Meru Peak stands at 21, 850 feet tall in India’s Himalaya Mountains. Up until a few months ago, I’d never heard of it. Everest I knew. But to those in the climbing world, Meru is thought to be the “Anti-Everest”.
What does that mean exactly?
Everest has become a commercialized sensation. It’s as accessible as ever—due to the help of Sherpas you can hire to both carry your stuff and set up your ropes, and to the various camps set up along the route for support.
Meru is different. At Meru, you are all you have. Though Everest stands nearly 8,000 feet taller, Meru’s challenge is in the technicality it requires—the Shark Fin part of the peak legendary for its nearly featureless granite face. How does one climb, exactly, a rock that appears completely smooth?
Not very easily it turns out.
In 2008 a trio of climbers, Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk set out to do what had never been done before. Summit Meru by way of Shark Fin. But they failed.
There were multiple factors at play. The weather had taken a turn for the worse. Their portaledge—a tent drilled into the side of a mountain for sleeping—left them exposed to the elements and was taking a toll on their health and morale. Their food and fuel—used to melt ice for drinking water—was nearly gone.
So they did what they had to do, but what it killed them to do. With the summit in sight, with 100 meters to go, they turned around.
I watched the documentary, Meru, and concluded not two minutes in that to be this kind of mountain climber, is to have something fundamentally off in you. Who does this? For fun? Do these guys have a death wish?
But then I watched Chin, Anker and Ozturk get so close to their goal, to the literal pinnacle of their career, only to turn back. To keep going was to endanger their lives even more. That’s when I realized they might be more sane than I thought.
Jon Krakauer, author and mountaineer explains the psyche of mountain climber in the movie. He says to be one you have to be willing to take extreme risks, push the edges of conventionality and have a drive that makes little sense, but that ultimately ends up being what allows you to conquer what others have deemed impossible.
But on the flip side, a climber lives with as healthy a sense of fear and reality as anyone. They know one false move and any number of disastrous outcomes play out. An avalanche. A rock slide. A fall. They are controlled in their risk taking and depend on their ability to say, “No, I can’t”, knowing their willingness to call it quits just might save their lives.
They live in a tension.
In the same way, I think the healthiest of us, live in a tension too. Who we are, is rooted in two very different messages.
We were made in the image of God.
Yet, we’re sinners.
At every given moment both of these things are true.
We are loved beyond comprehension, valued as image bearers of the One who made us.
And yet, even on our best days our incapacity to do right comes more naturally than we like, humiliating us and defeating us.
Both messages are fully true. Which seems like a bit of a trend in Christianity.
Jesus is fully God. And fully human.
Heaven is right now. And not yet.
We are delivered from the power of sin. And still sin every day.
I think that’s why a mountaineer’s ability to embrace risks none of us could manage, and their ability to say “no” when the risk becomes too great, sounded familiar.
Paradox, tension, mystery. These are the cornerstones of our faith. And they aren’t meant to be resolved. Growing in our faith means learning to become comfortable while leaning into both sides simultaneously, knowing when we do so, we will grow into who were made to be.
The mountain Meru, to the Hindu people, is believed to be the center of the universe. In other words, to this faith, the place where the seemingly contradictory assets of a mountain climber—their willingness to take risks and their ability to know when to turn back—are relied on, is the center of it all.
For them, the place where the friction of what feels like two competing ideas is most obvious, is the point. They get it. The objective isn’t to give more credence to one attribute over the other. The point is to learn to live in the tension. To get to a place where you know how necessary your seemingly inconsistent ideas are.
In the same way, I think when we begin to live as people who embrace the paradox we live with—our value and our depravity, our capability and our helplessness, our certainties and our questions— we may begin to find ourselves in the center of who were made to be, and who God already is.
The tension is good. The blurred lines are healthy. The both, and a sign of maturity. For followers of Jesus and for mountain climbers, both.
May we never grow into people whose objective is to eliminate the mystery, stake our claim on the certainty and scoff at the unexplainable.
May we find satisfaction in the tension and dis-ease in clearly drawn lines and boxed in ideas.
And may we seek the center of a universe that revolves around a God knowable enough to follow, and mysterious enough to keep us guessing.
So, what happened with Meru? Did the climbers go back? Was the impossible achieved? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out. And believe me, you’ll be glad you did.