I couldn’t find my headlamp anywhere. I had used it during the night, scrounging around my tent in 10-degree temperatures for a face mask to warm my nose. The power was starting to fade, and the low battery indicator was strobing red against the tent wall. I remembered turning it on in the morning to find the clothes I would be wearing for our attempt to reach the summit of Quandary Peak. I also remembered putting my boots on and stepping out of my tent into the morning cold.
“Ben, your headlamp,” Ehren reminded me as he gestured toward the light, still powered on but drowned out in the sunrise reflecting off the snow. But as I carefully arranged all my equipment in my pack, double-checking my map, compass, extra clothing, eyewear, and first aid, the headlamp was nowhere to be found.
Five of us were preparing for the climb. My tentmate, Joe, had recently returned from an earthquake relief mission in Haiti with Union College’s international relief and rescue team. He was still recovering from a bug he had picked up there and struggled with altitude sickness after a fitful night sleeping at 11,000 feet elevation. Ehren and Travis shared the tent next to ours, where the altitude didn’t have any apparent effect. They both rose rested and energetic for the climb. Our fifth member, a Labrador retriever named Horton, was a friend we had met at the trailhead. A local celebrity, Horton climbs the mountain every day, sometimes several times a day, and is notoriously picky about his climbing companions.
Since we were the only team setting out that day, Horton had to settle for our modest pace and heavy breathing. I had as much trust in Horton’s mountaineering skills as any of my teammates, knowing that he was responsible for saving several lives on the mountain during whiteout conditions. Besides, I enjoyed his friendly company.
Fuel for the Journey
After a few failed attempts, Travis fired up his stove and heated some water for oatmeal. I forced down a few bites, then spent at least 10 minutes gnawing on a frozen energy bar. I had no appetite, but I knew I would be using at least 6,000 calories during the day and had to eat. I drank a half liter of water out of a Nalgene I had cuddled all night to keep from freezing.
Joe sat motionless, breathing deeply, trying to fend off the hypoxic state he had fallen into during the night. When we had eaten and packed, he announced that he was feeling much better and was ready for the climb.
We hoisted our packs, strapped on our snowshoes, and began the slow trudge up the lower slopes of Quandary Peak. I felt the absence of my headlamp and prayed that I wouldn’t end up needing it.
Braving the Elements
The weather report was not good. It called for precipitation—two or three inches of accumulation—coupled with 35-mph wind gusts and temperatures in the low teens on the upper ridge. The cold I could handle, but the thought of low visibility and possible whiteouts made me uneasy. But as we started the climb we were thankful for blue skies and bright sunlight.
The climb to the tree line went by too fast. As we stepped out of the protection of the evergreens, I felt the wind slapping drifting snow on my face. I zipped up my shell jacket and donned a pair of goggles. Although the sky above was still blue, the peak was shrouded in a swirling gray cloud that stretched down over the summit ridge.
The higher we climbed, the stronger the wind blew. Soon it started snowing. Travis tapped my shoulder. “Is my nose turning white?”
A small white blotch on the left side of his nose was a definite indication of the beginnings of frostbite. I nodded, and he pulled his bandana higher up his face. Visibility was 400 or 500 feet, just far enough that we could see the edges of the ridge to guide us to the top.
Horton climbed contentedly, even when his yellow fur iced over and frost covered his nose. Travis, Horton, and I took a short break while we waited for Ehren and Joe. I unwrapped an energy bar I had stashed in my pack. I tried to break off a piece for Horton, but it was frozen solid. I put the entire bar halfway into my mouth until it thawed slightly, then I chewed a hunk off, took it out of my mouth, and tossed it to Horton. He devoured it happily, while I thoughtfully gnawed on the rest and tried to figure out how he could be so happy about something so unappetizing.
At 13,000 feet my thermometer read nine degrees, which meant the wind chill must have been around 25 degrees below zero. We were exhausted and cold. Joe struggled with the altitude, but he tenaciously refused to give up. The ridge had narrowed considerably, with abrupt, corniced slopes on each side. I saw the ridge rise up steeply in front of us, and I knew the remaining 1,000 feet would be miserable.
Sprint to the Summit
I worried about the altitude. I knew from experience that without a few days to acclimate, I couldn’t stay more than a few hours above 13,000 feet. At the speed we were climbing, I would likely be at high altitude for at least four hours. I could already feel a pounding headache and the rumble of an upset stomach. It was already 1:00, which meant we had only four hours to summit and descend safely before dark. I couldn’t stop thinking about the horrible things that could happen to us if we were caught above the tree line after sunset, especially during the storm that was predicted to sweep the mountain for the next two days.
We took a short rest in the shelter of some boulders, and Ehren produced a pocket Bible from his pack. Fumbling to find the text he was looking for with heavy gloves on, he began reading from Psalms 42 and 43. Although he was nearly shouting to be heard above the wind, several lines hit me loud and clear. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? . . . Put your hope in God” (Ps. 42:5). I shared a summit prayer with Joe, and encouraged, we began climbing the summit ridge.
Our steps were sometimes five inches at a time, but we gained elevation quickly: 13,100 . . . 13,200 . . . 13,300 . . . It was after 2:00 by the time my altimeter read 14,000 feet. I was worried. Even though the summit was only 200 vertical feet away, we couldn’t see it, and everyone was feeling the effects of spending too much time at too high an altitude. I couldn’t stop belching, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before those energy bars would be back to say hello.
“I think we should turn around.” I don’t remember who said it, but Joe agreed.
I nodded my head, “Yeah, I’ve seen enough of this mountain.” I thought that was the group consensus.
“I’d like to make a summit attempt.” Ehren looked strong to me, and he had the most experience.
Travis joined in: “I guess I’ll give it a try too.”
I looked at Joe. There was no way he was going anywhere but down.
“Well, if you guys are going, I’d like to go too,” I remember saying, but it must have gotten lost in my mask or carried away by the wind. There was no further discussion. Ehren said they might be as much as an hour behind us, so we shouldn’t wait. I gave him a thumbs-up, and Joe just nodded.
Joe and I started our return trip as conditions worsened. I led the descent, but was careful to stay close to Joe. At one point, maybe 50 feet in front of him, I looked back and saw the outline of his jacket. But as soon as I saw it, it was gone. A gust lowered the visibility to just a few feet in every direction.
Joe reappeared in a few seconds, and I made a mental note to stay closer.
When we were safely on the lower slopes, I sat on a rock pile to rest and wait for Joe. Many thoughts went through my altitude-confused mind. Why didn’t I summit? I could have made it. I was a little bitter and depressed at the way things turned out—things beyond my control. Two hundred feet from the summit; close enough to touch!
When I opened my eyes, I realized that the wind had drifted snow against my legs, half-burying me in the few short minutes I had rested there. I stood up quickly and realized that Joe was right behind me. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Thanks, man. I really appreciate what you did up there. Remind me to buy you dinner tonight.”
Joe pointed up the mountain, and I saw Ehren and Travis gaining on us quickly. I nodded, and we kept walking. They caught up with us just below 13,000 feet, where we had stopped to read from the Psalms on the way up. We were off the summit ridge and started the long, gradual descent down the east slope.
When we arrived at the first point above the tree line, we stopped to look for the route. We had a general idea of where it was, but we couldn’t see where the trail entered the trees. After doubling back a few times, Ehren spied a trail marker at the edge of the trees.
We rested there for a few minutes, finally sheltered from the wind and snow. I looked at the sky, which was beginning to get dark.
Where is my headlamp? We decided that Travis and I would take the car keys and set out at our own pace. We could warm the car and strike my tent before Joe and Ehren arrived.
But the route was not as easy to follow as we expected. In the few hours we had spent above the tree line the wind had drifted the snow and completely obliterated our tracks. The trail itself was packed from so many climbers that you didn’t need snowshoes. But if you stepped off, you instantly found yourself in snow up to your knees, even your waist. We followed the trail by trial and error; if we sank, we tried a new direction until the snow was hard enough to walk on.
This worked for a while, until we realized that certain windblown sections of the trail were also hard enough to walk on. After sinking and doubling back many times, we finally managed to navigate down to the thicker forest, where the trail was well marked and easy to follow. Relieved, we almost jogged the remaining mile to the car.
Recuperating and Reflecting
It took me a while to warm up. My head still pounded from the altitude, and I was entirely spent. Just striking my tent took all my energy and willpower. By the time Ehren and Joe arrived we were almost completely packed and ready to go. It was dark, and I couldn’t find all the pieces to my tent without my headlamp. We threw everything, without any organization, into the back of Joe’s Toyota Highlander and drove to the nearest town for dinner. After filling our stomachs, we started driving the hour and a half to Denver, where we would stay at Ehren’s apartment.
I watched the snow fall from inside the car. I loved how silent it was in the valley. Travis and Joe were asleep in the back seat, and I was replaying certain parts of the day in my head. My first thought: Worthless! I endured the worst weather I’ve ever seen, and there wasn’t even a payoff.
But even though I was disappointed, I couldn’t escape the fact that I loved it. I loved that climb. I loved yelling above the wind and pulling my mask higher on my face and worrying about finding the route and being weak from the altitude and gasping for air. I was talking to God, asking Him to show me His purpose for climbing Quandary Peak.
As I remembered more about the day—how I felt—I began to understand: If you climb mountains only to get to the summit, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. No matter how amazing those five minutes on top of the world feel, they aren’t worth the misery and pain of getting there. Mountaineering is worth it only if you love the climb. You have to love the experience—every part of it—in order to get the payoff.
God gave me an object lesson. Mountain climbing is like your relationship with God. If you’re in it only for the achievements—for feeling better, having hope, reaching a certain status with God—it’s not worth it. You have to love every part of it, every part of God, in order to get the payoff. God is not calling us to reach the summit—He’s calling us to experience Him fully. He wants us to love every minute of it, even the high winds and arctic cold.
Paul wrote, “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’” (Rom. 8:15, Message).* God asks nothing from us except that we experience Him.
The drive back to Lincoln, Nebraska, was filled with sleep, quiet music, and lots of fast food. When we finally pulled in front of Prescott Hall, the guys’ dorm at Union College, I had mixed emotions. Mostly I wanted to be back in Colorado, climbing another peak, and searching out God’s will for my life. We unloaded our gear and sorted through our duffels, throwing away trash and stashing accessories.
When the last backpack was unloaded from the back of the SUV, I saw a familiar headlamp lying on the carpet. Minutes later I fell asleep in my own bed with a smile on my face.
* Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
Ben Herzel studies international rescue and relief with a premedical emphasis at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. This article was published February 16, 2012.