The Road Less Traveled – Don’t Turn Back Unless it’s Time to Turn Back 

Jason-Herring
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By Jason Herring  

This past year I was asked to give the closing prayer at the Idaho State Prayer Breakfast. The guest speaker was Brian Dickinson, former Navy Aviation Rescue Swimmer and author of Blind Descent – a gripping tale that he shared with a captivated audience that morning. In 2011 Brian made a solo summit of Mount Everest after his Sherpa became ill at high camp. Because of a small crack on his goggles, he developed a severe case of snow blindness on his way down from the summit. How he made it back to high camp is a miracle and the theme of Blind Descent, in which he gives all the glory to God. After the Prayer Breakfast I shared my love for the mountains, and Brian offered that we should go climbing in the PNW sometime. When I mentioned that I had always wanted to climb Mount Rainier, we decided to plan a trip. 

This year provided an open window, and on the first week of August we set out from Sunrise to head up the Emmons Route to make high camp at Schurman and summit Washington’s high point the following morning. It was Brian, myself, and a great guy from his church named Tom. When we finally reached the snowfield and put on our crampons and harnesses, we were well above the normal boundaries of the glacier because of snowmelt and intense summer heat. We embarked across a couple of football field-sized patches of snow before we came to solid ice. Roping up, we embarked up the sparkling blue crust with a much more methodical, focused pace. You could hear a river of water rushing beneath the ice that my crampons were biting into while little streams rushed over the surface. 

We ascended a short distance as Brian took the lead scouting for a safer route ahead. Seeing none, he called for a quick huddle so we could assess our situation. We were probably a little over 100 yards up the ice with maybe another 1,500 feet before reaching high camp. The conditions weren’t any better farther up. It was one solid sheet of ice. The spring and winter snows had melted from the surface, leaving it exposed and unstable. We were informed at the Ranger Station that only the day before, two guided groups had turned away from the summit and stated they would not be leading any more groups that season. Was this the reason? 

While we stood there weighing our options, a rockfall cascaded over the snowfield we had just traversed. I looked down the mountain and realized how hard it would be to self-arrest if one of us slipped. Sliding and scraping and bouncing down hard ice while carrying a 70-pound backpack was not my idea of adventure. “This is just like Lhotse,” Brian said. “Except you have two miles of it and fixed rope lines.” 

“This is like the Lhotse Face?” I asked in surprise. 

“Yes,” Brian answered. “Except the key difference being: with fixed ropes.” 

We all agreed that we were outside the comfort level of manageable risk. The mountain wasn’t going anywhere. There would be another summer, another time, another opportunity. So we turned back. A group of about a dozen climbers passed us at the edge of the snowfield. As we shed our crampons and harnesses, we watched them freeze out on the ice and then remain frozen before slowly venturing to a clear ledge where they held conference over the same concerns and fears that we had expressed. Clouds rolled in, shrouding the summit on what was forecast as a clear day. The online forecast now called for thunderstorms on the mountain. We had made the right decision. It was time to pack out. 

It was disappointing not to reach the goal of the summit. I had invested in necessary gear and made the trip in hopes of standing on top of the most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. But I had been in this situation before on a summit attempt of Kings Peak in Utah. Remotely located in the Uinta Mountains, King’s Peak is Utah’s tallest mountain. After a long drive down dirt and gravel roads to get to the trailhead, you have to hike 13.5 miles to get to the summit. I was about 500 vertical feet below the summit when a massive lightning storm rolled in. I made the decision to turn back. It was a 26-mile round trip that left me 500 feet shy of my summit goal. 

Brian Dickinson has successfully summitted the highest mountains on all seven continents except for his home continent of North America. Twice he’s been turned back from a summit push on Denali due to weather and dangerous conditions. Imagine the thousands of dollars, months of preparation, and tremendous effort involved to come within striking distance of one of the most prominent peaks on earth. Only Everest and Aconcagua are more isolated. But as legendary mountaineer Ed Viesturs always said, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” Viesturs is the only American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, and yet he turned back on 7 of his 21 attempts. On his first attempt at Mount Everest he turned back only 300 feet below the summit. Can you imagine? 

When going for a stroll around Washington, D.C., Ulysses S. Grant would never turn back to retrace his steps. It was a thing for him to always go forward. And while that approach served him well as commanding general in the American Civil War, it didn’t always benefit him in life as evidenced in his two scandal-ridden terms as U.S. President. In High Altitude Leadership, Chris Warner and Don Schminke write: “Walking away does not mean giving up. It’s about maintaining a higher-level strategy that allows you to withdraw and then return again. It’s not a sign of weakness; only smart leaders know when and how to retreat well. Perseverance does not mean continuing on in the face of impossible obstacles, but having the capacity to retreat, rethink, and return.” 

Sometimes in life, whether it be in business, career choices, relationships, or ministry, we must retreat, rethink, and return. In church camp we sang as kids, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.” We should never turn back from following Jesus. To even look back is unfit for the kingdom of God. But following Jesus should not be confused with pursuing a ministry calling, following a ministry leader, or filling a ministry role. Sometimes you have to step away. 

In relationships we can find that “the arrows are beyond you” to borrow a line from the story of David. You’ve gone as far as you possibly can. When your heart is set on something and you’re emotionally invested, it’s easy to ignore the signs. It’s easy to get summit fever. Mountaineers will tell you to “listen to the mountain.” Just the same we have to listen to the still small voice that God has placed inside of us and know when to withdraw. We often think of God’s will in relation to a position or a place or a person. But critical to this is God’s timing. God’s timing is always perfect. Don’t be afraid to turn back. Wait on the Lord, and He will bring it to pass. 

 

 

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