Frozen boogers on my sleeve. Fingers numb, dizzy from a lack of oxygen and chilled through five layers of clothing, I pull myself up the final rock wall here at sixteen thousand feet above sea level. It’s 5am…a bright full moon setting in the west and the promise of a new sun on the eastern horizon. Mild hypoxia continues to slowly take its toll… I’m uncoordinated, tripping on my feet and cutting my knee through jeans and thermal underwear. Drooling, nose running, contact lenses holding on for dear life in a gale force wind, I finally reach the top of Mount Kenya, the country’s snow-capped ancient volcano. I rise to stand on the summit and am quickly blown off my feet. Content to just sit and cling to a rock, catch my breath and wait for the sun, I begin to think about our journey up.
A single day’s hike brought our group to the base of the mountain’s highest peaks. It was no ordinary day for me and my missionary friends who took this long weekend to explore Kenya’s famed mountain. The most striking thing about it was not only its untouchable size but its absolute silence. I had not stood in such silence for a long time. Hiking up and down valleys of prehistoric-looking plant life and muted, calming hues of green and yellow and brown, I would often stop and listen and only hear my straining heartbeat. I had never seen a place so beautiful here in East Africa. It was the kind of place where you are literally at a loss for words, where you occasionally kneel and stroke the grass with a swollen, chapped hand and are immensely thankful for the weight of your pack, your aching feet, sunburned face and every mouthful of clean, cool air—A place which makes you feel alive… and blessed.
Steadily making our way, the slow hills and valleys turned into steeper climbs. A ridge-line you could plainly see before you, so close you could touch it, would take three hours to conquer. As the altitude rose and the temperature dropped, the forest gave way to open fields of strange flowering plants to clumps of tenacious grass, eventually to bare rock and glaciers and snow. The top was a barren place, where plants and animals had given up the will to make a habitat, and where some men had, over the years, lost their lives. A final climb to the summit is traditionally attempted the following day, in the darkness of a few early morning hours— they say, so you can witness the sunrise from the top, but more likely so you can’t see what you are climbing from the bottom.
There’s a sermon somewhere in there, but as I climbed my thoughts returned to the previous day and its beauty I could not seem to absorb. And I was lost in this perfect night with a perfect moon casting shadows on the rocks, Orion overhead, the Southern Cross set precisely between the majestic twin peaks of a very old volcano. On the final ascent, taking merely ten steps would make me stop to catch my breath. Ten more and I would stop again. Ten more and so on. Until I was there, a frigid mess clinging to the top, wondering for a moment why I had done such a foolish thing.
At 16,300 feet, very near the equator, I sat on a frozen rock in Africa and watched the sun rise above the clouds east of Mount Kenya. As golden light spilled over the ragged landscape before us, revealing the heights to which we had climbed, I came across a weathered, metal plate set into the rock face where I sat. It said that it had been bolted there exactly 150 years after a certain Dr. Johann Ludwick Krapf first arrived in Kenya to preach the “good news.” It said he was the first European to ever lay eyes on this mountain. It was inscribed, “Go safely friend for here is high. Go daringly where eagles fly. Go eternally with Jesus nigh.” —A fitting verse for mountaineer and missionary pilot alike.
Tired, cold, and eyes full of wonder, I thought about ol’ Ludwick and me. What we had in common was more than coming to Africa or preaching the good news. What we had was perhaps a moment in time when we had both looked upon this same mountain, 159 years apart, and saw the handiwork of a mighty God. That here in the midst of the ugliness and destruction of sin, we had possibly both found on the mountain a fresh reminder of the grace which draws men away from darkness, and back to their Creator. What we had was the blessing of looking at this rock and seeing more than a mountain—of loving life and knowing it’s just a glimpse of more to come. Go safely friend.