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  • Rick LoPresti

The summit

Mountains are some of the most majestic and inspiring formations on earth. Many scientists who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis, particularly the flood account in chapters 6-9, suggest that many of the mountains we see on earth today were formed by the tremendous upheavals that are described in Genesis 7:11 with the phrase “all the fountains of the great deep broken up”. Some people do not believe there was a worldwide flood, and others underestimate the level of devastation that occurred. However, the only correct way to read the scriptures is that it was worldwide and devastating. The surface of the earth, the atmosphere, and the weather were all altered significantly.

In the Bible, mountains became a place of worship, both of God and idols. Just one famous example is Elijah confronting the worshippers of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1Ki 18). Today, mountains are seen as places of recreation. People take vacations to mountains, build luxury homes there, and a few attempt to climb them. Only the most experienced and fittest climbers should attempt the tallest mountains. There are 14 mountains in the world over 8,000 meters or 26,247 feet and they are all in the Himalayan mountain range area around Nepal, Tibet, and Pakistan. Only 40 people have climbed all 14. The most famous of these is Mt. Everest which is called the tallest on earth at 29,028 feet. Because of its height, it is seen as a great challenge and accomplishment for climbers. However, My. Everest is not the tallest by some measures. The islands in the ocean are the tops of underwater mountains which go to the sea floor. The tallest of these is Mauna Kea, the top of which is the big island of Hawaii. It is 13, 796 feet or 4205 meters above the water and 19,700 feet under the Pacific Ocean. That is a total of 33,476 feet or 10,203 meters. Contrary to the opinion of Georgia Representative Hank Johnson, islands such as Guam do not float on the surface of the water and cannot capsize. The earth is not a perfect sphere. It is slightly bigger at the equator. Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador is only one degree south of the equator. At 20,703 feet or 6310 meters, its summit is thus the farthest point on the surface of the earth away from its center and also the closest point to the sun. The peak of Mt. Everest is only the tenth furthest from the earth’s core.

Mt. Everest is also not the deadliest mountain on earth. Although more people have died on it than any other mountain, more people have attempted to climb it. 305 out of 5739 people have died there. There have been 10,184 ascents because some have summitted more than once. That is about a 4% death rate. There are still over 200 bodies on it because it is impossible to retrieve them. The second tallest mountain at 28,250 feet, K2 has a much higher death rate. It is called the savage mountain. 25% do not make it back alive. Yet it is not the deadliest. That title belongs to Annapurna. At 26,545 feet, it is the first of the 8,000 meter mountains to be climbed, but it has claimed the lives of 63 of 191 who have attempted it. That is 33% or one out of 3. There are several factors that make these mountains so dangerous. The lack of oxygen can cause edema. There is only 1/3 the oxygen at the summit of Everest as at sea level. If a person was to go directly from sea level to the summit, they would die. Above 8,000 meters is called the death zone for this reason. The body is actually slowly dying. Climbers must spend weeks gradually acclimatizing to this. They develop more red blood cells during this process to help them survive. Even then they can only spend minutes on the summit if they reach it. This is after months of training and much money spent. As Ed Viesturs said, the local Sherpas who help the climbers literally have climbing in their blood. Another concern is weather. The weather only allows for brief windows of opportunity each year for summit attempts, and even during those times sudden storms and avalanches occur. Different mountains present different challenges such as ice, crevasses, and steep faces. Mt. Nanga Parat is neither the tallest nor the deadliest, but it is called the killer mountain because it has the tallest face at 15,000 feet. 31 people died attempting to reach its summit before the first success. Even if a person makes it to the summit, there is no guarantee of their survival. Most people die on the descent.

So, why do people take such risks for a sport? While it is true that some of them are bored rich people looking for something to add to their resume (“I climbed Mt. Everest”), serious climbers are passionate about it and have different goals. They do not seek to conquer mountains. They seek the experience with the mountain and their fellow climbers and see summiting as part of it. They enjoy the personal challenges the climb poses, and they understand that not every attempt will end at the summit. Of course, that is a goal, but they also understand the risks and that they may not be able to make it to the top if the situation does not allow it.

What does all of that have to do with our relationship with God? Mountains have spiritual meaning in the Bible. As stated above, they represent high places of worship. In prophecy they represent nations. They represent strategic places of military advantage (1Ki 20:23). Soldiers know that controlling the high ground gives them great advantage over the enemy. One of the reasons the Union won the battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War is because they had the high ground. That victory is considered a major turning point in that war. Mountains such as Mt. Sinai represent places of close and deep communion with God (Ex 3-4, Ex 19-25). Mountains such as Pisgah are places to get a better view of things (Deut 34:1). As in the natural, there are challenges to spiritual mountains. People do not summit without proper conditioning and equipment, and they must exercise wisdom. Climbers must count the cost of the expedition (Lk 14:28). Summitting is not a solo sport. There are a lot of people involved. Christians need their guides, Sherpas, and a support team. Is what is to be gained on the mountain worth the challenges? Absolutely. That is why we climb. George Mallory led early expeditions on Mt. Everest in the 1920s. Some believe he made it to the summit and died descending. That would make him the first to make it, 31 years before the first confirmed summitting by Edmund Hillary in 1953. Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest, and he replied, "Because it's there". Christians have much more substantial reasons to do it.

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