God of the Wildnerness
In May, 1986, a group of highschool students and staff from Oregon Episcopal School were participating in a wilderness program on Mt. Hood. They were well above the timberline on snow and ice when the weather turned suddenly. Temperatures dropped in an instant. The wind ripped over the exposed face of the mountain and visibility vanished. The students and staff were understandably stunned and disoriented. Still, they managed to keep their wits about them enough to construct a snow cave for shelter. It wasn’t large enough for everyone and the small opening was quickly covered with snow.
Seven students and two staff members died on the mountain before the rescue could arrive. It was a tragedy that rocked the entire State of Oregon and especially Portland where OES has been a well known private school for years. I was 14. The loss of life was mostly incomprehensible at the time. The event itself was jarring not only because of the shocking tragedy but because this kind of thing was not supposed to happen. The group was on a part of the mountain that is used almost constantly in the summer and early fall. It is a fairly easy hike from two significant ski resorts. They had received instruction and special equipment. But preparation, experience and proximity to civilization do not conquer mother nature.
As someone who spent their entire childhood in the outdoors, often in remote wilderness, regularly in conditions that seemed on their face more dangerous than those on the mountain that day, the story of the OES tragedy shook me on a fundamental level. Still, in all of my excursions and adventures, I had something unique. Something only I had. Something that I was sure would have saved them. Something that would protect me from all harm.
Built like Paul Bunyan and at ease in any wilderness, my Dad didn’t need to be a survivalist because he was so careful in his preparation that he was never in any real danger. The right maps. The right food. The right equipment. The right plan. By the time I was 15, I had been chased by bears, stared down a moose, escaped seaplane drug smugglers in the woods, camped in temperatures that were too cold to register on our thermometers and not once had my Dad been afraid. Not once.
Or so I believed at the time. As the lenses of youthful hyperbolic admiration gave way to a more mature understanding, I eventually realized my Dad had probably been afraid every time I was…which was plenty. But he had never shown it, not to me. To me, he was a giant, invincible Tom Bombadil that was never afraid and never really in any danger.
So, while I was shaken like the rest of Oregon by the events of 1986, I never considered even for a moment that the same mountain, at nearly the same place, could pose any real danger to me the following year when my Dad and some family friends and I ascended to practice skills we would need to later sumit.
We were only a few hours hike above Timberline Lodge, the ski lodge and hotel made famous by the movie “The Shining” and one of the most popular spots on Mt. Hood. In fact, I’m sure we could see the Lodge from where we were on the glacier. The idea was to go up and practice some of the more technical aspects of climbing. While I had spent nearly every family vacation and long weekend in the woods somewhere with my family, I had never done any technical climbing. Amateurs like us climb Mt. Hood every year by the dozens so it is not considered a particularly difficult ascent, but there are places that require crampons and ice axes and roping up. So, we needed practice. As I said, my Dad would not expose me to danger without the proper preparation. So, we roped together and flung ourselves down the icy slope time after time as if thrown by some unseen abominable snowman. We practiced using our axes and crampons to self arrest and worked to get comfortable working as a group in case someone took a spill on the more dangerous ridges during the actual climb.
It was mostly pretty fun. I’ve had plenty of experience flinging myself to the snow-covered ground as a non-proficient and under-practiced skier. But I had never done it on purpose before and enjoyed the snow-cushioned landings and the ability to utilize the strange new climbing equipment in a controlled environment. The weather was clear and calm. The time with my Dad and friends outdoors was so familiar that it seemed like I had rarely been anywhere else. It was honestly quite soothing. Peaceful. Fun.
The practice runs and work with the equipment would have been good preparation for an eventual climb. But it did nothing to prepare us for what the Mountain had in store for us that day. I do not remember how late in the day it was or how long we had been up there. I know we had not yet set up a tent or really even established a campsite. The first thing I noticed was that it seemed to be snowing but nothing was falling from the sky. Instead the wind had picked up without warning and was whipping the powder around us as if we had been caught in some massive snowglobe. The wind brought the temperature down quickly and essentially eliminated visibility. You might think, you could just walk down in the general direction of the lodge and as long as you kept going down, which gravity would help you do, you could stumble your way back to safety even with very low visibility. But that is where many make fatal mistakes. The white out is disorienting. It immediately robs you of all sense of direction. And the glacier is not some well-groomed bunny slope. It is filled with crevasse and cavern that offer no hope of rescue for those who blindly stumble into them.
When the weather turns that quickly, that severely, you don’t just go blindly in the direction you imagine to be safe. We needed another option.
Fortunately, we were prepared to spend the night and had with us the properly rated tents and sleeping bags. Unfortunately, the wind and closing dark would make setting up a tent nearly impossible. Our family friends, two adult men who were experienced outdoorsmen, quickly abandoned the idea of pulling out the flimsy fabric of a tent to try to give it shape in howling gusts and plummeting temperatures. They moved to quickly start digging themselves a cave in the glacier itself. They had their mountaineering tools and the adrenaline of necessity and began desperately carving out a makeshift shelter.
But my Dad had a complicating factor that made the emergency snow cave seem considerably less appealing — me. About the last thing he wanted to do was bury me in ice and snow to spend the night on a suddenly fearsome mountain. He had spent more money than he had to spend on a tent designed for wintery conditions and he wanted the best possible shelter for his quickly freezing and panicking teenage son. By the time I was 15, I had put up tents with my Dad probably a hundred times. We had even set this very tent up in our living room and again in our back yard just to practice before this trip. So I knew what was expected of me when he began taking the tent out of the stuff sack taking care to see that it was not ripped from his hands by the freezing wind.
But I did not spring into action. I did not grab my corners and begin sliding the expandable poles through the sleeves that would give this limp fabric life-saving form and substance. I did not begin attaching the little pockets that would serve as “snow anchors” to the corners to ensure that we would not sail down the mountain in the middle of the night. Even before I physically froze, I mentally iced over. All I could think of was the pictures my mind had created the year before of what it must have been like for those OES students to have to wait out a storm in a snow cave. I had imagined it dozens of times listening to news reports as we suffered the collective agony of hearing about their final hours. Before that I had never even heard of someone digging a snow cave to get shelter and now I was watching our friends do exactly that. In that moment, I was no fearless adventurer raised in the wilds of British Columbia. I was a terrified little boy suddenly facing a waking nightmare fueled by a tragedy that seemed eerily similar to my current predicament.
And then it got worse.
I looked at my Dad scrambling to erect our little dome and I saw something in his eyes that I had never seen before that day. Fear. It was as plain as though the word had been written on his pupils. He was trembling and silent. Focused in a way that communicated all that was at stake. It nearly broke me. The wind and the dark and the cold were enemies I had faced before, but I had always faced them only with my fearless protector. My father seemed to command the elements, he certainly would never fear them. And as long as he was not afraid, I could calm the terrified voices in my own psyche. Now, the god of the wilderness had been replaced by a mere mortal. Now I was there with just a man who had become genuinely afraid of what might happen to him and his friends….and his son.
I did not even realize I had been crying until we were “safe” inside our tent. The events that led me from petrified in the storm, to warming inside my sleeping bag and tent next to my Dad were only ever a blur. I remember seeing our friends disappear into their cave. I remember my Dad literally shaking me out of my stupor. But that’s about it. I don’t remember when my Dad made the intentional choice to sacrifice his hands by removing the gloves that were keeping him from operating the various poles and zippers needed to assemble the tent. I don’t remember whether I helped get it set up or stood waiting for rescue. I don’t remember getting my gear out of my pack or getting into my sleeping bag. My next memory is my Dad cheerfully talking in the tent about what an adventure it all was and what great stories we would have to tell. Even as he acknowledged that he had been unable to secure the tent to the mountain as he would have liked, the fear was gone from his face and his voice. And that’s probably why I remember that part so clearly. The fear that had frozen my brain was dissipating as my protector had returned.
My Dad never regained the feeling in his frostbitten fingers. They functioned but remained numb except for throbbing pain that would attack at even the slightest chill in the air. It was a reminder of both sacrifice and survival. It was a price he would have paid a thousand times over to see us all safely off the mountain the next day. By the time we all finished the short hike back down to the lodge the following morning it was almost as if it had been just a brief bad dream. We were fine, but the experience stuck with me. It wasn’t so much my own fear or frozen toes that I remember most vividly, but the debut of visible fear on my father’s face. He was mortal after all.
It took courage to do what he did on the mountain. He was clearly afraid, but he kept himself focused and got us both safely in our tent. He overcame my failure to rise to the moment and handled it for both of us. I have never been particularly brave myself, but part of my inheritance from my father was a role model that showed me how to be brave not only for myself but for someone else. The thing is, as brave as my Dad was on the mountain that day, that’s not where he showed me how to be courageous. That was just where he showed me that he was merely a man like me and that courage doesn’t come with the Paul Bunyan exterior and it certainly doesn’t come from a lack of fear. Courage comes from an authentic determination not to be bested by your fears and can be infinitely bolstered when someone else vulnerably models it for you.
For that lesson, I had to witness my Dad fight something more powerful than the Mountain. More powerful even than the cancer that brought about his early death. To really learn about courage from my Dad, I had to see him face doubt. And the bravery he showed when he shared his doubt with me will inspire me forever.
Sometime after my Dad was diagnosed and the realities of the coming treatment were sinking in, I was alone with my Dad on a trail. I don’t remember where we were hiking that day or whether we were coming or going. It was a short hike as my Dad was not feeling well. Our conversation had been more strained and forced than usual. There was no tension between us, but we couldn’t seem to figure out whether to talk about or around the cancer. I wasn’t even 40 and barely a father myself and I was facing the prospect of losing the person who taught me how to be a man in the first place. Turns out, that makes conversation tough. Finally, his thoughts kind of spilled out in a confession disconnected from the surface chit chat we were using to fruitlessly distract ourselves.
“I just hope I don’t lose it.” he said.
“Lose what?” I asked wondering if the “it” was something specific or just a reference to…well…everything.
“My faith. I hope I don’t lose my faith. I have been with God for so long and we have been through so much together. I am certain He will not abandon me, but I am worried that I will abandon Him.”
To understand the import of that statement, you have to remember that my Dad had been a professional minister my entire life. He and my Mom had given me faith as a gift at my birth. They had taught me nearly every foundational spiritual thing I held as important. The idea that my Dad could lose his faith was more shocking than seeing fear in his eyes 20 years earlier on Mt. Hood.
“What do you mean?” I asked, still trying to make even the smallest sense out of his strange declaration.
“Well, I want to think that my faith could stand up to any obstacle, but I’ve seen too much to believe that. I’ve counseled people through broken marriages and lost children and addiction and mental illness. I’ve seen what grief and fear and pain can do to a person. Sometimes it makes them turn toward God, but just as often it makes the very notion of a loving God seem absurd. How can there be a God worth worshipping that would allow the losses I’ve seen? What will I think, when I am facing my own death?”
I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t even want to contemplate the question. I didn’t want to have a dialogue or engage in our usual back and forth as we talked and debated our way to something that seemed like truth. I just wanted him to snap out of it and tell me he was kidding and that he loved God and God loves us and everything will be fine. I wanted him to be the god of the wilderness with nothing to fear and all in his control. Instead I saw only the scared man fumbling with frozen fingers to set up our tent. He was just a man. You know….like me.
Sometime after his death as I reflected on that day, I began to realize that I had never really understood what it meant to be brave. To that point, I believed courage was a sense of fearlessness that always seemed to elude me. It was standing strong and mighty in the face of all opposition. What I saw from my Dad on that day, and years before on the mountain, was the opposite. But I have come to believe that the courage that matters is not the stone faced lack of fear, but the ability to acknowledge your fear as a part of you that is not something to be conquered, but discovered and even, in certain instances, loved.
I’m not suggesting that you should want to be afraid or live your life in fear. Fear can be terrible and destructive. I am only saying that your fear is not an enemy, but a voice your true self uses to illuminate who you really are. It is not something that needs to be a source of shame, but can be a window into authentically coming to accept even those parts of you that you do not like. Courage then is not so much eliminating fear as it is developing a relationship with your fear that allows you to acknowledge it without being a slave to it. True courage allows you to learn from fear and not simply hide from it or try to compartmentalize it away.
Bravery is not irrational confidence in the storm. It is not unfaltering optimism in the face of your mortality. It is being willing to admit to your son on the trail that you are not a god, but just a man who, at that moment, is full of fear and doubt. Then your son, having seen your humanity can start to face his own fears in a way that allows for learning and growth and not simply dogged denial.
The bravest among us are those who can reveal who they really are even when, especially when, the revelation is terrifying to them.
I learned a lot about courage from my father. But in the end, it was not the fearless protector who was the best teacher. It was the fearful man brave enough to show me who he really was.
And so my inheritance continues to grow.