Most of us are accustomed to appreciate the beauty and power of nature from a safe distance. Occasionally, however, we are brought close to the elements in their full fury, and they communicate something of their overwhelming power, making us acutely aware of our own fragility. Although these moments are often dangerous or, at least, uncomfortable, they can also serve as some of the most vivid manifestations of God’s providence. This holds true whether we are talking about a flooded basement, a breakdown in a snowstorm, or, in my case, a bungled camping trip in New Hampshire.
I was in college, and a friend and I had decided to celebrate the end of spring semester by driving to the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains for what we thought would be a beautiful hike. We chose the spot on account of its “gnarly” conditions. With wind speeds exceeding 230 miles per hour on top of Mt. Washington, we simply couldn’t pass it up.
The early stages of the trip went off without a hitch. We began by “summiting” Mt. Adams, Mt. Clay, and Mt. Washington. The weather on top of the mountain was gorgeous, described by a native as one of the five best days all year. On a peak that is cloaked in fog for well over 250 days of the year, we marveled at the beautiful vistas. We kept on pushing to Mt. Monroe and then turned off the ridge to follow the Dry River Trail to our shelter — a projected three-mile walk.
At first, the trail was well marked and easily followed, but gradually the cairns (that is, rock stacks marking a trail above tree line) grew less and less frequent, then disappeared altogether. On the map, the trail appeared to be roughly parallel to the Dry River for its duration, and, as we had already picked up its headwaters, we ventured to follow further. We began to encounter some snow. Eventually, “some” snow became three to four feet of snow, and we slowed to a snail’s pace.
At this point, my buddy stopped and said with a certain amount of authority and resolve, “We should turn back.” In an absolute master stroke of brazen overconfidence, sheer stupidity, and absolute foolhardiness, I replied with bravado, “No, dude, I feel good about it.” I was destined to eat those words for many years to come. And so we continued on down the mountain, plodding all the way until I made the discovery that I was wearing one shoe. Glory. Pure glory. I hailed my buddy and had him retrace our steps, scouring the snow for any sign of my foot gear, but to no avail.
To make a long story short, the next day was marked by ten hours of continuous terror. We did our best to wrap up my foot as we attempted to hike out, but with little success. We also decided to hike in the river, as opposed to on the bank, as this proved far easier and faster. We began hopping from rock to rock, slowly making our way out of the bush. Frostbite began to set in, and the sole of my foot was certainly showing itself worse for the wear. We agreed to hike two more hours and then call search and rescue. Reception was very spotty, but, after thirty minutes of unsuccessful communication, we eventually got through and were told that they would not come for us.
And then it began to rain. Perfect. Just perfect. So, rather than die from frostbite and depression sitting on a log sunk in five feet of snow, we ventured to make it out. The map projected about ten miles to the road. Beginning again at about ten in the morning, we set out, having agreed that we would start looking for a place to set up camp at around six that evening. Those eight hours flew by with almost no appreciable results, aside from a growing feeling of hopelessness. Then, at about twenty minutes after six, I suddenly heard my buddy’s voice from across the way: “I see footprints!” Inwardly, my reaction was euphoria; outwardly, I tried to remain calm. What he had found was indeed the trail, and, after another three hours, it led us to the road, where we hitched a ride back to our vehicle, and began the trip home.
I’d like to say that it will never happen again, but, in the years between then and now, similar things have already happened. What I will say is that no other experience has so strongly evoked in me an abiding sense of my own fragility and a consequent awareness of God’s providence. It seems, from a comfortable distance, that a frostbitten foot was a modest price to pay for this awareness, though I doubt my mother would agree.
Image: Ludolf Backhuysen, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee