A Mountain in Tibet
But sometimes we do things we never dreamed of doing. Sometimes we face trials that we never expected. That’s what happened in the summer of 2004 for me. That’s when I faced the greatest physical challenge of my life so far.
I was spending my summer in a small Tibetan town in Sichuan, China. I was working with a family who was there long-term and two other short-term workers like myself. We taught English in schools, we visited Buddhist temples, we came together with the community once a week in the evening for dancing in the town square, we studied Tibetan and Mandarin, we tasted all sorts of exotic foods, we read by candlelight in the evenings when the power went out town-wide to save energy, and we rode mules into the mountains to visit with villagers–it was the adventure of a lifetime. For the sake of others, I cannot divulge many details about my trip, but I can say that it was a spiritual adventure and mission even more than a physical one.
About a month into our time in China, we decided to hike a mountain. It was a mountain on the edge of our village, and we could see it from our apartment windows. It was a beautiful mountain of blues and greens and browns. I loved to look at the mountain from afar and think of the power of a God who created the earth with mountains like that one and ones much, much greater.
Our traveling group consisted of five of us: the father and eldest son of our host family had hiked the mountain before and would be our guides, and my two female roommates and I would accompany them on the journey. I’m ashamed to say that I was in the worst physical condition of everyone, but it’s a crucial element of my story.
We began early one morning. Our village was situated at about 8,000 ft above sea level, and by the time we arrived at the foot of the mountain at the edge of the village, I was already exhausted. I could have turned back then and there. But something compelled me to continue on.
After hiking for several hours, my legs were cramping to the point that I could barely move. I had never experienced that kind of muscle pain before. It took everything within me not to break down and cry at each step. I still could have turned back, and believe me, I wanted to. But instead I went on.
By dusk, we arrived at a stream of freshwater and stopped for dinner and to fill our water bottles. Sitting felt heavenly. But soon we moved on. We hiked for several more hours, and then arrived at our “campsite” for the night. It was just an open area on the hillside. From there, we could see the whole village below us. It was a victory just to make it that far. We set up our tents and collapsed into sleeping bags.
Early the next morning, we awoke and discussed our plan for the day. The men asked us if we really wanted to continue to the top or if we had had enough. I think all three of us ladies were exhausted, but we all decided that since we had come so far, we wanted to keep going.
For the rest of that day, we hiked and climbed. We came upon several nomadic people (we even stopped for tea in one family’s tent), and we saw many beautiful sights. The hiking did not get easier though. In fact, it just got worse. The terrain became more barren (i.e. sun glaring directly down on us) and more steep. By the time we were at about 13,000 ft, we had slowed immensely.
When we passed the tree line, we were taking 25-30 steps at a time and then resting.
By 14,000 ft, it was literally take ten steps then break and breathe, ten more steps then break and breathe. The air was so thin, and it was difficult to fill our lungs. Our legs felt like leaden weights, and our heads were cloudy.
I have never had to will myself that hard to keep moving. I was praying with every step that I could take another one. I was absolutely miserable.
Finally, just before sunset, we reached the summit of the mountain at 14,720 ft. The feeling of victory and accomplishment was overwhelming. We snapped a few photos while the cold wind whipped through our hair and tore at our clothes. All around us were mountains capped with snow. It was a beautiful, breathtaking sight, but I’m not sure that in the moment I realized the full weight of our triumph.
We did camp another night on the mountain, and then it took us almost another full day to trek back down.
Three days on the mountain. Three days that I would never have expected or asked for. Three days to do the impossible. Three days to experience the majesty of creation. Three days to be reminded of God’s strength when mine was utterly spent.
Three painful, tormenting, glorious days.
A Mental Health Mountain
For the past year and a bit, I’ve been climbing a different type of mountain, but one that is no less difficult to summit. The mountain of depression and anxiety is wickedly steep and terribly challenging. In fact, in some ways I think it’s more of a challenge than my mountain in the Himalayas.
After a year of medication, therapy, and prayer, I am doing better. I don’t want to make light of the progress that I’ve made.
And yet, I want to be transparent about the pain of this uphill battle. The steps seem so small. And they are as painful as those final steps on the Tibetan mountain. It’s ten steps forward then break and breathe. Sometimes it’s also a few steps back. This is not an easy journey.
Two Mountains–One Message
When I was on the mountain in Tibet, I wanted to give up. At times, I wanted to give in and allow myself to roll down the steep sides to end the excruciating pain.
Sometimes I feel like giving up now. Maybe you do too. Maybe there’s some impossible mountain in your life that seems far too steep to climb.
Even in the midst of deep pain, I am encouraged by the knowledge that God is bigger than my mountains and yours. He is able to move mountains, but if He chooses not to, He will certainly help us climb them, one step at a time.
Throughout my current season of pain, I have been reminded that it is God who gives strength to the weary. Isaiah the prophet said it this way:
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
To be perfectly honest, I would love to run and not grow weary right now. For me that means that I would love to be able to leave the house without feeling anxious or make it through a week without tears. But the healing will come one step at a time, and God who does not grow tired or weary will be the One who uplifts you and me and gives us the strength to climb our mountains.