One false move and we were dead. Below us was 1,000 feet of tilting mountainside and empty air. Above us, a 1,000-foot step ladder of ice.
"You crazy fool," I said to myself. "You've brought your wife up here on her first wedding anniversary, only to kill her and yourself."
It had been my idea to climb Mount Whitney that spring. Standing 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest mountain in the Sierras and in the contiguous United States. I had tried climbing it with a college friend once before, but a snowstorm and altitude sickness had stopped us three-quarters of the way up at Mirror Lake. Somehow I had convinced my bride that this was the way to celebrate our first anniversary.
"We won't get sick if we take three days to climb it," I said. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Jenny asked numbly.
"Nothing to it. We'll carry ice axes. You'll see." I was a rank amateur, trying to sound like Sir Edmund Hillary.
"Wouldn't you rather stay at a bed and breakfast up the coast?" Jenny asked. "Or just go out to a nice restaurant?"
"No," I said. "Anybody can go to a restaurant. That doesn't take any imagination."
Cutting words, but Jenny hardly batted an eye.
That was pretty typical of our first year together. We spent a lot of time sniping. We argued and forgave and argued again. We were as different as night and day. I was extroverted; she was introverted. I was a night owl; she was a morning person. I liked the classics; she liked pop culture. My politics were liberal; hers conservative. Even the smallest details of married life, from how to chop a cucumber to how to fold a T-shirt, were flash points for us.
To be truthful, we were pretty discouraged as our first anniversary approached. All we had ever heard from friends—and fairy tales—was that this was supposed to be our honeymoon year. Three hundred sixty-five days of happy-ever-aftering.
We knew that we should have been praying more—and growing deeper spiritually—but we had a hard time taking our eyes off of each others' faults. We believed that a happy marriage should come easily for two people in love. I wonder how many couples doubt their marriages after a difficult first year. We sure did. After all, if our first year had been so rocky, what could the future hold?
Back on the mountain, I wasn't so sure we had a future at all. From the second campsite at 12,000 feet, the ice-buried trail twisted steeply back and forth 96 times to the ridge—a gain in elevation of 2,000 feet. We were forced to carve our own stair steps with our axes and boots.
After an hour of cutting steps straight up, I felt spent. Grim thoughts kept stealing into my brain. What if our feet slip? What if we get swept away by an avalanche? What if the snow collapses under our weight? Neither of us was wearing spiked crampons on our boots. Though we didn't know it at the time, another Whitney climber had plunged to his death only the week before.
I tried to hide my growing concern from Jenny. After all, I had been full of bravado from the start just to get her to join me. But the higher we climbed, the more I sensed the vastness deepening beneath us. Turning shakily from the snow in front of me, I looked down. Down, down, down. Panic gripped me. Turning back, I stopped climbing and held onto my ice ax for dear life. My knees wobbled dangerously. If I didn't calm down soon, I would fall.
"Hey, Jen. Hold up."
"How are we going to get down?" I questioned tremulously.
I knew that ascent on a steep slope is often easier than descent. And you can add ropes to the list of items we didn't pack.
"How are we going to … " she said, almost meditatively. "I don't know."
"I'm freaked out," I said, putting it mildly.
"Are you praying?" she asked.
Apparently she had been praying. But for some reason I never think to pray during times of crisis—when I need prayer the most. Grateful for the reminder, I started pouring out my fears to God.
Jenny confided to me later that at that time she kept picturing herself rolling down the slope in a giant snowball, smashing against the rocks below. But she managed to sound cool.
"Don't look down," she encouraged. "Look up."
Reluctantly, and still dizzy, I looked up. Just then, the granite summit of Whitney gleamed in the morning light like a pyramid of antique silver. It towered to the right of us with a god-like presence: majestic and serene. The beauty seized my attention and arrested my downward thinking. As the seconds ticked by, God's presence became palpable. Above us. Below us. Beside us. All we had to do was put one foot in front of the other. I started to calm down. My legs felt less jittery.
"Do you want to go down?" Jenny asked.
I was surprised to hear disappointment in her voice. Somewhere along the way, fear notwithstanding, she had started to enjoy herself.
"No, let's keep climbing."
We reached the summit that day. With Death Valley below and the Sierras all around, we celebrated with a long kiss and a candy bar. Too tired to linger, we snapped some photos and started back down. Though we had to cross some harrowing traverses and got caught in a miserable hailstorm, fear never dug its talons in me again like it had on the avalanche field.
What a blessing it was for Jenny and me to conquer a mountain together. So many of our struggles during the past year had been inside our relationship, of our own making. It was a relief to work together on an obstacle outside our relationship. My moment of vulnerability and Jenny's courage had helped us to see each other in a different light. We realized that we both had strengths and weaknesses that we could use to forge a true partnership.
Our teamwork on Mount Whitney didn't make our marriage instantly easier, though. We still had our share of adjustments to make. We still argued and forgave and argued some more. But we agreed to take our marriage deeper by lavishing prayer upon it. For starters, we decided to end quarrels in prayer, inviting God to change our hearts. We also committed to not let the sun go down on our anger, even if it took hours to come to an understanding.
Ten years later, Jenny and I are still one of the happiest couples we know. No one is more surprised than us that God could make soul mates out of two very different people. The years grow sweeter as we find more and more common ground.
We have encountered times of turmoil and distancing in our marriage, and we anticipate that there may be more. But we've decided that we're together no matter how messy life gets. And we trust that God is in the thick of it with us. He turned things around for us once, and we trust that as we look to him, he can do it again.
Ever since our climb up Whitney, Psalm 121 has held special meaning for Jenny and me:
"I will lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence shall my help come? My help shall come from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
Look up, not down. The answers lie with him.
Paul Kortepeter now resides in the flatlands of Indiana where he works as a school teacher. He and his wife, Jennifer, plan to go climbing for their tenth anniversary.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.