A testimony of God’s Guidance to Us on Our Climb Up the Grand Teton
by Joel Bates
Thinking back to a moonlit night this past September, vivid images scroll across my mind: the
gaping moraine with its towering mountain spires shooting up out of the glacier, standing as silent, ghostlike sentinels; a once pristine, now off-white snow field, stained with sooty, late-season runoff down its aged, icy crust; and ancient, deep crevasses with dirt marking them like open wounds. Our objective, the towering summit, lay above a forbidding pass which imposed its strong will against us and denied us both easy passage and swift ascent. This was the Grand Teton.
Months earlier, we had set our sights on summiting the “Grand.” Poring over guidebooks, training our muscles for climbing, and practicing the technical skills of multi-pitch lead climbing prepared us for the day we would make our strike for the summit. Drawn finally to its heights as though called by an invitation from God, our three-person team—my co-worker Leah, my 18-year-old daughter Emma, and I—faced the formidable peak. Feeling vulnerable, uncertain, and shrouded in deep darkness, we could see no refuge on the hard trail. It was as if we were marooned along the side of the mountain. If not for breadcrumbs of grace and benevolent guidance from the “Good Shepherd,” we would surely have failed.
From the moment this mission began, it seemed like the cards were stacked against us. On
arriving in the Teton National Park, the permit ranger informed us that a big storm was forecasted to hit the range the day we had planned to summit. So, our well-designed plan stood jeopardized. Though wearied by two days of hard driving and wrestling with indecision as the afternoon shadows grew longer, we opted to chuck our preplanned itinerary in the trash and hit the trail immediately in an attempt to outrun the threatening tempest. I knew I was breaking one of my own expedition rules by allowing time pressure to dictate our decision, and then, less than an hour after complete darkness engulfed us, the trail seemed to dwindle to nothing among the giant boulder field. I realized I was breaking another rule: Safety lies in the leader’s level of training. I feared my lack of training and experience for this venture could very well place our team in an extremely unsafe situation.
As the expedition’s leader and our strongest climber, I felt the burden of leadership weighing
me down more than my heavy backpack. The truth is, I was lost and had no one to lead me to safety. I looked back and saw Emma and Leah clambering over the boulders, faithfully abandoning themselves to my leadership. I didn’t want harm to come to them, and I didn’t want to let them down. I faced a choice: either pretend I knew what I was doing, hoping I could get us back on the trail and eventually to the top or lift my face toward heaven and ask for help. I made the simple choice made easier by the cloak of darkness, as I uttered a prayer under my breath, Father, I’m lost please show me the way.
As I muttered the last word, I saw a gleaming headlamp from some tardy, woebegone hikers still
trudging down the trail after a late-in-the-day summit. They were 100 feet to my left, so I boulder-hopped over to them and acted casual as I asked if the trail continued from the direction they had come from. “It gets better as you go,” they said. Thank you, God!
Soon we were making good time, huffing and puffing upward, when suddenly Emma called for a rest. She shed her weighty pack, bent over at the waist, and promptly spewed the contents of her stomach behind a large rock. The high altitude combined with her fatigue to take its toll on her body.
Now, we stood stranded on the side of a mountain in the dark and had little choice but to press on to a campsite. Leah and I divided much of Emma’s gear and added it to our packs to relieve her stress before we pushed on. Oh God, give us strength, I whispered.
After an hour or more of aggressive, steep hiking, we found our energy reserves depleted. We
desperately needed to stop, but we had no suitable place to pitch our tent without being vulnerable to the elements. Again, I prayed, God provide for us, and simultaneously to my plea, Leah spotted a light in the distance above us. “Maybe it’s a campsite,” she judged. “The person doesn’t seem to be hiking.”
We discovered four, small, high-mountain campsites, the last refuge below tree line, nestled
among boulders and scrubby spruce and rejoiced to find the last and smallest site unoccupied. Our tent fit perfectly. We wasted no time in making camp and enjoying a hasty, late-night snack. We prayed for Emma’s healing and lay down for a mere four-hour respite before waking at 3:00 AM for the final push to the summit.
Lying there waiting for sleep to overtake me, my thoughts centered on our circumstances. We
were racing the clock. One of our party was ill, and I felt a growing sense of insecurity caused by my frequent bouts of disorientation. We had not totally failed yet, but I held little hope that we would actually succeed. I meditated on the eddying thoughts for a moment until another thought pushed the concern aside and intruded upon my worry. “Have I not invited you?” The unmistakable voice of the Holy Spirit was questioning me. I wanted to say, “But I’ve almost gotten us lost three times! My daughter is sickly and ought not be pushed any farther! I doubt whether I have the courage necessary to follow You to the top.” However, against these objections, I whispered, “Yes! Yes, God, despite all my doubts and conclusions, as You remove the obstacles and guide my bearing, I will keep ascending.”
What is it with God, anyway? Why does He do this to us? He seems bent on making our
relationship with Him so dramatic, so dangerous and costly, so real. Abraham was invited to follow a little-known God to an unknown land. That’s just crazy! David, though he was an insignificant shepherd boy, was anointed to become the greatest king, aside from a descendant who would take up the throne in his line someday—Jesus, the King of Kings. From a burning bush, God invites Moses—the murderous, adopted son of an enemy pharaoh, now a Bedouin shepherd nobody—to free a miserable people group an lead them into an inheritance and blessing they would never fully comprehend? Why Indeed!
Hebrews 11:1 tells us “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not
see.” Oh, the drama sandwiched between these lines of text! In verse 6, the writer of Hebrews
continues the mystery revealing the impetus behind why life with God is so theatrical, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” He is creating more than an exciting story with our lives. He’s crafting a framework for closeness with Him, and there is a reward for trusting Him.
By 3:15 a.m., we were making tracks. Emma was feeling better; Leah reported renewal from her rest; and I felt more confident. Over the next 18 hours, I followed breadcrumbs of grace. When we ran out of water on the lower saddle, our futile search for the guidebook’s promised “glacial trickle” prompted my prayers. It was then that Emma immediately discovered the water source. As we approached the ambiguous rocky intersection, “The Needle’s Eye,” where the technical, Upper Exum ridge forks from the main trail and we could have easily strayed, a random couple just ahead of us pointed the way. As I roped up and began ascending the famous “Wall Street” approach, I was overcome by uncharacteristic confidence as I stemmed over the thousand-foot sheer drop expanse of the daunting “Step Across.” However, God’s most obvious confirmation of His invitation to us was the sunlight and warmth that poured forth from the heavens. What made His goodness so evident was the expansive, dark and ominous cloudbank that hovered in a semicircle, promising a storm just miles in the distance. It mounted and gathered all that day, trying to press in and impose its will and do us harm, but
for the duration of our special climb with Jesus, all was sunny and peaceful on the mountain.
The following day, the day we had originally planned to summit, dawned gloomy, bleak, and
wet. It was then that we discovered the full extent of the Lord’s kindness and faithfulness to us.
Throughout the day, we encountered in a long line of crestfallen, soggy, would-be mountaineers, barred from the summit and forced to retreat before a barrage of rain and as they descended below the snow and ice. In contrast, Leah, Emma, and I were soggy to be sure, but not sorrowful, for we had reached the summit of the Grand Teton. God had protected us from the storm and guided us completely up the Exum Ridge route. We not only reveled in the reward of faithfully following Him, we experienced real life by accepting His grand invitation.
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.