Michael had it written all over his face. He was done. Ninety minutes into our four-day hike, he was whipped. Michael was not really an athletic kid, a tad overweight and sweating profusely. He was wearing blue jeans and seemingly unprepared to climb a mountain. As an at-risk high schooler on our 12-day adventure called Leadership Pursuits, Michael already had accomplished way more than he probably dreamt he could. He’d gone whitewater rafting and kayaking. He belayed off a rock face, ridden horses, built a campground, and now was on a four-day ascent to the summit of Mt. Adams, a 12,280-foot volcano in Southwest Washington, adjacent to the infamous Mt. St. Helens; and he was ready to quit.
Greg Johnson, the trip leader and our most seasoned mountaineer in Youth Dynamics Adventures, pulled the group of 12 into the shade of some old-growth cedars for a short break and went over to Michael to assess the situation. Michael plopped his 60-pound pack onto the ground and collapsed in a heap onto a log. After we had rested for 10 or 15 minutes, we needed to get back on the trail, but we had a decision to make. Should we continue on with Michael or without him? It was to be a four-day hike to the summit and back. We really only had two options: Either we could pull one of our leaders off the trail, and he and Michael could sit in the parking lot and wait four days for us to return, or we could try as a team to get Michael through the next several days. We let the team decide. They rallied. The team wanted to help Michael complete the journey to the summit and back.
Greg immediately began to rummage through Michael’s pack. He discovered a family-size Bible, some blue jeans, some other heavy items he wouldn’t need, and promptly buried them. (We retrieved them on the way back.) Other members of the group volunteered to take some of his other gear so Michael’s pack would be lighter. Would it be enough? Would he last the day? Would he last four days? Only time would tell.
Our little caravan started back on the trail with me in the lead, followed by six high school boys, with three leaders interspersed, and Greg planted directly behind Michael bringing up the rear. What followed was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. From one pit stop to the next, Greg was right there with Michael chirping in his ear. “You can do this. It’s just around this next bend.” Or, “Let’s make it to that big tree. Just 10 more minutes, then we can rest.” Sometimes Greg would encourage Michael; other times he was stern with him, prodding him forward. Step by step, Michael walked up that mountain. We hiked through the trees in the morning; beautiful forests of pine, cedar, Douglas fir and blue spruce. We emerged through the tree line just after lunch. We were encouraged, spirits were high. Then we encountered a section of the mountain that might as well be Modor. Straight out of Lord of the Rings, it is a large field of lava rock, and it is brutal. Michael persevered and made it to our campsite above the lava rock at the base of mountain’s face. We spent the night at the snow line with our tents pitched mostly on rocks.
We took most of the evening and the entire next day with lessons about life and leadership and how God fits into the whole picture. We also spent a significant amount of time in snow school, learning how to climb safely in the snow with boots and crampons, how to properly use our ice axes, and most importantly how to stop ourselves if we fell, while not stabbing ourselves with our axes in the process!
The morning of the third day, we awoke early for a mountain ascent, leaving at 2 a.m. so we could summit and climb back down before the snow got soft and dangerous in the afternoon sun. We set out with our headlamps in the dark of the early morning, climbing in a line, one after the other, in a zig-zag pattern up the steep face of Mt. Adams. The face itself is about 1,500 feet of vertical, and it feels as if it’s straight up. Each step was taken carefully, with our ice axes in our uphill hands, planting them firmly in the snow, then scraping out a level foothold before taking our next step—then repeating the process. After three or four hours of climbing, we reached the top of the face, exhausted, coming to grips with the reality that we had only reached a false summit. False because if we hadn’t known better, we would have thought it was the summit while we were climbing only to reach the top and realize the summit was still beyond us, and we couldn’t see it from where we were climbing. While we waited for Michael and Greg to join us, we enjoyed a snack and took in the expansive view of the mountains below us as the sun had risen during our ascent. After a good rest, the team was eager to take on the final push. We set out on a free for all, traversing horizontally across a ½-mile flat field of snow and reconvened at the base for a final ascent of the last couple hundred feet of vertical. The team decided to wait and let Michael lead the team up from here. As we made the final push, here was Michael, the kid I thought was going to quit an hour into our hike, leading the team to the top. As he reached the summit first, a wide smile came across his face as he jumped up and down and shouted at the top of his lungs. It was in all aspects a pinnacle moment in his life. He had accomplished something well beyond what he believed he could do, something no one ever would be able to take away from him, and learned some things about himself that no doubt will stay with him for the rest of his life.
I have witnessed moments such as this again and again with teenagers while climbing mountains, whitewater rafting or rock climbing. The medium really doesn’t matter as long as the elements are the same. Take someone outside his or her comfort zone, include challenge and some risk, create an environment where he or she must exercise faith and dig down inside him or herself to accomplish something that previously seemed impossible, while a team of people surround and support the person. It’s an amazing thing to watch.