Breath

My parents don’t like profanity. As a child, there was an unofficial list of certain words and phrases which were deemed to be profane or inappropriate and thus never to be spoken in the household. The list was fairly broad, including everything from your usual four-letter suspects to phrases like “shut-up”. Punishments for violations ranged from a time out to a good spanking and a literal washing of the mouth out with soap. For five days after an offense, every breath we’d take would taste like Dove.

My siblings and I realized, however, that the list could be whittled down to minimal restrictions if we simply kept track of the words our parents used in their weaker moments. Then, any time we utilized such vocabulary, we could instantly refute any disciplinary action from our parents:

“But you’ve said that before!”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes, it is.”

“When?”

“When that lady cut you off in traffic the other day…”

(sigh of deep resignation and utter defeat) “Oh.”

Of all the words and phrases we managed to cross off the list, however, “Oh my God”, was never one of them. My parents adhered to the third commandment in its strictest translation and this phrase was considered profanity in the worst way. While I did and still do agree with them, I have also come to understand there are certain moments in life in which God must be addressed as the subject of an unfinished sentence, albeit with the utmost dignity and respect, because there simply is nothing else to say.

After a day of pacing the lobby of Paradise Lodge (and banging my head against the wall) our team of five crowded into our small room and went to sleep. I read for a while by headlamp and then fell into a sporadic but otherwise fitful slumber.

When we awoke and looked out the window, conditions hadn’t seemed to improve. We could still just barely see the trees. I assembled my gear, struggled into my pack, attempted to ignore the dismal feeling of déjà vu and met the rest of the team down in the lobby. Paul and Allen returned from the ranger station to inform us that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the weather had improved and the clouds were moving out quickly. The winds were low and Camp Muir was soaked in sunshine above the clouds.

And so it was decided: we were going to climb Mount Rainier.

Finally on the move, we downed an assortment of leftovers for breakfast and by 7 AM we had begun the hike from Paradise to Camp Muir; this is approximately 4.5 miles with a 5,000 foot elevation gain. The trail to Camp Muir is usually just that: a trail. But this year, with such a cold summer, the snowmelt had been delayed and, instead of a pathway through trees, we were trudging through feet of snow.

Shortly after beginning, it was decided that our group would split: myself and Alan would take what Paul described as “the winter route” and try to get to Muir first, so we could reserve our group some spots in the shelter. The winter route to camp Muir is more direct, with less actual distance, but thus it gains altitude much faster via several strenuous uphill portions. It could take considerably less time, if the hikers were up to it. This seemed like a brilliant idea, except for the fact that on the scale of physical fitness, Alan is a ten and I’m…well…not a ten.

Nonetheless, we split off from the group and diverged onto the so-called winter route. We trudged through the snow, Alan a few paces ahead of me, and my breathing got heavier and heavier. I resisted the urge to look up and see how much higher we had to go; instead I kept my eyes straight focused on each step. Alan’s route became steeper and steeper and with it my breaths increasingly desperate.

One of the many tips Paul had given us prior to beginning was to practice breathing in and maintaining a rhythm. Much like a sprinter in a race, this ensured that breath was constantly being delivered to the lungs and the rest of the body. As I followed Alan’s footprints up the incline, I concentrated all my mental efforts on regulating my breathing, keeping the same time between the big breaths and little breaths. Despite all efforts, I couldn’t help but notice that the breaths sounded very much like my own home state: “oohh…..hhii……oooo….oohh….hhii….oooo” as if my body was telling me “reality check, bubba. You are from Ohio. Mountain climbing is for people from states that aren’t as flat as a table. It’s time to give up.”

But I didn’t. Step by step, breath by breath, I put one foot in front of the other, the entire time staring down at the ground in front of me. After going strong for about thirty minutes, Alan stopped. I was only a few paces behind him and caught up shortly. I was affirmed in noting that he too was breathing heavily, not sucking air uncontrollably like myself, but still breathing heavily.

“We’re making good time,” he said. “Really good time.”

“ That’s….oohh….fan….hhii….tastic….oooo,” I replied.

“We’ve gained some altitude,” Alan said, and nodded behind me. I looked back.

Actually, the correct way of phrasing it is: I looked down. The entire time we’d been plodding along, we’d been trudging up a hill. Having been so concentrated on my breath, and in a dense fog, I hadn’t noticed how high we’d come. Behind me, the “trail” (i.e. our footprints in the snow) gave way to a steep slope that dropped down about 30 feet from where we stood and then disappeared into the fog.

I peered into the oblivious drop-off nervously.

Attempting to sound as manly and totally-not-scared-of-anything as possible, I asked Alan what would happen if I, say, lost my footing at some point and fell back down the hill.

He shrugged nonchalantly: “You’d stop eventually.”

This was hardly comforting; a skydiver whose parachute doesn’t deploy “stops eventually”. But I put on my tough facade and shrugged in as nonchalant a manner as I could muster, all the while wanting to whimper like a frightened puppy.

Without further adieu, Alan turned and continued hiking, and I resigned myself to staring at the ground in front of me trying to forget that if I did happen to fall, everything was okay because Alan had promised me that I’d “stop eventually”. As content as I was focusing on the pain of sucking breath rather than the prospect of a hundred foot free-slide, my body was in complete disagreement with me on the matter:

Body: “What are you doing? This is hell! Stop it!”

Me: “We’re…oohh…almost…hhii…there!”

Body: “Um, that’s a lie. The only almost we are, is dead on the side of the mountain. Give up.”

Me: “Shut….oohh…up.”

Body: “You’re never going to make it.”

Me; “I…hhii…said…”

Body: “And when you get a chance, look down again. That’s a long way to fall.”

Me: “I ha-…oooo…-te you.”

Body: “It’s mutual, buddy.”

Alan: “Who are you talking too?”

Me: “Talking? I wasn’t talking, you must be hearing things.”

And so the morning passed. We trudged on and eventually the trail flattened out a bit. I was still immensely focused on the ground in front of me, so this time when Alan stopped I didn’t notice until I almost collided with him.

“Time for a water break,” he said then nodded over his shoulder. “Check it out, we’re above the clouds.”

I looked up.

And that’s when it happened. As my eyes lifted from the ground in front of me and beheld the newly revealed scenery, I slowly, reverently and quiet literally exclaimed:

“Oh…my…God.”

Ahead of me, standing tall above the clouds, was the most beautiful mountain I had ever seen. From it’s white crater, to the streaks of black rock down her sides, Mount Rainier stood before me with a sense of menacing invitation. She glistened in the early morning sun with fresh snow, majestically reaching into the sky as if her summit could touch heaven itself.

“Alan,” I said, “That’s unbelievable.”

He took a gulp of water and nodded. There really wasn’t much else to be said. It was the type of moment that literally took my breath away. What was left of it, that is.

We continued the rest of our hike in relative silence, occasionally passing along a word of encouragement or embracing some brief conversation between breaths. The only difference was my focus shifted considerably from staring at my feet, to stealing any glances possible at Mount Rainier.

I couldn’t get past the beauty of the mountain. My sense of awe skyrocketed well past cloud nine when I turned and looked back, and not only could I see the summits of Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, but I could also see the peak of Mount Hood on the horizon over 150 miles to the south.

I’ve attempted to make it clear that I believe in God, that I believe He created the world and it is He who controls it. As I finished the hike to base camp that morning, every upward crane of my neck brought with it- from the only breath I had left- the proclamation: “Oh…My…God…”

My God, you are beautiful. You are magnificent. You’re glory is more than I can comprehend, more than mere words can capture. You’re beauty is infinite, it defies comprehension and eludes the imagination. You are as sudden as an avalanche and as terrible as a volcano, more powerful than I can grasp. But you are also the peace of a snowflake beneath my shoes and the incomprehensible love of the summit in my foresight. You are the very means by which I breathe, breathe each labored breath.

The Majesty in which I believe; this is the God I try to serve. He is the God of the mountains, the God of the blue sky beyond their peaks, and the infinity of treasures between their bases and summits. He is the God who can take my breath away when I’m convinced I have none left to take.

Oh my God, you are God.

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2 thoughts on “Breath

  1. this so beautifully expresses the emotion that binds some of us to that mountain! i have tears running down my face. thanks, Bryn!

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