Once there was a climber who set out to climb a mountain. The word from those who had gone before was that the guru at the top of the mountain was God himself and that the closer you got to the summit, the more spectacular the views and the more satisfied your soul became. At the bottom of the mountain, there were many paths to start from. Different paths had different challenges and enjoyments. The mountainside was dotted with cafes, inns and gathering places and many people enjoyed exploring the trail they had started from. But as the elevation got higher and the air a little bit thinner, the trails all converged together into one narrow, difficult path. This was the way to the summit. This was the path our climber was determined to take.
The road to the summit was not as well traveled as the other trails lower down. Everyone on the mountain claimed to be trying to reach the top, but few actually ventured onto the daunting path towards the summit. The accommodations along the higher path were functional, but sparse and the travelers even sparser. It was not uncommon to meet someone nursing a strong drink at a gathering spot along one of the lower trails who had been defeated by this arduous journey to the summit. The few who made it to the top tended to be harder to locate, but when asked they all said the same things: “Stay on the path even when it looks foolish and dangerous. If you think you are lost, stop and wait until the path becomes clear again. Gather any food and supplies you find even if they are a burden to carry – you will depend on them later. And don’t quit. It’s worth it.”
Our intrepid climber knew it was a foolhardy journey to undertake. But she had never found a comfortable spot on one of the trails lower down that satisfied her heart. The amusements found there seemed unworthy of her full devotion and the people were often kind but they were not God. They could not satisfy her heart. So, she determined to climb the summit to meet God and satisfy the longing in her soul which would not allow her to make peace with lesser things. Although the journey was foolhardy, the climber was not. She had already tried her hand climbing to some of the more difficult places on the mountain, so she had some idea of what lay ahead. And she took the advice of those who had gone before her very seriously: “Stay on the path even when it looks foolish and dangerous. If you think you are lost, stop and wait until the path becomes clear again. Gather any food and supplies you find even if they are a burden to carry – you will depend on them later. And don’t quit. It’s worth it.” So with a great desire and some measure of wisdom to drive her and guide her, the climber began her journey.
Travelers on the early part of the path were not as numerous as could be found lower down, but still numerous enough not to be on a first name basis with each other. And there was always a steady stream of pilgrims coming back down the mountain. Some had sustained injuries that had ended their climb and would need time and care to recover. Others claimed to have gone as far as they wanted and seen things that were great in their eyes. Those who had made it to the top were much fewer in number and easy to miss. But the few times our climber met someone who had been to the top, they gave the same advice she had heard before: “”Stay on the path even when it looks foolish and dangerous. If you think you are lost, stop and wait until the path becomes clear again. Gather any food and supplies you find even if they are a burden to carry – you will depend on them later. And don’t quit. It’s worth it.”
Shortly after starting off, our climber came to a place where the path she was following lead through a steep, rocky place. It was not the most difficult climb our climber had faced before, although it would take using both her hands and feet to continue forward. Off to the side was a smooth, even trail which went around the rocky place and the climber saw many people choose to take that easy path. For a moment our climber considered doing likewise, but remembering the words of those who had gone before her, she stayed on the path and clambered over the rocky place. These diverging trails became more common as the days passed. The marked path went straight up, heedless of the cliff and crevices and unfriendly terrain along the way. Some travelers would reach a particularly difficult looking section and turn back, having had enough already. Often there was an alternate path around the dangerous places. The easy paths were a pot shot, though. Some led to a cliff or took people off into the wilderness. But often enough the easy paths just lead to the same place that the more difficult, marked path went. Some climbers became quite adept at figuring out which of the easy paths were dangerous and avoided those, but still took the safer, easier route when possible.
Our climber never deviated from the marked path to the top in favor of the easier way. More than once, our climber would find herself scaling a cliff, frightened, exposed to the weather and fighting to move inch by inch up the cliff face while others stopped for a picnic and company along the easy alternate route. Then she would think that she was foolish, too stubborn for her own good and that maybe next time she would join those on the easier path. It would be nice to have some company for a change and she must look like an idiot, sleeping suspended from a cliff for the umpteenth night in a row. Those who had taken the easy path had reach the place where she was going in a matter of hours and although she knew it wasn’t a competition, she still felt like she was falling further and further behind. And yet at each fork in the road, the words of those who had gone before would come back to her and she could never quite bring herself to abandon the marked path.
After what seemed like a terribly long time of climbing, the terrain on the mountain began to change. The easy paths started disappearing and more and more often the only way forward was by following the marked path over some dangerous section of the mountain. Those still on the path began to struggle more and more. Sometimes the climber would lose her footing and fall, losing ground. It was easy to see why so many people coming back down the mountain were injured. But our climber soon realized that she had an advantage over the other travelers. Because she had stayed on the marked path she had already journeyed over difficult terrain and was now an experienced climber. She was stronger, more agile and better able to keep her wits about her than many of the travelers who chose to take easier paths on the way.
Something else odd began to happen. Most travelers started off their journeys with all the supplies they could carry as it was well know that it was a long and arduous climb with almost no places to resupply. But many of the travelers who had taken easy paths had moved more quickly than they had expected and used few supplies than they had allotted. And now as they struggled to continue their climb in the absence of easy paths, their packs began to weigh them down. Some were smart enough to offer their surplus to those who had taken longer to get to the top and were now running low. In exchange they would be offered guidance by the more seasoned climber on how to continue the ascent. Some simply cleaned out what they thought they could do with out in order to lighten their loads and simply left their refuse laying around. Our climber remembered the words of those who went before and took whatever she could from these caches when she came across them. A few times she took an offer of supplies from someone needing her expert help. At first it was a blessing because her own equipment was getting worn down and her food supplies were whittled down to the unappetizing things she hadn’t wanted to eat earlier. But the higher she got, the more readily available other’s equipment and food supplies became as people abandoned the journey or struggled to continue while weighed down by heavy packs. She took whatever came her way but after a while, despite the strength and endurance she had gained on the way, she began to feel weighed down by what she was carrying. Sometimes she would meet a traveler in need and she was more than happy to share the supplies she had picked up on the way. This lightened her load somewhat although often the recipient of her help felt obliged to give her something in return. More than once she thought about leaving some of her supplies behind. Her pack was getting very heavy and it did get in the way. But she didn’t know exactly what lay ahead of her and kept remembering the words of those who went ahead of her, so she just kept re-supplying as she went from other’s cast-offs. She did stop taking anything in return for her assistance, though. She didn’t need it and didn’t mind sharing what she had learned along the way.
Then the path went on into a huge crevasse. Many of the travelers still on the path turned back. The crevasse seemed to have no bottom and they just couldn’t see venturing into that dark place and surviving. Our climber didn’t want to go down into the pit in front of her any better than anyone else did. She more than many who traveled that way knew the sort of hardships that would be entailed with climbing into such a deep gorge. But she had come so far already. And her over-stocked pack would be a little easier to bear while going down with gravity helping. So she took a deep breath and started her treacherous decent into the void. By the time she got to the bottom, she could see the wisdom of hanging onto all the equipment that came her way. Almost everything she started off her downward climb with had broken during the arduous trip down and she was now relying completely on cast off equipment left behind by others.
At the bottom of the crevasse, she rested longer than she had meant to. The bright sky up above was almost completely cut off by the tower walls around her and provided little illumination to the climber so deep below. Without the normal cues of the sun’s movement’s across the sky, our climber lost track of time and slept longer and more soundly than she had in ages. When she finally woke, her body was well on its way to recovering from the punishing trip down and she was ready to begin the climb back out. Looking up towards where the sky should be, the climber realized that she could see no light above her. It was night but she was so deep below, no light from the moon or twinkle of the stars met her eye. It was unnerving to be so completely enveloped in darkness, but she was rested and knew she would be working in the dark most of the way up no matter what time of day it was. So she started her climb up. She wasn’t sure if the climb back up wasn’t as long as the climb down had been or if her strength and skills were just so well honed from her long journey, but it did not take as long to climb back out as the journey in had taken. She had taken to climbing during the night since that was when her body seemed most rested. As she finally emerged from her journey through the crevasse, she was delighted to be greeted by the sun rising almost directly behind her.
After watching the sun rise, she turned back around to get her bearings for the next part of the journey – surely she must be getting near to the top by now – and was stunned to discover that all signs of the path she had been following were gone. She was still tired and sore from the climb out of the pit she had just left behind and now finding her path gone, our climber was ready to despair. She did remember the words of those who went before and seeing no other options, our climber sat down and waited for the path to become clear. Sometimes she would doze off and wake in a panic thinking that perhaps the path had appeared and disappeared while she slept. Finally as the sun was going over the ridge of the mountain, the climber pulled out her tent, had a cold dinner and went to sleep. Several times during the cold, moonless night, she left her tent and stared into the darkness, looking for any signs of the disappeared way. The next several days and nights were the same and the mood of the climber worsened. With nothing else to do, she found herself ruminating over her journey. She tried to think if perhaps she had been tricked into following a dead end path, but that didn’t seem likely. She remembered all the hardships she had endured and the fellow travelers who had given up or had to leave the journey. It was a constant battle not to give way to anger and discouragement. “How can this possibly be worth it?” she would wonder. Maybe those who went before were delusional and never actually reached the summit. Maybe this awful journey never was anything but a wild goose chase and she had been foolish to take it. Finally, on the 3rd night after climbing out of the gorge our climber stepped out of her tent during the night and saw something amazing ahead of her – the path. Looking up, she saw that the moon was coming out of its dark phase and the small amount of light it radiated reflected off a trail of stones creating a path in front of her. It wasn’t much, but it was visible and the excited climber realized that the path would grow clearer as the moon grew larger each night. So she packed her things and began following the path. The rocks that glowed under the moonlight appeared no different than any of the others in the surrounding dry and gravelly land during the day. She could only travel by night when the moon was out. However, after coming out of the gorge with its unending darkness, our climber could see well enough in the dark. She was strong and rested and although she could only travel for the few hours that the moon was up in the night, the terrain here was even and stable and easy to walk upon. Soon enough the landscape started to change again. Gravel gave way to nugget sized rocks that twisted your ankles when you walked upon them and a huge rocky outcropping loomed ahead.
The trail led straight into the nearly vertical rock face and our climber stood a long time looking up to where the rock met the clouds far above. It was an intimidating sight and the climber knew full well the hardships and dangers that lay ahead. And for the first time our intrepid climber could see giving up. She couldn’t believe it was worth it to keep going. It couldn’t be. It was too hard. And what was the point anyways? Maybe she should just turn around and go back. It would be much easier than going up had been. She could take the easy paths on the way back down. Maybe that was why they were there: to make the return trip easier after the ardor of the trip up. Maybe that was just how it worked and it was foolish to go on to someplace that maybe isn’t even there. For a long time our climber stood there lost in her thoughts, trying to decide what to do.
She simply couldn’t make a convincing argument for either going forward or going back and was ready to just accept that she had been a fool to take this whole journey to begin with. Then a movement off to her right caught her eye and she was startled to find another traveler just a few paces away preparing to make the ascent. He nodded and smiled when he saw her looking at him but went right back to his preparations. The climber stood and stared for a moment in shock to see that she was not alone as she was so used to being. And without thinking about what she was doing, she too began preparing to make the climb. She was so involved in her own thoughts that she didn’t notice the man near her watching her. He knew exactly what she had been thinking while staring up at the rock. As she finished gathering her things up, the man was just leaving the horizontal earth they were standing on to begin the vertical climb. As he had expected, the climber watched him for a moment before starting her own ascent using the same path and even the same hand and footholds that the man ahead of her had used. The man smiled to himself. As long as she continued following his lead that way, she would be fine.
“Just keep doing that,” he yelled back to her, “I’ve climbed this path before. You’re going to love it. It’s totally worth it.”
Our climber still wasn’t sure if she ever should have come this way. But this man who was showing her the way seemed to know what he was doing. If he showed her the way, she might make it. Everyone said it was worth it. And it would be nice to have some company for once.
First published Sept. 2011.