Scaling the Heights

Our spirits hunger for more than the senses can offer

According to news reports, a shocking number of Mt. Everest climbers have been dying — eleven at the summit and nearly 300 more below, mostly from avalanches. Recently my friend David skyped me from Florida. He is a former whiz kid of Wall Street. We usually chat about the latest stock market gyrations and tricks of the trade, but this time Mt. Everest came up by way of analogy.

“Has the little guy investing alone any chance of scaling the heights of financial success?” I asked.

“It’d be like braving Mt. Everest alone, rather than hiring a Sherpa for a guided group tour.”

“I guess you’ve seen the news about those Mt. Everest climbers dying in the summit queue?”

“They’re all nuts, but… they had a bucket list to check off and maybe a childhood dream.”

“What are they risking their lives for? They leave their families and careers to climb a rock, knowing they may not return, dead or alive. Edmund Hillary got there first in 1953 and reaped all the glory. What’s the motive for scaling 29,000 feet to the frigid heights of a snow-capped rock?”

“One of the climbers had a life goal of gaining exclusive membership in a 7 Summit Club, for the elect few having scaled all seven of the highest peaks on each continent. But after his achieving the seventh summit, he died on descending the mountain. Bummer!” David said, sipping his coffee.

“So maybe he got heartbroken realizing his seventh-heaven deliverance wasn’t all that it was supposed to be. All his life he’s struggled for the beatific vision of mountaineer sainthood.”

“Why so cynical? Look, he died doing what he loved to do. He was obviously an experienced climber in good physical shape, but he died from altitude sickness at 25,000 feet. Having to wait in that summit queue too long, maybe he got pulmonary edema or his oxygen supply ran out. Big trouble if that ever happens. Any theft of an oxygen bottle in that situation is akin to murder.”

“Homo sapiens are supposedly wiser than the apes, but this has gone far beyond dumb. It costs each of them about $50,000 for proper training and equipment. Ascending the summit takes two months, all for a 5-minute ecstatic experience above the clouds. Climbers hoping to be “blown away” by it all can actually be blown off the trail and die. Its dangerous winds average 100 mph with wind chill factors dipping to -70 degrees F, and people could wake up severely frostbitten.”

“Something like that. I know, it sounds crazy, but hey, it’s their money and their life. I’ve been known to take big risks for the 5–minute ecstasy in a brothel bed. Could’ve ended up with AIDS. Mountain climbers get a “seven-year itch” for exotic adventure and just have to scratch it. People have a right to live as they choose and pursue what they hope brings them fulfillment,” he said.

“The stratospheric risk you and all those climbers take suggests you expect a great deal more from life — a huge spiritual reward that makes it all worthwhile, a permanent takeaway, not merely a fleeting sensation in bed or a brief panoramic vista on Everest.”

“So, okay, what is it?” David asked.

“I know how this will sound, but bear with me. The harder and more costly the ascent, the more worthwhile the summit feels. They’re climbing with an unquenchable hunger for heaven.”

“You’re suggesting all those climbers are pursuing a delusion?”

“They’ve substituted Everest for the Holy Mount towering within them. We humans have a persistent hankering for something that our higher intellectual faculties cannot satisfy, a restless spiritual hunger for more than the lower senses can offer. But in our frustration, we trudge up the highest mountains in the hope of seeing heaven’s gate open and a legion of angels ascending and descending (John 1:51). Our restless hearts can never be pacified in any sensuous, material way.”

“But weren’t you also obsessed for ten years as a penniless youth in Christian pilgrimage?”

“No question of that, but from a religious perspective, I was crazy in love with God. And I knew deep down, regardless of what my family thought of me and what I lost in lucrative career opportunities, I’d accepted God’s invitation to a lofty spiritual adventure. My goal was to achieve the interior summit of self-mastery, no matter the cost. I had no delusions of accessing the pearly gates of paradise by climbing the tallest mountain on Earth. It’s taken all my strength of mind and body to survive the narrow perilous path of inward ascent, one that promises sanctity’s beatific vision. The higher I climb, the rarer the atmosphere — given unto moments of breathless awe. In surprising ways, it parallels conquering Everest; if dying, to secure an eternal reward instead.”

“I must admit, you have a decent explanation, though I couldn’t have done what you did,” he said, looking at his watch. “In my youth, the mountain I had to climb was the stock market.”

“It’s a bubble about to burst after having drawn foolish speculators to queue at its summit.”

“Yeah, I know all about that: the crush of people speculating for their bucketful of financial utopia, unaware they’re being manipulated and herded like cattle before the carnage. Sooner or later the inevitable crash will come, and in the ensuing avalanche many will get snowed under. It won’t matter how well trained or prepared they were, just like those unfortunate climbers on Mt. Everest. I think we can agree on one thing: There’s a sucker born every minute.”

After our goodbyes, I reflected on Augustine’s quote refuting the illusory promises of the world: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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