Thursday, December 16, 2010

Big vs. Small

In late winter 2009 a few friends and I decided to climb Mt. Rainier. After a long drive from Arizona we arrived at the lodge/trailhead in light snow around 4pm. We had a limited amount of time for the trip and as we sat in the car discussing our plans the snow got heavier and the wind began picking up. The low visibility and fresh snow were sure to slow us down and we did not want to get caught moving during the late afternoon due to avalanche danger so we began considering an early evening departure rather than the originally planned early morning departure. At around 6pm we finally made the decision to start in the evening, after finding an underground washroom area where we geared up and practiced crevasse rescue techniques we set out. It was quite windy when we hit the “trail” and after adjusting our gear to eliminate all exposed skin we tied on to a rope with 20 feet separating each person and set out through the snow.
I was thoroughly elated and felt like bursting with enthusiasm for the trip as we started off. After gaining only a few hundred vertical feet we entered the clouds and visibility dropped off significantly, around a thousand vertical feet later the wind started picking up, gusting to I’d guess around thirty knots.
Luther, Bryan and Chris from left to right
It was now about an hour past midnight and a full on blizzard, I was thankful to have just exchanged the lead with Chris, my quads were still burning from the effort of breaking trail as Chris began taking us straight up a sixty degree couloir. Visibility was no more than a dozen feet with wind howling well above thirty knots and Bryan who was now second in line behind Chris kept falling, since we were roped together his falls were pulling Chris down and Chris was yelling advice and frustration down to him, Bryan was yelling back but the wind whipped both voices away and I could not tell what either were saying or see what was happening. Every time Bryan fell it resulted in a fairly lengthy pause and I’d straighten my knees trying to relieve the lactic acid burn in my quads. We were ascending the couloir to the left of a massive cliff hoping it would break the wind a little, I was actually surprised that the powdery snow was able to stick to such a steep surface and about halfway up the metal teeth under my mountaineering boots broke loose, as I fell I quickly put the adz end of my ice-axe to my chest, falling on my stomach and forcing the point of my axe into the snow and ice, stopping my fall before the rope went taught and pulled Luther who was in front of me.
After one of Bryan’s falls as I stood there resting my quads, an interesting thing happened. As the shouts of the people just forty feet above me contested with the howling wind and the weak lights of headlamps stabbed about through the swirling darkness a tiny sound came clearly through the thundering background: tinkle tinkle tinkle, like small children playing the “triangle” at a Christmas rehearsal. I looked around and saw that right at the base of the cliff there was a sort of concave river of ice, the guys above me were knocking ice shards loose and because the couloir was so steep they passed right by my ear as they skated down the ice river. I experienced a moment of euphoria here and literally broke into a huge grin, this was it! this was a winter blizzard on a northern glaciated peak in all it’s glory, something I’d been looking for :D

Whenever I tell this story I mention that surreal moment as the tiny sound of ice falling down the cliff’s base reached my ears with startling clarity through the roar of the blizzard. For whatever reason there’s something about the small and beautiful in the midst of the huge and powerful that captures the human imagination. This same sense of awe filled me as I sang the Christmas carol “One Small Child” in church this morning.  How do you say “I love you” to someone who hates you? You have to put yourself in a place that the "beloved" can identify with and understand, and then you have to make a sacrifice for that person, a sacrifice that is big enough to render ulterior motives implausible. The lyric “One small hand reaching out to the starlight / One small Savior of Life” brings to its conclusion this expression of the small and beautiful somehow existing in the huge and powerful. Because I now have a nephew, whenever I imagine “one small hand” I see my nephew’s hand “reaching out to the starlight” and something about having a small child that I really love allows me to see the grand artistry of God’s plan to offer hope to mankind. He had to become a “tiny” person because that is what we are and what we understand, He had to sacrifice or the authenticity of His message would be easily questioned. 
And so the huge and powerful... became the small and beautiful, actions really do say things that words can't.

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