The summer between my junior and senior year of high school, several of my friends and I got on a chartered bus and headed west. Our destination was Frontier Ranch, which is located in Buena Vista, Colorado. The camp is owned and operated by Young Life and was built on the side of 14, 197 ft. Mt. Princeton.
I had never seen the Rockies. The mountains have always quieted my wandering, fearful heart. Though I had grown up visiting the Smokey ones as a child, I longed for the grandeur of the west. And grandeur is certainly what I received.
During the trip, our cabin and a two others, had a scheduled afternoon of beginner repelling. Two of my friends and I were late getting to the activity site for various reasons.
As we walked up, trying to go unnoticed, we realized that we were going to pay for our tardiness. My friends and I were at the very end of the repelling line behind about 40 other campers. They were all looking up at a mountain face two stories high while watching the practice demonstration. I was so far back that I could not even hear the instructions.
We sat down and settled in for a very long wait. About 20 minutes into our stint, a young guy walked up. He asked our little group if anyone had been repelling before. We looked at each other, not saying anything. Then as if on cue, my friends and I raised our hands. He looked at us and said, “Great! Follow me.”
Thus began our hike. Further up the mountain.
As we tried to keep up with our long, legged guide, I asked my friend if she had ever repelled before. “Nope,” she said.
“You?” she asked.
“No, and now we’ve teamed up with Grizzly Adams,” I said, getting nervous.
“It’ll be fine,” she said, “besides how much higher can he possibly climb?”
Much higher in fact. I think all in all, we hiked up the mountain for about 20 minutes, giving me plenty of time to assess the situation. My inner monologue went something like this….
“How hard could repelling be, really? I may have never repelled, but I have seen someone repel before. That’s almost the same thing. Besides, I drive past the fireman’s training center all the time which has a practice climbing tower on the grounds.”
By the time we reached the top, I was practically an expert.
He parked us at the peak and asked us who wanted to go first. Though, I was now a professional, I did not want to be the first professional.
One of my friends volunteered and began putting on gear. I took notes. My other friend went next. With her, I took great confidence in her ability to drop off the side of a mountain in Colorado, because she was not really an athlete. I, who was born to play sports, was very outdoorsy.
What I did not realize at the time, but found out once I looked down (rookie move, I know) was that repelling had nothing to do with athleticism. It had everything to do with not being afraid of heights. I myself am allergic to heights.
I started to panic. I remained composed externally because if they could do it, surely I could. The guy helped me with my harness and gave me a helmet. He clipped me in and asked me, rather casually, if I was ready.
I began to shake as I backed up to the edge of the cliff. I bent my knees, looked over my shoulder, and then at the college student.
I joked, “You know, I’m going to run back to the cabin real quick and get my camera. The view is amazing from up here.” My voice was quivering. I was not fooling anyone anymore.
He gave me a courtesy laugh and said, “All you have to do is lean back.”
“Lean back,” I repeated.
“Ummm, are you aware that you’re asking me to lean back off a mountain?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Completely aware.”
I stood there for a few minutes and watched him size up my resistance. Coupled with the fact that it was taking me much longer to begin repelling than my cohorts.
My eyes started to tear up.
He said, “What is your name?”
Now, I was really scared. I was going to be outed for lying about my non repelling history on a Young Life retreat. I had inconvenienced him, and he was now going to have to accompany me on my walk of shame back down the mountain.
“Carrie. My name is Carrie,” I said remembering.
“Look at me,” he said very seriously.
I looked him in the eye waiting for my reprimand. Then he said, “My name is Chris. It will catch Carrie, I promise you.”
I nodded but did not move. I wanted to shout, “What are you, CRAZY!!??” “It’s not going to catch. There is no “catch” up here!”
Almost as if he heard my rantings, he said, “You can do this. Just trust the rope.”
Whether it was courage, faith, or fear of being shamed, I leaned back. For two, very long seconds, I fell. My eyes got so big with shock, that I was sure they were going to shoot out of their sockets and hit Chris square in the face. I still remember that moment of not knowing if it was going to tug. It was pregnant with doubt and crippling fear.
And then it caught. The rope pulled taut as my feet braced the mountain.
“See,” he smiled. “You did it.”
I sat back for a moment, gathering myself and catching my breath as I hung off the side of Mt. Princeton.
I thanked him and started to make my way down, repelling. That part felt very natural. Though, I hurried wanting to finally be on firm ground. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would, testifying to just how high we had climbed. I remember thinking all the way down, “I really hate this.” I wasn’t grumpy about it; it was more like an excited discovery.
The ground was a surprise, as if it rose up to congratulate me. I unhooked myself and was never happier. Sure, I felt very tall at the moment in my accomplishment. A small portion of me felt really empowered, as if I could do anything.
Mostly, I remember what it felt like to have a crisis of faith. To be afraid, and in the moment have someone encourage me to trust in what I knew to be true, even if my fears were blurring that reality.
I have been thinking about that story a lot lately. I feel like I am once again, standing on the edge of a mountain. I will never know if the love of His grip on me is true, if I don’t lean back. Fear is obscuring His voice. But in the quiet moments I hear Him saying, “It will catch Carrie, I promise you.”