When God Calls You to Climb Mountains (Literally)

Categories: Student Stories, Uncategorized

Bryn Mitchell is a second-year Outdoor Leadership student with a love for God, a thirst for adventure, and a heart for people. (He’s actively figuring out how those three things fit together.)  In December of 2016, Bryn and four friends (including fellow OL student Sam Rooney) embarked on a trip to climb South America’s tallest peak, Aconcagua. What follows is an epic post worthy of an epic journey – a travelogue and a spiritual chronicle rolled into one – in Bryn’s own words. 

I have always admired those who have been willing to put themselves out on the line. Put themselves in uncomfortable positions, where even they do not fully know where they are going or why they are there. Yet seem to have the guts to persevere and come out the other side able to articulate and tell the story of their experience. This characteristic is something I am trying to teach myself, to not just journey forth but also learn from an experience and find a way to teach others about the experience.

 Origins

This brings me to summer of 2015, one of the worst summers of my life. I was working at a factory that I did not particularly enjoy. I found myself dreaming of the seven summits of the world. What a great adventure that would be!

The seven summits are the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents. Denali in North America, Elbrus in Europe, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Everest in Asia, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Puncak Jaya in Oceania and Aconcagua in South America.

I thought for so long that there was no way God wanted me to climb these mountains, I mean why would he? Would God call one of his servants to climb a mountain rather than physically serve the poor? These are the thoughts that circulated in my head.

Time went on and I started school. I began studying Outdoor Leadership at Columbia Bible College. I was training to become a mountain guide and learn all the technical skills I could get my hands on. I am still a part of this school, in my second and final year. The first semester was amazing; I made so many new friends and went on many cool trips that taught me a lot about myself and what following God looks like.

The vision

Early in my second semester my two good friends Chris and Sam and I were sitting watching 180 Degrees South, a movie based on one man’s story of sailing to South America to climb a mountain. He didn’t end up summiting the mountain, but the lessons he learned and the people he met were priceless.

I remember turning sitting there with my two friends, making the decision that we were going to go to South America on our Christmas break and climb Aconcagua. This was no weightless declaration: we are the type of people to do the things we say. So when we said we were going to South America I deep down knew it was going to happen.

The Frame

Two or so days later, I received a message from my friend Coree, who had been with me in New Zealand, India and Nepal. He had some exciting news for me. He told me about how he had been to Mendoza, Argentina and had met with the YWAM base there. It turns out YWAM Mendoza had been building a community center in a low income part of the area and were still in need of more finances to finish it. So we decided that the climb could also be a means of raising money for this community center.

The Trials

The following months were all focused on planning routes, training schedules, climbing schedules, emergency response plans and all the work that go into a climb like this.

This is when I started to question what this climb was all about. I went back and forth in my mind, trying to find if I was in it to raise money or just to climb the mountain. I thought that the right answer was the community center and the wrong was the climb.

I have always been told that climbing a mountain is not beneficial to the planet. We climbers spend money and time, we separate ourselves from people for extended periods of time and for what? To get to the top of a rock. So I was trying to convince myself that the whole reason I was a part of this project was because of the community center. But that was a lie. After weeks of struggling with this concept God spoke to me.

The story of Jericho came up, and I felt like God was trying to tell me something. The Israelite’s were told to do something pretty ridiculous in this epic. Instead of training to fight they were told to march around the city every day for seven days, then march around it seven times on the last day  then the walls would fall. “What? How does that help anyone? We are just going to walk? Let’s get our swords and fight!” None of these questions are in the book of Joshua, but I am sure they were thought. We as humans want a straightforward answers. But God told the Israelites to do something that made no sense, and they did it. The walls fell and the story echoed throughout history.

This principle hit me like a ton of bricks and it gave me such a sense of purpose. I knew God wanted me to climb this mountain and there was peace and simplicity in that. I was still stoked about the community center and nothing was going to change with that project. But I could answer with confidence when people asked me the axiom of why I was going. It was because God called me to climb this mountain with my hands wide open.

The days leading up to the climb were stressful with packing and getting ready. A fun auction and concert were held to help raise money for the community center. Before I knew it I was on a plane headed to Santiago.

Nov 28: Arrival in Santiago, Chile

I have arrived in Santiago and the new air has helped revive my adventurous spirit. I am so excited to be here with Sam and Adam.

I find it so easy to focus on Jesus when I am on the move. I see him in the humanity that lives in this southern city. I hear him in the laughter of the children on the street. This is God’s country. He is already here, and he will be here long after. Our job is to simply love and learn from the people around us. So that we may grow ourselves and help others grow.

It is a warm and I am laying in my hostel bed listening to music. Thank you Jesus for this life, and for giving me the strength to do the crazy things you have called me to.

Nov 29: Santiago, Chile – Mendoza, Argentina

At 12:30 we arrived at the Argentinian border crossing. From 12:30 to 5:30 we slept, hiked, played games. All while waiting to cross the border. I couldn’t believe my eyes. After months of planning, we were finally here. That was a very surreal moment. After the crossing we continued on to Mendoza, where we went to the Ywam base and had dinner with our new friends.

A group of mules make their way to Confluencia, the first of two base camps.

Nov 30:  Prep Day #1

I woke up in the Argentinian heat under my thin bed sheet. The morning was very pleasant. After breakfast we went to Mendoza to figure out permit and mule rentals.

Dec 1 Prep day #2- Tough day

Today was really hard. Everything was going fine until we went to a McDonald’s to get WIFI so we could pay for our climbing permits.

Out of nowhere I felt incredibly dizzy and nauseous. I couldn’t see and I didn’t know where I was. Then I was leaning on a tree puking my guts out in the busy downtown Mendoza. I don’t know what caused this.

Back at our YWAM base.  I sat by the toilet for hours more, lamenting why I would work so hard for something, something that God clearly called me to; to end up being extremely sick two days before we were to leave. I remember being disappointed and angry but also confident that I would beat this sickness/ spiritual warfare.

That night was the night we had set aside for prayer and community with everyone else on the base. So while I was alone battling my own demons my team-members were being prayed for and encouraged. They all came into the bathroom. They were glowing: I could see their joy.

But at this point I was done; I felt it was over for me. And I was fighting tears. My friends were there to encourage me, with their newfound sense of purpose. They prayed for me and I began to feel better. I went to bed that night so sick. But when I woke up, I felt amazing. No more sickness, it was gone. I was so hungry and thirsty. I hadn’t eaten anything in a day, but I was back.

Dec 2 Prep Day #3 – Permit day 

Holding an Aconcagua permit in my hand felt amazing. God has been so faithful, and for a while I thought we might not be able to get permits. We then went to the prayer meeting.

The prayer meeting was so good. We spent so much time in God’s presence, just praying over Mendoza and receiving blessings from a local lady who had come to pray. It has been so amazing to see the way the Christians here view us and the mission God has brought us here to do. To them it is so clear and they believe in it so much.

Day 1 Puente Del Inca to Confluencia

We woke up to a nice Argentinian sun. It was 8:30 and our mule pick-up was to be at 10. When we heard a truck pull up, we all rushed out the door to begin weighing gear for the mules. All of our gear was less than 120kg, which was awesome. So we loaded up our gear into the truck and piled in to be driven to the trailhead. Before we set off we had a group prayer.

I couldn’t believe we were actually climbing this mountain. The hiking felt good. It was only 3 hours to Confluencia (3,400m) which was our first of five camps leading up the mountain. During the hike we entertained ourselves with good conversation, funny jokes and spontaneous hiking pole sword fights.

 

Confluencia – 3390m. A checkpoint in the desert, on the way to Aconcagua.

Day 2 Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas (base camp) – 4300m

This was a tough day. 18 km of hiking through the windy desert is hard enough without having to climb from 3400 to 4300m.

It was hard to believe we were going to climb a cold mountain while we were hiking through this desert valley. The wind was strong and you just had to keep your head down and keep marching. We kept a fast pace for a lot of it. But then as we got to the steep sections our pace began to slow.As we reached the 4000m mark Tyler began to get really sick. He felt nauseous, out of breath and exhausted, and an old shoulder injury began to irritate him.

So we began to pray and listen to worship music. And before we knew it we were at base camp. Plaza de Mulas is the second largest high mountain base camp in the world, apart from Everest. Needless to say it felt like a big city in the middle of the mountains.

 The hike from Confluencia to Plaza de Mulas is a long trek through the dry desert.

Day 3 Plaza de Mulas 4350m – Rest day

Rest days are amazing. I finally get to simply enjoy the wild place that I am in. Take in the sights and sounds of a high mountain base camp and enjoy the nice warm sun.

Today has been spent preparing for tomorrow, which will be our first carry up the mountain. The thing with high altitude climbing is that you pretty much have to climb the mountain two or three times. There are three camps between us and the summit and we are going to climb to each of them twice before heading further.

We each had about 90 pounds worth of gear/ food (450lbs total) but we split our gear and allowed mules to carry it to base camp. Now we will be ditching gear not needed for the high camps and leaving it at base camp. As we move up we will be depleting our resources and splitting them up with carries/ moves. (Carries are climbing leaving gear, coming down. Moves are actually moving tents and sleeping gear.)

So there you have it: a lesson of the type of organization and calculating that goes into doing this climb. Now do you understand why I was a little stressed coming into this?

 Plaza de Mulas – 4300m

Day 4 Gear carry from base camp to camp 1 then return- 5000m

I reached a new highest height today. 5000 meters, that is 400 meters past my last record. I am stoked about that!

Today we carried our food for the next nine days up to camp 1, then came back down to basecamp.

Climbing big mountains is hard: four days spent going higher and higher is tough, and we still have twelve more. I constantly feel tired and everything is just a little harder to do. But this is my calling in life, and I will continue doing it. I am mentally preparing myself for another 12 days of suffering. Because that’s mostly what this type of climbing consists of, but I will suffer gladly.

Carrying a load of food and gear from basecamp to camp Canada (camp 1) – 5000m

Day 5- move to camp 1- 5000m

Today was my favorite day so far. We woke up around 8 and packed up all our gear for our move to camp 1. The hike went really well. It’s hard to believe we were climbing at 16,000 feet when I felt this good. We arrived at the camp around 2 pm and began setting up our tents. As the snow began to fall, we played Christmas music to celebrate. Just as we got set up the snow really started falling. And the wind began to pick up – the storm was here.

The next few hours were spent hanging out in our tents, playing board games, listening to music, talking about life, and cooking dinner. By this time almost two feet of snow had fallen.

Coree Balsamo watches as a thick blanket of snow falls on Camp Canada – 5000m

Day 6 emergency hike down to base camp – 4300m

3 am… I woke to the sound of roaring wind and piling up snow. I remember Coree asking me if these tents were strong, and I said yes. Ten minutes later our guy line ripped out of the ground, allowing the wind to push one of the tent walls in.

We immediately braced it and started punching off the snow on the rest of the tent. It was falling faster than we could fight it. We continued in this struggle for a while, sleeping for 20 minutes then fixing the snow issue then sleeping again.

Then we woke to the sound of someone puking their guts out. We looked out and saw Tyler sticking his head out of the other tent, throwing up. I thought my experience being sick in Mendoza was bad. But here was Tyler crouching in the snow with little clothes on, in a freak storm in the Andes Mountains of South America at almost 17,000 feet, puking nonstop. I have never seen someone struggle so hard. Coree and I immediately started praying for him. Ten different plans went through my head as far as what we should do. But it was snowing and the middle of the night, so we went to bed.

We woke up at 8 and immediately started our descent to get Tyler down off the mountain. We packed up all his stuff into our bags and left all of our own stuff at the camp, except for our sleeping bags.

When I saw Tyler I realized how serious of a situation we were in. He could barely talk, walk, or think straight. The snow had fallen up to my knees and in spots, my waist. We struggled for hours trying to find our way down the mountain. For parts we carried Tyler on our shoulders, or lowered him down steep sections in a 140l duffel bag.

We were the only ones out on the mountain that day and it was so stormy that we were not able to see anything. We were lowering a sick climber down a 700m face all by ourselves. It was not easy. While we were finding our way down, we would let Tyler sit, he and he would immediately start falling asleep. We had to ask him to keep talking and keep awake.

Eventually mountain rescue came up to meet us. I guess they saw us struggling down the face. They helped us the rest of the way down to camp and Tyler went to the doctor. We went back to meet with Camelia and Matias. They greeted us with warm coffee and a delicious South American dish. The whole event ended at 2 pm. I wish you could understand the feeling of struggling for six hours only to be greeted with warm South American hospitality and warm coffee.

After all this it was easy to feel like our adventure was over. But something feels like we are going back up. I don’t know why, and it must seem crazy to think we would go back up. But I think we will.

Chaos ensues as we figure out a way to get our friend down the mountain

Day 7 Move to camp Canada, carry to camp Nido De Condores (5450) return to Canada.

We made a decision as a team to split up. So me, Adam and Sam are going to be continuing to climb over the next five days. We hope to summit on the 15th of December.

It sucks to split up, and it was hard to say goodbye to Tyler and Coree as we continued. But with prayer and encouragement I know this is the right decision.

Today was the biggest elevation gain we have done yet. We gained 1100m in one day. The climbing was actually fun; it was a beautiful day and the wind was calm. We first climbed to camp Canada then had lunch and loaded up our bags with gear for camp Nido de Condores. It was the highest point I had ever been and I felt it. We ditched our food and gear and went back down.

We are tired, I can feel it in the group. We have been going nonstop for a long time. And it is taking its toll. Our faces are burnt to a crisp, our noses all look like a warzone. The mountain is pounding us down. But we still have hope, and a calling to climb this mountain for God’s glory. So we rest on his unending strength as we struggle up this mountain.

The four of us make our way back up to camp Canada on a calm sunny day. Coree joined us to grab all the gear he and Tyler needed for their time at basecamp.

Day 8 move to Nido de Condores – 5450m

I woke up exhausted. I didn’t have the best sleep and my body kept telling me to stop… don’t go higher.

Our team verse for this trip has been psalms 61:1-2:  “Hear my cry, O God; from the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I”. This verse has been on the back of my mind for the whole trip now. It comforts me and reminds me that this climb isn’t for nothing. It is Spirit-led and God is going to do amazing things through it. We just have to be patient and trust God and allow him to lead us to the rock that is higher than I.

The mountains next to Aconcagua as seen from Nido de Condores

Day 9- rest day – Nido des Condores- 5450m

Every night we go higher, the cold tries to sneak in further and further. We often wake up with frost coating everything inside the tent, the roof, our sleeping bags. But then the sun peaks over Aconcagua, heating this tent from the negatives to over 20-30 degrees Celsius. I don’t complain.

Today we rest, and prepare for the days ahead. The wind is incredibly strong outside our tent, but it is a comfortable temperature in here.

I lie here listening to Josh Garrells and read the chapter “Winter Hiatus” in the book Notes from the Tilt a Whirl. This was the perfect chapter to read today. It reminded me that although the cold is ever present right now. God is going to use this cold and suffering to break forth the spring, a spring that will be ever flowing and that will never fade. A spring with laughter and joy at all times, so warm and satisfying that the cold winter will never be spoken of again. That is what I take with me in my heart, as God leads me to the rock that is higher than I.

60 kph winds rip by our lonely camp at 5400m

Day 10 Acclimatized hike to 6100M and back

Plans have changed. Originally we were planning to carry gear to camp Berlin today then return. Then moving camp there tomorrow, then summiting the day after.  A combination of rational decision-making and weather windows shows that it will be much better to acclimatize to 6000 meters with light packs then sleep down low, then go for it. All 1500m from Nido de Condores to the summit and back in one day. So that is the plan. And I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t nervous for tomorrow.

So much comes down to this one moment. Months of training and organizing, all for one day. But I know God called me here for a reason and if that reason is to summit then awesome! If that reason is to turn back before the summit, then awesome. Either way I am glad to have had the experience here and am glad to have met all the people I met.

So now I prepare, drinking liquids eating and getting a good sleep. It is God’s breath in my lungs now and I am going to remain faithful. That’s the best I can do.

I lean not on my own understanding as to why he wants me to climb. But my life is in the hands of the maker of heaven, so I will climb this mountain with my hands wide open.

Me, Sam and Adam make our way up a steep face on the way to camp Berlin – 5800m

Day 11 Summit day -6,962m

2am wake up. We take 5 minutes to wake our brains up and mentally prepare for the day. After breakfast, we enjoyed the last taste of warm comfort and stepped out of our tent into the cold. It was a typical clear Aconcagua night. It was a full moon so headlamps were hardly necessary. We strapped on our crampons and at 3:20am started walking up the intimidating mountain.

The climbing continued to get harder and harder. Eventually we arrived at the face traverse, a long trail that led across the north face of the mountain. The wind immediately picked up. I think we all got very intimidated at this point. My hands and toes were frozen. It was probably minus 20. The sun still hadn’t hit us and the wind added to the cold. I know I doubted myself. Feeling how hard it was to move because of the altitude, the wind and the cold and knowing we still had the toughest part of the climb ahead of us. Thoughts of turning back popped up in my head. But I relied on my training as a guide (in the making) I analyzed each of the factors and realized there was no inherent risk, so long as we kept moving and kept the breaks to a minimum. So we kept moving. By this time we must have been at 6500m, roughly 400m from the summit. We finished the traverse at this place called the cave, a rock feature that was perfect for hiding from the wind while waiting to make your final push to the summit.

Sam and Adam rest on a rock near camp Berlin, as we make our way to the summit.

The next portion of the climb was way more technical than I was planning. It was a 40 degree climb with sections of 3rd and 4th class terrain. (Meaning a fall would not be good). And I was already struggling to keep my strength up which affected my balance a lot. But with reluctance we continued climbing. This was the hardest physical thing I have ever done. Off the start I found I could do one step per two or three breaths, I would try to keep that pattern. But sometimes (and this happened throughout the whole trip while acclimatizing) I would feel like I was choking, like there was no air to breathe.

I would have a mini panic attack, as if I was suffocating. Because for a second or so it actually felt like there was no air to breathe. Every time this happened I would freak out a little inside, but then remind myself to remain calm and slowly catch my breath.

Adam slowly makes his way up the exposed bits of climbing, 100m from the summit.

I wish I could describe to you what we went through up there. The final 150m probably took about an hour and a half. It was so hard, at this point I was taking one step per five breathes, and I still felt behind.

Eventually I arrived within 5 meters of the summit. Up until this point I did not think I was going to make it. It felt so hard to make that simple 5m climb, around some boulders, using my knee to lift myself onto another boulder, trying to avoid cutting my pants with my crampons, then shifting my weight to my feet, extending my knees to see Sam, one of my best friends in life sitting at the cross that was used to mark the top.

Sam Rooney pushes his way up the final portion before the summit.

As my head popped over the rocks Sam and two other climbers both looked over at me and began cheering. I choked up; I am not usually a crier. Not for prideful reasons, I just don’t often physically cry. But when I came over the summit ridge onto that plateau and limped over to Sam and collapsed beside him with the biggest hug, I began to tear up.

Me and Sam were in awe at where we were sitting. Tears were still coming out of my face, thankfully I had a warm pair of goggles on or they would’ve frozen in the cold. Adam popped his head over the summit just as I had done. And he too limped over to us and joined into the big hug at 23,000 feet. Then we just sat there in the wind and the cold, sipping on our water that was partly frozen.

There we were: three poor college students who climbed this mountain unsupported (no guides or porters) besides the use of two mules in the beginning. I cannot give our group full credit though. If it were truly up to us I don’t think we would’ve made it. God was our guide and our porter. Relieving us of any unnecessary weight and keeping altitude sickness away. And thanks to him we made it to the top.

Then we began to talk to God. Our prayers felt so close, like we were talking to someone who was right beside us. We thanked God for bringing us to the summit and for the journey he brought us on. We prayed for the local area, Mendoza, Argentina. That somehow this climb would affect them in a positive way, just as it had done to us.

Adam Strong, Bryn Mitchell and Sam Rooney. Summit of Aconcagua 6,962M

Now God has his own reasons why he wanted us on top of that mountain. And I still don’t have a concrete answer why. But maybe one day I will find out, and the reason will lead to another crazy story that was going on in the background of my life without even knowing it. It is the disciple’s job to listen to his master and it is the master’s job to effect change. And I lay here back in my tent in contentment, knowing that I listened to my master’s commands, that is good enough for me as I lay my head and rest at 5500m.

Going forward

This was the hardest, craziest thing I have ever done with my life. I have learned so much from this climb and I hope more than anything that this tale connects with you and you can learn something from my experience. That is a big reason why I continue to do what I do, so that I can pass on wisdom and experience to everyone I meet. So I leave you with this.

Obey his commands. God calls people to do wild things every day.  Are you willing? Not everyone will understand your particular calling in life. I am sure there are going to be people who read this story and still do not understand it. But that is okay. We all have something to do, and it is our responsibility to do it with characteristic immoderation. To hold nothing back and do something wild, something scary, something sincere. Now I pass the torch to you, to find your Aconcagua and climb it with your hands wide open.

 

Learn more about Columbia’s Outdoor Leadership diploma & degree programs.

(This post was adapted from Bryn’s original post which you can view here. Photo credits: Bryn Mitchell)

 

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