Hanging On For LifeAdd Comment
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I couldn’t feel my hands. Numb and almost frozen in place, my fingertips clung to the edge of the rock. As I shifted my hands and feet to gain a better hold, the mountain seemed to triple in size. This was February 3, 2010, and I was attending Campus Adventiste du Salève in Collonges-sous-Salève, a little French village located less than 10 miles from Geneva, Switzerland. The mountain called the Salève stands only a short distance behind the school.Add Comment
Earlier that morning the sun’s brilliant rays had replaced the thick gray clouds and fog that usually hid the mountain during the winter. Deciding to seize on the rare beautiful weather, my friend Keri and I trekked up the mountain. The path, usually smooth and neatly packed, was now covered in a slick mixture of mud and snow. It wound around stumps and roots. Occasionally we’d slip on a loose rock. Overall, the climb wasn’t difficult, and we covered ground quickly, walking to a beat of crunching snow and basking in the sunshine.
An hour and a half later, almost to the top, we ventured off the main trail to see a regional landmark—a flag painted on the rock face. The flag of Haute Savoie, the French region we lived in, became a local icon after it had been painted by students who snuck up the mountain one night, dragging buckets of red paint. The flag, similar to the Swiss flag, could be seen for miles. Although I could see the painting every day from my bedroom window, I wanted to see it up close.
As we hiked I pointed to a wooden plaque inscribed with French words and placed against the rock.
“What does that sign say?” I asked.
“It says someone died here,” Keri answered.
“Great,” I said uneasily. “What month?”
“February,” she said, chuckling at the irony.
“That’s encouraging,” I muttered under my breath. The trail had now disappeared beneath the snow.
We reached the spot where the flag had been painted, and the view was breathtaking. Houses were scattered across the snow-sprinkled valley below, and the city of Geneva glistened in the sunlight.
“We have to meet David and Shelley soon,” Keri said, interrupting my thoughts. We’d promised to meet our friends at the top of the mountain and hike down the trail with them.
At your own risk
Instead of backtracking to the main trail the way we had come, Keri and I decided to take a faster route to the summit and make our own trail going upward. I followed Keri slowly as she climbed over boulders larger than herself, careful not to climb through the snow and slip on loose rocks.
Halfway to the top, we realized our error in judgment. I could barely grip the rocks. Oh no! We halted, surveying a small bank. The ledge leading to our only path was covered in about three inches of ice.
“Is there any way to climb up over there?” I yelled to Keri, who was searching for an alternate route.
“No, it’s blocked off. There’s no way up besides going over the ice,” she said.
“We can’t go back down. The rocks will slip, and we’ll fall down the mountain,” I said, looking down.
“We’ll have to risk slipping on the ice and go up.” We needed to climb onto a ledge slightly smaller than four feet by three feet, then scale the side of the mountain to the grassy area above, where we could amble to the summit.
“Keri,” I said, trying to suppress the knot in the pit of my stomach, “I think we’re going to need some divine assistance on this one.”
We closed our eyes. “Dear God, please keep us safe as we slide onto this ledge and continue up the mountain.” After Keri said “Amen,” we began our treacherous journey.
I held Keri’s feet against the ice and rock, praying she wouldn’t fall as she began to crawl onto the ledge. She leaned her body against the small cliff and lay down on her stomach, and I pushed her across. She stopped at the edge—safe. My heart pounded. It was my turn. I couldn’t pull myself up without falling, so Keri became my anchor. She sat on the ledge cross-legged, grabbed a nearby rock with one hand, and grasped my hand in the other. God, please don’t let me slide off. I placed my foot on the ice, hoisting myself up high enough to lie partially on the ledge. How was I going to slide across the ledge without falling?
Keri let my hand go and moved out of my way. Absentmindedly I grabbed the only thing within my reach: a plant. Only two and a half inches high, its small branches protruded out of the ground, looking almost dead in the winter. Please don’t let it break! I slid across the ice. My chest pounded. I rested on the ledge. I’m safe. Tears began to brim in my eyes. Thank You, God. We trudged on.
It gets worse
The summit was in view, but the obstacles above taunted us with impossibility. Melted ice mixed with sweat drenched my gray sweatpants and black hoodie. My hands were red and chapped. Giving up would be so easy. I didn’t know how to climb a mountain; I grew up in the prairies. All I needed to do was let go. Numbly, slowly, I lifted my frozen hands to new handholds; my feet followed.
“Shoot!” I screamed in panic. I was stuck on the side of a cliff with no handhold or foothold. Unable to continue scaling the cliff, I was trapped between two protruding rocks. Through the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Keri. She wasn’t making much progress either. I took my right hand out of the hold and breathed onto it, hoping to warm it enough to feel my fingers.
Suddenly a new thought came. Use your whole body. Use your whole body.
Taking a deep breath, I braced my knee against the rock on the left and placed my arm and shoulder against the rock on the right. Pressing my body against the stones, I shifted my weight, grabbed a shelf above, and heaved myself onto it. Safe!
Keri, not even five feet tall, was struggling to reach the top. My eyes widened, realizing she was in a worse situation than I. She’d climbed up the left side, was now faced with rock going straight up, and was unable to go down or to the right. I watched as she began to jab handholds into the snow covering the grassy slope to her left, stepping slowly across.
Tears trickled down my cheeks as I began to imagine all the haunting possibilities. What will happen if she slips down the slope? How will I climb down to help her? Will we have to sleep on the side of the mountain tonight? Will anyone find us? Will we freeze to death? What if she rolls off the edge of the mountain? My mind scrambled for a way to help Keri. I thought of nothing, and the tears flowed faster.
“Pray! You need to pray!” Keri’s voice shattered my thoughts as she continued to create handholds in the snow. I sat on the ledge, still in tears, and prayed for the life of my friend. It wasn’t more than five minutes later that she finally was close enough for me to grab her hand and pull her to the ledge. It seemed like an eternity.
Cold and soaking wet, we walked up the snow-covered hill above the cliff. When we reached the top, I lifted my hands to the sky and screamed, “We’re alive!” Now I understood the fragility of life. Keri rushed toward me. Wrapping her arms around me, we held each other tight and praised God.
What else could happen?
Orange, red, and blue were beginning to mix in the western sky, and we still needed to hike down the mountain before dark. We had not found our friends. The familiar difficult trail we should have hiked up was a welcome sight.
A third of the way down we approached a cave. Steps made of boulders, covered in a thick layer of ice, resembled small frozen waterfalls. The steps led down through the hollow cave. Grasping the hand wire bolted into the rock for a railing, we slowly descended through the chasm. Almost at the bottom, as we were walking over some dry rocks, I suddenly let out a bloodcurdling scream. A huge block of ice was falling toward Keri’s head. Crash! It landed between us, an arm’s length away. We continued our slow trek down the mountain.
Six hours after beginning our hike (which normally would have taken 90 minutes), we reached the bottom, closed our eyes, and thanked God. As I opened my eyes, I looked up at the Salève. My gaze fell on the flag. Seeing how high we had climbed, I was struck with the realization of how narrowly we had dodged death.
I’ve often wondered why I lived through that climb. My feet should have slipped on the rocks a dozen times. But God sent His angels to protect me. “They will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone” (Psalms 91:12, NLT).* In some moments since then, I have doubted God’s plan, and my faith in Him has wavered. I’ve wondered, Why didn’t He allow me to die? “The Lord loves justice, and he will never abandon the godly. He will keep them safe forever” (Psalm 37:28, NLT). God was my foothold on the hike, when I struggled on the mountain, and He is my foothold in life when I want to give up now. I reach for Him when there’s nothing to hold on to.
I will hold on to my faith even if it is small like that fragile plant. Even though it looked dead, it held me on the cliff. I won’t give up on God, because He doesn’t give up on me.
*Scriptures quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Canadian Brittany Harwood enjoys music, traveling, and experiencing other cultures. This story won second prize in the 2011 Insight Writing Contest—General Prose category.
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