I resolve to climb beyond an habitual sin of mine and to progress in imitation of Jesus.
Below, I reflect on this matter by focusing on four ages of my life—when I was twelve, when I was about twenty, when I was about fifty, and when I was sixty.
As I write, now as a Christian, I am seventy-one and am challenged to speak truthfully, succinctly, usefully, and in imitation of Jesus.
I was twelve. It was cold.
I came downstairs to the kitchen and noticed that the temperature outside our house was 39 degrees below zero.
I took off my shirt and dashed outside.
Mom spun away from the stove and shouted, “Wait! Wait! Dikkon Eberhart, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
I slammed the door shut behind me.
(Wooden doors don’t slam with their usual sound at 39 below. Instead, they bang and sharply reverberate.)
The door wrenched back open. Mom stuck her head out. “Dikkon, come in this second! THIS SECOND!”
I stood on the porch with my arms spread out. (I admit the air in my lungs had frozen stiff, and I was gasping--but I was out there with no shirt on, at 39 below!)
“Richie!” Mom yelled over her shoulder at Dad, “Richie, come here! Your son—he’s….”
She slammed the door.
We lived in Hanover, NH, which is about halfway up the state, on hilly terrain. Hanover is not so far north in New Hampshire as to be in the real mountains. But last night had been clear and still. We were one day after a full moon. Even in Hanover, it can get cold.
I was a man, outside, naked to the waist, at 39 below.
New Hampshire’s real mountains are the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, which is dominated, as part of a great curving east-west massif, by Mount Washington. Mount Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern United States, at 6,288 feet. Also it is the windiest spot on the globe, having registered a sustained wind of 231 mph at the summit’s weather station, in 1934.
Furthermore, Mount Washington is one of the most dangerous mountains to climb in the United States.
One, while Mount Washington is not as high as other mountains in the United States, its weather can become lethal, very quickly.
Two, the mountain is located only a three-and-a-half hour drive north of the densely populated Boston area.
Well, many carefree hikers live in sunny Boston who are just watching for a good day to drive to the Presidentials and to stroll up Mount Washington for a view from its top. However, Mount Washington’s massif divides cold, dry northern air from warm, wet southern air. The two masses of air sometimes pour across the summit ridge, and they mix, and--
Virtually instantly a sunny climbing day is thirty-five degrees, with fog and driving rain, so foggy you can’t see six feet ahead. Nor can you even distinguish up from down. And the wind is now gusting over 60 mph. And you are climbing in a tee shirt and shorts. In an hour you are probably dead.
(Reader, you can't believe not being able to distinguish up from down? Well, I didn’t either—like you, I thought it was a mountaineering tall tale. Until it happened to me.
(Wanna know what to do? Lie down. Roll slowly each way. Your body will tell you which way is up, and which way is down.)
In Hanover that memorable morning, I was a man, outside, naked to the waist, at 39 below.
Even then, at twelve, inside myself I admitted I was cold. But I told myself--feel it, feel it, feel the cold!
The rest of the year is just April, mud, and gardens. The rest of the year is just summer, sweat, and lolling. But this is real.
This is the universe as it actually is.
The universe is empty. It is cold. It is permanent. It is huger than me. It dwarfs my fantasies, my problems, my conceits.
…but now I want to be INSIDE!
It was Dad who opened the door this time. I burst in. The kitchen was so hot it made me hurt.
“So?” Dad asked, grinning, “How was it?”
I wanted to laugh, but I was too frozen to breathe. I coughed and waved my hands trying to signal positivity.
Mom: “You’re crazy.”
She shook her head. “Now put clothes on, you dope, and we’ll have breakfast.”
When I came back down—turtlenecked and double sweatered—I was vividly alive. “For the rest of my life, I can say I’ve been outside at 39 below without a shirt!”
Mom included both me and Dad with her disgusted comment.
“Men,” is what she said, and she dished out the eggs.
Later, at age about twenty, three times I climbed Mount Washington, solo. One of those ascents was up the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine, in May. During that particular year, May was still winter on that north-facing wall. Partly I was climbing on ice and collapsing snow, with frigid melt water pelting down on me from the boulder wall.
Stupid, but I made it.
(I DO NOT recommend doing this, even if you are someone who is twenty years old, and is immortal. Wait until it’s really summer; then it's still a very stiff climb.)
I LOVE WINTER. I LOVE COLD. I LOVE SNOW.
I have loved any physical challenge in snow. For example, I loved climbing the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine, in winter.
Then I became older, in middle life, at about the age of fifty, and what I like best to do in snow is what I imagine is possible by seeing the photo above.
What I see is a long snowy field over a low hilltop. Enough snow to make a slog but not enough snow to require snowshoes or skis. Looking at the photo, I imagine the temperature to be about 15 or 20 above. Little wind. No civilization at all. Midday. Walking alone.
Looking at the photo, further I fantasize an average day in the middle of my life. I fantasize that there is another mile to trudge across the hill in order to reach the inn, way north—up above that great wall of mountains in New Hampshire.
I’ll be tired when I reach the inn, I imagine, but they have an innkeeper’s reception in late afternoon at that inn, while the day darkens—hot mulled cider or cold beer. Probably sliced sausages with strong mustard on the bar; hard, sharp cheddar.
I miss my wife and children who are back at home, while I make one of my regular sales swings into the far north. I cold-called through this morning, and then I took the afternoon off so as to enjoy my trudge through the snow.
I have three well-prepped sales appointments for tomorrow; two of those likely will close; one of those might close big—I’ve been working on that sale for six weeks.
Here’s the truth. While I walk and I miss my home, I need to be certain not to imagine that the whole of my life is good. Parts of my life are good. Parts, however, are not good.
I must not imagine but instead must be truthful.
Too often I speak too quickly and without sufficient thought beforehand. Not in a sales situation, no; in a marital or parental situation, often yes.
Years ago, undertaking difficult climbing challenges, I took great care to succeed and to thrive by means of truth. Yes, climbing the headwall solo in May with snow and ice still covering most of the ascent is stupid, but the truth was that I had experience, fine equipment, strength and sufficient élan.
Truthfully, I knew I could succeed.
I would need to plan each step with intent and with judgement, that’s all. Not unlike speaking only after each thought I intended to speak has been evaluated beforehand.
For a fantasizing fellow like me, the way to succeed is not to imagine myself at the top of the headwall, but to concentrate profoundly on where I am, at each step along the way.
To feel it; to feel it; to feel it.
Planning the headwall climb, I knew I could succeed because, years ago, at twelve, I had been a hero in bronze—a frozen hero, yes, but—as a man—I had been out on our porch without a shirt on, at 39 below.
Now my fantasy has placed me in the middle of my life but by no means any longer as a hero in bronze. Bronze is just too cold, too stiff.
Yes, in my fantasy, I’m still walking in snow—but now with my family to get back home to. And, since I’ve carefully climbed my professional mountain to possible sales tomorrow, it is likely I will reach its summit, too.
All that part of my life is good.
And then later I am sixty, nearing the end of my professional climb. The truth is that still I sin, and my habitual sin weighs on our family.
Recently, I’ve become curious about this fellow Jesus.
I can’t go back to being twelve again, nor even twenty. But here’s the question. Could I be myself, at sixty, just as I am…and still feel as alive as I did back then?
Could I? With Jesus?
And if I could—with Jesus—would I be able to climb above my particular manifestation of sinfulness?
As I understand it, those who follow Jesus believe all humans are sinful but that believers who are able to trust in Him may live with aliveness and awe even so.
May it be!
The photo below is of Tuckerman’s Ravine. For scale, look closely at the two dark spots just below the top right hand edge of the ravine. One is about an inch-and-a-half from the right edge of the photo, the other about two inches. Those two spots are skiers. Also, there’s one more skier just above the boulder wall, in the center. Managing that boulder wall in the center of the photograph was part of my ascent that winter, and it was where most of the melt water was cascading down on me.
To schuss the headwall at Tuckerman’s—ski straight down it—is an act of daring that was far beyond anything that ever attracted me.
[The photo is copied from the Wikipedia article about Mount Washington.]