Throughout Holy Scripture, mountains have been used as a physical location where man comes into contact with God. In Genesis 22 God commands Abraham to take his only son Isaac upon one of the mountains and offer him as a sacrifice. In Exodus Moses came to the mountain of God at Horeb where God revealed Himself through the burning bush. In the New Testament, Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up to a mountaintop where Jesus is transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and where the voice of God reveals Jesus to be His beloved son. It is at the intersection of God and man on the mountain that we see transformation happen. Abraham’s faith is put to the test, and after proving his faithfulness to God, he enters into a new covenant with God. Moses encounters God’s heart for his children, and is given the command to set the Israelites free from slavery. Peter, James and John are convicted to stay and pray on the mountain with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In all of these stories, man is transformed by encountering God in the heights.
Therefore, due to their significance in Scripture, mountains make a great place to plan a camping trip with students. And that is just what we did here at Seton Hall. On the weekend of April 2nd, we took a group of 6 students to New Hampshire to attempt a summit of Mount Washington. Now if you aren’t familiar with Mount Washington, it is important to know that it is considered one of the most dangerous mountains in the United States. It isn’t the tallest mountain in the states, but it currently has the world record (yes, that’s right, I said world) of the highest recorded winds on the surface of the earth. On April 12, 1934 (about 82 years and ten days before our trip) wind speeds at the Mount Washington Observatory were recorded at 231 miles per hour! On March 30th, just 2 days before our climb, there was a gust of wind recorded at 135 miles per hour, about the same as a category 3 hurricane. Aside from the wind, Mount Washington is covered in snow and ice from September to June and temperatures can drop to -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite knowing all of these dangers, we checked our gear, packed up our van, and drove 6 hours overnight to arrive at the base of Mount Washington at 6:30 AM. We were ready to make the ascent.
Well, I guess we weren’t completely ready...although we had packed our warmest and most waterproof hiking gear, we were missing the most important piece of equipment - crampons, or ice climbing shoes. Mount Washington was completely covered in ice and snow, and we were missing the one piece of equipment that would allow us to overcome the ice and reach to top of the mountain. But we attempted anyways, not knowing when or how the ice and weather would turn us back. Sadly, on our first attempt we were about a mile in when a large sheet of ice flowing into an icy river in a ravine proved to be too dangerous to cross. But hope remained as we made our way to a different trail.
The second trail we attempted, called Jewel Trail, proved to be the better of the two. For the first hour of the ascent we encountered almost no ice, and our hope was that this would continue to be the case the higher we went. We weren’t lucky enough, and encountered a half mile of the trail covered with a sheet of ice. There was no river, no ravine this time, just trees on both sides of the trail. Since the only apparent danger was slipping and falling on the ice, we continued slowly up the trail bouncing from rock to rock like a frog on a pond and using the trees to support ourselves. Finally after about 2 hours we made it to our first major checkpoint - treeline. From treeline we could see the summit of the mountain off in the near distance, and a successful summit attempt seemed more real than ever and we were confident we could get there in an hour and summit before 11 AM. If you have had any experience climbing mountains, you know that the summit always looks much closer than it really is from treeline. Turns out we were actually about 2 hours from the summit. As we got closer to the summit the wind blew harder and the ice on the trail got thicker. A few days earlier when I was talking about the trip with a few friends, one of them said, “When Mother Nature antes up, it’s time to fold”. And unfortunately Mother Nature anteed up, forcing us to fold. By this time, it was below freezing, the wind was blowing pretty hard, the ice was too thick for us to safely go any further, and fog limited our visibility to less than 200 yards. With less than a quarter mile to the summit, we posed for a group photo and turned back.
Despite the blow to our pride, failing to summit the mountain did not break the trip. We overcame some very difficult conditions with less than ideal gear to even get with a quarter mile of the summit. What we learned is that we could overcome the challenge of summiting the mountain with the right conditions and equipment. We also left Mt. Washington with a greater sense of brotherhood because we fought together to climb the mountain. Each of us left that mountain being transformed in some way through the experience, whether is was an encounter with God, with brothers, or with self-realization.