“Why don’t you get up and make the coffee, while I stay in my sleeping bag and plan our ascent route?” I half-heartedly ask my climbing partner Hank.
He just looks at me with that unassuming, “give-me-a-break Val Jon” look of his. It’s three o’clock in the morning, cold, dark, and damp, and neither of us wants to leave the comfort of our tent. But we’re committed to this climb, so we don our parkas and gloves and confront the bitter cold.
In silence, Hank and I gather up our gear and join the rest of our climb team assembled at base camp, which is located at eleven thousand feet.
Thirty-three climbers in all have come together for this extraordinary ice climb to the summit of Mount Shasta in Northern California. During our team meeting, we decide to make our ascent via “Avalanche Gulch,” a treacherous glacier route up a steep icy slope. This particular route is shorter than others, but it’s also notorious for its deep crevasses and unstable blue fractures, so one wrong move could mean sudden death.
Ice climbing requires crampons for the boots and ice axes for leverage and braking. Ropes, carabiners, and belays are reserved for near-vertical climbs, which we may or may not need for this particular ascent route.
For those unfamiliar with ice climbing, braking is used when a climber loses their footing on steep slopes. It’s done by grabbing the ax with both hands, flipping onto one’s side, and plunging the sharp metal tong into the ice.
A firmly planted ax serves as an anchor and stabilizes the fallen climber’s position until they can regain their footing. Everyone on the team has practiced the braking procedure many times over along with other vital safety and life-saving protocols.
As the full moon casts a bluish glow over the ice, we begin our ascent to the summit. At about twelve thousand feet, we come upon a massive fissure running horizontally across the steep glacier face. We traverse around its left edge and cross back about thirty feet above it. Climbing to the slope’s center, we zig-zag our way up to gain altitude and distance from the crevasse.
Traversing around crevasses is a treacherous activity. If one climber slips, the entire group could be pulled into the abyss. For this reason, we are untethered and climbing independently. We are, however, organized into small teams of six to provide each other support if needed.
All goes well as we gain altitude above the crevasse, until one fateful moment when the crampon on my left boot suddenly pops loose and I lose my footing.
Tumbling headfirst downhill, I instinctively grab my ice ax with both hands and prepare to stop. Landing hard on my back, however, my ax bounces loose from my hands and I slide uncontrollably down the steep slope towards the crevasse.
In a moment of frozen terror, my life flashes before my eyes and I am going to die! Then suddenly my flailing body slams into something solid, knocking the wind out of me.
Stunned and disoriented on my back with my head pointed downhill, I’m unable to get a bearing on how close to the edge I’ve come and how close to death I am.
Looking up, I see a blur of movement and shifting dark images. Clearing the snow and ice off my glacier glasses, I realize Hank and my fellow climbers have formed a human net, catching me just a few yards before I careened over the edge of the crevasse!
I’m in shock, numb, and completely speechless. I’m also totally embarrassed and feeling extremely vulnerable. I’ve spent years being a strong and independent man, priding myself on not needing the help of anyone. Needing help always seemed like a sign of weakness to me, so this emergency situation is deeply disturbing.
“We’ve got you, VJ! Hold on buddy, we’re not gonna let you fall!” I fidget around trying to stand myself up and respond, “Thanks guys, I can take it from here.” “Lay still, you’re pushing us back towards the edge!” Hank barks at me. “No, really, I’m okay guys, I’ve got this.” There was no way I was going to be the weakest link in this chain! This time, however, a number of my team members replied, “No you don’t have it VJ, you need to stop right now or you’re going to kill us all!”
That message got in. The reality of killing my fellow climbers so I can stay in control is just too much for me to bear. The humbling realization shatters my macho control mechanism and I suddenly relax into letting them help me.
As they reattach my gear, stand me up and reassure me with pats on the back, I realize it’s nearly impossible for anyone to support me. Experiencing them caring for me this way is both wonderful and wrenching.
My chest tightens and tears come to my eyes as I realize how many times in my life I’ve not let others help or support me. I would always say, “No problem, I can do it myself.” I didn’t want to burden anyone or put anyone out.
The deeper truth, however, is that if I let someone support me, I would be obligated to them in the future. The result might be that they could then somehow control me the way my father controlled me as a child.
Looking into the caring faces of my fellow climbers, I suddenly see superimposed images of my mother, sister, and little brother, my friends, and exes who I’ve shunned and alienated with my stubborn macho independence
I reflect on the pain and frustration that not being able to help me must have caused all these people in my life. So many opportunities I have had to accept the support of those who love and care for me, but no, I have to be strong and independent.
How selfish and arrogant of me to rob them of the opportunity to contribute to my life! And how easy it would be for me to slide into humiliation over this display of narcissism.
Standing here among those who just risked their lives to save mine, I realize I have a choice; I can dramatize my humiliation and hide behind my rugged individualism, or I can humbly open myself to their care and support.
I choose to set humiliation aside and open with humility, and as I do, a wave of emotion fills me. For the first time in my life, as far back as I can remember, I’m able to see that accepting help from others is not a sign of weakness, it’s an act of humility.
I also realize that rather than being a burden to people when I’m in need, it allows them to feel useful and to make a difference by offering their support and care. There’s no doubt that my fellow climbers are ecstatic about having just saved my life; I can see the joy and exhilaration on their faces.
Still surrounded by a human net of care, I thank each member of my team for saving my life, and I apologize for placing them in additional danger. Each one of them nods in recognition, and nearly everyone assures me that having the chance to help save my life was far more important to them than blaming me for being a bit heedless.
As I allow myself to be vulnerable and let their care in, my defensive armor melts, then drops away. We resume our ascent, and tears fill my glacier glasses as I reflect on the experience of my life being saved by this remarkable group of friends.
How strange and new this is for me. I don’t need to see out of my glasses because I have the full support of those behind me as well as those in front to help me along if I need it.
I’ve always been the one to give support to others, but now I can receive support as well. I breathe into this new awareness and suddenly have a profound realization that has remained with me for years.
As I exhale, it’s synonymous with the movement of giving support, and as I inhale, it’s synonymous with the movement of receiving support. Engaging in both inhaling and exhaling doesn’t mean I’m weak, it means I’m human.
Without further incident, we all ascend to the 14,179-foot summit of Mt. Shasta where a crystalline blue sky embraces the curve of the earth. The summit perch looks like a small crater and is no more than about twenty feet in diameter. Its outer rim is composed of a ring of rocky crags with one high point that signifies the very pinnacle of the mountain.
Shining, sunburned faces grinning from ear to ear sit together in a blissful exchange of laughter and tears.
After celebrating our joint accomplishment, we begin the ritual of reading and signing the register book stowed atop most climbable mountains in the world. The one at the summit of Mt. Shasta is contained inside a green metal canister under the Western crag.
Each member of the team, like those before us, takes the opportunity with the book. After finishing, Hank hands it to me. As the last to see the register, I flip through its yellowed pages and my eyes fall on a passage written by a climber on October 23rd, 1972. I’ll never forget the inscription:
“Father, I dedicate this climb to you. I’m standing at the top of Mount Shasta today because of the love, support, and encouragement you gave me as I was growing up. It’s because of your commitment and love that I was able to make it to the summit today. And although you lost your legs in the Korean War and have never been able to stand beside me. Father, I want you to know that today I stand on the top of this mountain for both of us. I love you with all my heart and all my soul, your son John.”
How beautiful this dedication is! I take in the grandeur of the Earth’s curve from this high summit, close the book, and clutch it firmly to my chest. A wave of inspiration fills me, and I feel deep abiding compassion for all the world’s fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters . . . and I am challenged to act upon the humility that was moving so deeply within me.
You see, up until this very moment I’ve coveted a deep wound in my psyche. As a boy, I was violently abused by my father, and as a result, I cut myself off from him in my early twenties vowing to never speak with him again.
But now I am faced with a choice . . . should I maintain my position and continue to empower all the reasons why I should not reach out to him? Or should I humble myself and take a chance by reconnecting after all these years? It is here, within these deeply challenging life choices, that we both test the authenticity of our inspirations and discover what we are truly devoted to.
I made my choice, and not only did I resurrect my relationship with my father, I affirmed that there is nothing more important to me than living with an open heart and honoring the humility I was gifted with high atop the summit of humility.