Heaven’s lungs pulled my breathe away from me. I looked out from the heights and fought to keep my eyes open, breathless and spent. Ragged clouds formed on the horizon, a cold, gray battle line a millions miles away, leaking purple and orange into God’s blue lake above. The clouds and their colors whispered to one another the promise of sunrise.
I swallowed the thin air in ragged breaths, trying to keep my heart from bursting in the pit of my stomach. I was still alive, somehow, after a long, painful night spent toiling up a thousand stairs on top of a thousand stairs.
I was at the peak of it all now, looking out at the valleys below, and at the mountains beyond. For a moment, I was alone within myself.
The red sun crept from its bed beyond the edge of the earth, my earth, and fell slowly upward into the sky, flooding the empty mountain range with an ocean of cosmic warmth. I might as well have seen God himself in that sunrise. In fact, I’m convinced I did see him, at least a little of him, that morning in April. Then again, it could have been the altitude.
Standing at the top of a mountain is a profound experience for anyone — perhaps it’s because we feel closer to heaven, or the sun. Either way, there’s such a majesty to be felt at the summit, and such a glorious struggle in the climb, it’s no surprise so many are drawn to the heights.
Hua Shan (Flower Mountain in English) is known as one of the most dangerous climbable peaks in China, mainly due to the treacherous staircases one must ascend to reach any one of the mountain’s four peaks. Most hikers climb the mountain at night, as I did, but not everyone makes it to the top — and I don’t mean they turn around and go back. More than 100 people die on the mountain every year. That’s why, the first time I was approached about climbing the thing, I was mildly apprehensive.
You see, I had left home eight months earlier to share the gospel on college campuses in China. That’s a long story in and of itself, so for this column I’ll simply say there was nothing easy about the process — especially when it came down to saying goodbye to my mom. I told her I would keep out of trouble, and not do anything dangerous. Of course, as most boys and men do, I hardly believed myself when I said it. From where I stand now, I understand it was a ridiculous thing to claim, but I at least wanted Mom to be under the illusion I would take care of myself.
Throughout the following nine months, I experienced a profound depth of experience I doubt I’ll ever find again — and none of it was safe. I was assaulted from the beginning with the most intense moments, memories and emotions I’ve ever encountered; mountains of them, you could say. There were mountains like encounters with God, unforgettable friendships and that one time I petted an actual tiger. Those were easy mountains to climb — mountains I could climb time and time again without tiring of them.
But there were other mountains, too. Taller mountains, meaner mountains; mountains I wished I could walk around, but that offered no alternative route but up. They were mountains like unanswered prayers, un-met expectations, dysfunctional relationships, homesickness and culture shock, and they were bigger and badder than any I had ever known.
We all climb those types of mountains. They come in all shapes and sizes, and have many different names. Your tallest mountain may be loss of a loved one. It may be substance abuse, disability, financial instability or depression. Yours may be a mountain, or a hill —both can be scary. They loom before us, it seems, staring us down, daring us to take a step.
At some point, we must all realize the only way to put a mountain like that behind us is to climb it, sometimes through the night, sometimes through the day — but always with toil and pain. We must do this, for if we don’t, we’ll never know the glory of standing at the summit, or the freedom of climbing down the other side to leave it behind. And if the mountain is always in front of us, we’ll feel the hope of watching the sun rise.
I have mountains yet to climb in this life — probably bigger, angrier ones than I want. These are the mountains we all climb. Whether the mountain is beneath your feet or in your head, the truth still stands: Nothing says hope like toiling through the night to see a new day.
From the top of Hua Shan, I felt as though I could see the entire world, bathed in light.
David Wright is a Wilmington resident, former News Journal reporter and current sports editor of the (Hillsboro) Times-Gazette. Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.