tree, without anyone teaching him. Deep feelings of connection washed over me, first to all people who have climbed mountains going back through the ages, and then to whatever it was that created all this in the first place.
Clarke and I are old friends. He’s a Christian pastor and I’m…not. We’ve been having a go at each other’s spiritual beliefs for years, whether on long drives to the mountains or over margaritas in the backyard. It started with my question about God telling Abraham to kill his son Isaac. God only stopped Abraham when the knife was at his son’s neck. “You call that a loving god?” I asked Clarke, in one of our first conversations on
faith. We challenge each other’s beliefs, and our own. We have fun with it. Clarke’s sense of humor and bouts of singing often leave me wishing I recorded our talks. He lives in his heart, and our souls march to a beat that overpowers the differences in our intellects. Our shared worship of nature keeps us climbing together and talking shit. We do a route in the Sierra every summer.
I was leading up a glorious pitch when Clarke called out from below. I turned around to see dark clouds on the march and half the sky streaked like a watercolor with too full a brush. The slabby pitch above would be difficult and dangerous if wet. There was a distant roll of thunder. Goosebumps. A much-closer bolt of lightning brought true alarm; the storm was already here. Then a violent ear-splitter just yards away left no doubt: Lightning was on us and we had to get off immediately. My mind reeled—how had things changed so quickly?
With no time to wonder, we rappelled off the arête, into a steep gully, as a downpour started. I had to unclip from the rope and stood untethered on a slab with small edges and a lot of air below. Frigid raindrops came like needles through my t-shirt as Clarke descended. I pulled the rope and it caught a rock the size of a phone book twenty feet above, sending it tumbling toward me. There was nowhere to go. I turned away but it slammed into my low back. It started to snow. I wondered whether adrenaline was masking a gaping wound in my back, but I didn’t want to know. The gully funneled water from the upper mountain and rivulets began running all over the rock, like that scene where Indiana Jones illuminates the cave only to see he’s surrounded by countless snakes.
I needed to cross the exposed slab, ropeless, above a sickening drop. For a surreal moment, I watched the sloping holds fill with graupel, realizing if I didn’t move now, I never would. This was not a drill. All of a sudden, our summer jaunt had become a survival test. Something beyond us was calling the shots now.
I shut out all thoughts, crossed the slab, and we slid to the end of our rope and looked for old webbing, rap rings, anything to set the next rappel. We built minimal anchors to conserve gear for the unknown raps to come. I lost track after five. More than once, I waited for Clarke to lower himself, then rappelled off a
single small nut, pushing the risk of falling from my mind. We
got colder as minutes wore into hours. Clarke called out, “Please hurry,” as I rappelled, his voice pitiful and desperate.
As the wind strengthened and the torrent intensified, our body temperatures dropped. The magnitude of the rock walls, the distance to the ground below, the starkness of the driving wind and water became a presence unto itself. Forces at play were utterly beyond the human scale. The storm and the mountain hammered our senses. They were all we could comprehend. This presence was supreme, but not benevolent. I understood it from somewhere outside of my suffering, like there was a separate, higher version of me, unbent by the conditions, watching us without judgment. I was filled with amazement, which turned to reverence for these two tiny humans, struggling in the downpour, humbled by the staggering nature of nature.
Is this what inspired people to create stories about gods? If there was a god, it didn’t love us, though. It just was. The same sun that brings warmth and life sends out destroying radiation. The same punishment that rains down from the sky feeds the tiny flowers in the moraine. This was a god that lets the baby crawl toward the neglected knife and learn for itself.
Clarke had once lain paralyzed, face-down in the ocean. He’d been surfing two-foot waves, fell in a shallow spot, and broke his neck. Friends rescued him. Had he been surfing somewhere remote, he likely would have died. Clarke thanked God, but God could just as easily have spared him the tribulation. If God is responsible for the good, why do we allow him a free pass for the bad? Are we really going to sing his praises for the high points in our lives and then recite a platitude about his “mysterious ways” when the dark corners of his creation emerge? Does he intervene in human affairs? Does he supersede the laws of nature he created? If so, when, and why?
We arrived at the last rappel. We could see the ground just a hundred feet below. For most of the descent, we were in the partial shelter of the gully. Now we exited onto a broad vertical face, exposed to undiminished wind, and I was shocked at how much colder I became. My determination was brushed aside like a feeble New Year’s resolution. We were shaking continuously, struggling to do basic tasks, and our speech had been reduced to simple words. Clarke asked, “D-d-do you think…we’re hypothermic?” My morale couldn’t afford to admit we had been for hours.
“I’m trying not to be,” I grunted, as I pulled the rope from our previous anchor.
It was stuck. Without it, there was no getting down. Someone had to go back up and free it, and, given the conditions and our exhaustion, failure seemed likely. We might have remained at that belay, our wills betrayed by our flagging brainpower. We were fighting a losing battle, but topography and temperature didn’t take a side. They were just being what they were, following the rules of the universe. I saw no saving angels here, but Clarke was buoyed by his belief there were. He set off without discussion, climbing straight back up the pitch, which had become a small waterfall just shy of freezing.
I had been cold before—I lived in my truck in the Tetons, in winter—but this was a new depth of cold, and I tried to not let fear take over. I practiced the Wim Hof breathing method, but after several minutes I realized I was kidding myself. This couldn’t go on. I wondered if my hands were too cold to rappel. I was failing. No matter how tough a situation I’d been in before, being unable to go on was never a worry. Stamina was my strong point. But now I could see a limit to the light inside me. It wasn’t clear how long I had left, but the end was visible, like an apparition in the hours, perhaps minutes, left to me. There may have been a god or rewarding afterlife waiting somewhere, but I had no glimpse beyond the opaque wall of my mind, which was clouded over like an eye with cataracts. We seemed suddenly, terribly out of our depth.
Clarke freed the rope and rappelled back down to our hanging belay, a subdued triumph for the faithful. We still had one more rappel to do. As we pulled the rope, it jammed again, like a menacing presence in the rocks above wouldn’t let us go; it didn’t occur to me that it might have been our foggy minds not setting the ropes right. Clarke set off once more. I was sentenced to another watch at the belay. I became desperate, then breathed and reeled my composure back in. Clarke freed the rope a second time and rappelled back down, stopping on a tiny ledge halfway to make sure it stayed free. Again it was stuck. My heart sank. I understood now that there was a real chance we would not survive this. Surely Clarke could not climb up through the frigid waterfall a third time. There would be no divine intervention today. There was only snow, glistening water, moaning wind, our little rope, and a mountain that was blurring away, in parallel with my ability to think and move.
On a ledge above me, Clarke gave a long, guttural yell, part exertion, part rage. I couldn’t see him, I just heard that eerie sound. This wasn’t my mild-mannered friend, this was paleolithic. He was wielding a terrible strength, a man in possession of his full power, beating back death.
The rope came unstuck. And that was it.
Did Clarke’s god give it a wiggle?
Did the quantum field smile on our effort and realign a few molecules just so?
I’d like to say I had some triumphant turn of will or saw God’s hand pulling us through, but I didn’t. It was only later, looking back with a warm, well-fed brain, that I wondered how many miraculous triumphs, how many feats of survival have been attributed, mistakenly, to God, angels, or other celestial agents? Maybe divinity isn’t put in us by God, but emanates simply from us. Maybe seen in their darkest moments, and their truest light, people can actually make perfect efforts, and we don’t need favors called in from heaven.
Maybe adrenaline is an angel. Maybe we are our own supreme beings. Maybe being human is enough.
The epic was over. We threaded the last rappel and were on the ground in minutes. We would be fine. At the base of the cliff, we were free to walk, to take shelter from the wind. We headed toward camp, food, and dry clothes we had luckily stashed in a small cave.
After four hours in the fetal position, drifting in and out of sleep in my down bag, I stopped shivering. We fell asleep sometime that day and woke the next. We hiked toward the car and hot coffee with a strange brand of clarity, like I had higher resolution senses. Tiny water drops fell from purple dwarf daisies. A Steller’s jay called behind me and to the left. I mulled the power of the tiniest twists of chance and whether some grand designer had been pulling levers the previous day. But I had no revelations about God, just a stronger belief in myself and gratitude for Clarke’s friendship.
We went back to the Palisades the following summer to finish the climb with our friend Jeff and ended up in another storm, though less severe. We might have moved a little faster, or the storm might have come a little later in the day. This time we were on the summit when the lightning came. We had proper gear and a trail to mostly run down, except for one rappel. The experience was cold and wet but manageable, fairly relaxed, fun even, once we got off the high terrain and out of lightning’s way. We knew what could have been, and how lucky we were. We got back to camp and made food, cracked jokes, jumped naked in the icy lake. Why not? Nature had already stripped us clean.