Date: October 16, 2016
Scripture Lesson: Matthew 14:13-36
Sermon: Base Camp: Mission Support
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
The challenges of climbing at high altitude are very much related to the thin air and its effects on the body. But there are other challenges as well. There is the terrain which is often rocky, uneven, steep, and perilous. But that’s not even the end of it. There is the danger of avalanche even in areas that may seem to be stable. It’s hard to know what may lead to just the right conditions for an avalanche to terrorize a mountain slope and anyone on it. And there is the weather. Snow. Clouds. White out. And wind; wind that is severe even to people from Florida used to tropical storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The wind in the mountains can be extreme because it is blowing the snow and the air pressure is so low.
A climber on one Everest expedition tells of being rocked by the wind at base camp: “I got back to camp about four-thirty or five and I just collapsed in my sleeping bag from exhaustion. . . I don’t think I had a molecule of energy left in me. Later [I] awoke or regained consciousness. . . and it was a terrifying experience for me. Actually, it was the wind that woke me up. It was just pushing me around inside of my tent. It was actually getting under the floor of the tent, picking me right up in my sleeping bag and slamming me back down and pushing me around. . .” [The Climb, Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt, p. 194] Winds of up to 200 miles per hour are known on Mount Everest. So, wind and weather definitely add to the hazards of high altitude climbing.
In addition, the altitude itself is a hazard. The air pressure is one-third the pressure at sea level, and this means the level of oxygen is one third what it is at sea level. The wind can further decrease the oxygen level by 14%. Experts predict that, “A sea-level dweller exposed to the atmospheric conditions at the altitude above 8,500 m (27,900 ft) without acclimatization would likely lose consciousness within 2 to 3 minutes.” [Wikipedia, “Mount Everest”] To avoid this kind of death, climbers acclimatize, a process that takes 40-60 days. They slowly move to higher altitudes helping the body become accustomed to the thinner air. But the low oxygen has many physical effects. The breathing rate increases from the typical 20-30 breaths per minute to 80-90 breaths. It’s like panting. The thin air leads to a constant state of exhaustion. It can cause dementia and brain damage. People experience a mental fog, they have difficulty making decisions, memory is poor, thought is slow, and even hallucinations can occur.
The atmospheric conditions slow down not only the brain but the body. It usually takes climbers 12 hours to climb about one mile on summit day on Everest. There is the constant danger of frost bite. And some people are afflicted with retinal hemorrhages which damage eyesight and can cause blindness.
With all of this, we may wonder why anyone wants to even attempt to climb Mount Everest or other peaks of such altitude! Yet, climb they do. This year, 456 people have summited Everest as of June. And, on case you are wondering, the oldest person to climb to the top of Everest was an 80 year old in 2013. The youngest was a thirteen year old in 2010.
Until the spring of 2014 when16 people were killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest, the climbing season of the spring of 1996 was one of the deadliest. Fifteen people died that year. A movie as well as several books and articles tell about the events of May 10 when several preventable problems, like too many people on the trail and an oxygen shortage, became deadly when the weather turned violent leaving 8 climbers dead. Apparently, the storm was awful. As one person tells is, “I mean, it was just like a hundred freight trains running on top of you, and I was screaming, but you know, a person five feet away couldn’t hear anything.” [The Climb, p. 194] The conditions were so extreme, that the support staff at the base camp did not feel they could venture out to help those who were in trouble.
Going down the mountain late in the day as it was getting dark with the storm making it impossible to see the way, a group of climbers that was close to base camp got lost. They formed a huddle trying to keep alive as they ran out of bottled oxygen and were in danger of freezing to death. One of those who was in the huddle described what it was like: “We did decide to huddle up. We got into a big dogpile with our backs to the wind. People laid on people’s laps. We screamed at each other. We beat on each other’s backs. We checked on each other. Everybody participated in a very heroic way to try to stay warm and to keep each other awake and warm. This continued for some period of time – I don’t know how long. Time is very warped, but it must have been awhile because I was extremely cold pretty shortly after that. We were checking fingers. We were checking each other’s consciousness. We just tried to keep moving. It was something of an experience that I’ve never really had before, being what I felt was so close to falling asleep and never waking up. I had rushes of warmth come up and down through my body – whether it was hypothermia or hypoxia I don’t know – a combination of both. I just remember screaming into the wind, all of us yelling, moving, kicking, trying to stay alive. I kept looking at my watch. . . hoping that the weather would clear.” [The Climb, p. 202] This huddle of climbers was about a 15 minute walk from camp, in good weather.
A guide for one of the expeditions, Anatoli Boukreev, had helped his clients to the summit earlier in the day. Then the expedition leader agreed that he should descend and be prepared to help the climbers as they returned to base camp. So, he went down, recovered himself, and prepared to help the other climbers as they got back. But the storm blew in and the others did not return. Finally two drifted in and told of the others, in the huddle, trying to stay alive. Boukreev went out into the raging storm and searched in the fierce wind and snow for the huddle. He could not find them. He returned to camp to warm up and regroup. He spoke with those who had returned. He went out again. This time, he found them. Some of the people could still walk and follow him back to camp, but some could not. Boukreev only had the strength to help one person at a time. He got one back to camp. Then he rested again. Restored himself. He tried to get others at base camp to help him go back to the huddle. They could not or would not help, feeling it was just too dangerous. Boukreev went out alone again and brought back another client. Again, he drank tea, rested, caught his breath, and tried to get others to help him. He went out alone a third time and brought back another climber. In all, he was able to save three of the five people who were lost in the huddle. He felt very guilty that he was not able to rescue them all.
After this awful tragedy, Boukreev was criticized by some, notably Jon Krakauer in his article and book, Into Thin Air, for going down the mountain ahead of his group and being at camp resting while the others ended up needing help on their way down. But the leader of the expedition had specifically agreed that Boukreev should be waiting at the camp so that he could go back up the mountain to help if needed.
In December of 1997, a year and a half after the tragedy, the American Alpine Club gave Anatoli Boukreev the David A. Sowles Memorial Award. This is one of the highest awards that a mountain climber can receive. It is given to those who have “distinguished themselves, with unselfish devotion, at personal risk, or at sacrifice of a major objective, in going to the assistance of fellow climbers.” Boukreev was a hero because he “repeated extraordinary efforts in searching for, then saving, the lives of three exhausted teammates trapped by a storm on the South Col of Mount Everest,” and made a “valiant attempt, at great personal risk, in going out into the renewed storm in one last-ditch effort to save his friend and expedition leader Scott Fischer.” [The Climb, pp. 292-293]
As a sidebar, Boukreev could not be at the ceremony to receive the award because he was back in the Himalaya mountains making a winter climb up Anapurna, a neighboring peak to Everest. Boukreev and one of his companions were killed in an avalanche on Annapurna on Christmas day.
In the story of the events on Everest in 1996, we see Boukreev keeping his strength in reserve so that he can help others. We see him going back to camp after each rescue to recover before his next effort. We see the rhythm of helping and recovering, helping and recovering. Without the recovery time at base camp, he would not have been able to save his companions.
We see this same kind of rhythm in the ministry of Jesus. He spends time staying centered and focussed and then he serves. Then, he recovers again and he is able to respond to the needs of the people. Then, he takes time away to connect with God, and he is restored so that he can respond to those around him once again. Jesus’ ministry begins this way. We are told that he is baptized but he does not immediately begin to teach and heal. He is baptized and then he goes into the wilderness centering and strengthening his heart. After that he returns to the people ready to teach and heal.
We saw this rhythm in motion in the scripture lesson that was read this morning. In the reading we are told that Jesus learns of the death of John the Baptizer, his cousin, who had prepared the way for him. John’s ministry of preparing is over. Jesus’ ministry can now come into its fullness. In this time of grief and transition, Jesus goes off to a deserted place by himself. He needs to recover and reflect. But when the crowds find out where he is, they follow. He has compassion on them and heals the sick. Then we have the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Serving. Meeting the needs of the world. Following that, we are told of Jesus sending the disciples off in a boat, dismissing the crowds, and going up by himself on a mountain to pray. Again, Jesus is recentering himself, restoring himself, so that he can serve. Then, we hear how the disciples in the boat get caught in a storm. They are afraid they will drown. Jesus comes to them and calms the storm. Then the boat gets to shore, we are told that the people come from all around bringing the sick to be healed.
In Jesus we see the wisdom of the rhythm of contemplation and action, prayer and serving, reflection and engagement. It is like Boukreev going back again to base camp to revive himself so that he could go back out to try to help others. For us, the church provides the setting for our contemplation, our restoration, our re-centering, our reflection, and our recovery. In the world, we are busy with trying to help others and be a healing presence. Then the church provides space for renewal. Here we find support and refreshment. Here we are nurtured. Here we are encouraged to think about our service and our calling and the needs around us so that we can figure out how to be an expression of love and compassion in the world. Here we sort things out and refocus. Here we assess the situation around us and within us and look to God for light. Buffeted, baffled, and blinded by the world around us, the church sustains us with the hopes and dreams of God. The ministry of Jesus gives us a lens for viewing our situation and the needs around us and within us.
The church provides the community that reminds us of the importance of the rhythm of engagement and reflection. Prayer and action. When we devote ourselves to serving without our grounding in the faith community, we may very well find ourselves burning out. Who should we serve? How should we serve? What are our gifts and skills for serving? The needs are so great. We may respond but then find ourselves spent, disillusioned, and without hope. We may be so overwhelmed we give up in defeat. The church as a community of support helps us to maintain our hope and our commitment to serve.
But prayer and worship and church without service also leads us into a condition that is not sustainable. The pretending and denying create a heavy burden. It’s hard to maintain a lie. We don’t find the wholeness and joy and peace promised by our faith without compassionate service. The book of James tells us faith without works is dead. Faith without works may also kill us.
For our faith to be vital, to find meaning, to be made whole, brought together from the fragments of our lives and the world, we look to Jesus, the mystic and the prophet. We see the way he paces his life to the rhythm of restoration, reconnection, and renewal balanced with healing, feeding, and teaching. In this way, his ministry is sustainable.
Next Sunday is The BIG Event, an annual celebration of the ministry of this church. This year, we will hear from several people in the congregation about how the church functions as base camp for them on their journey of discipleship. We will hear how the church grounds them in their service, nurtures them for responding to the needs of the world, and offers support when doing the right thing leaves us feeling sick and tired.
As part of The BIG Event, we will consider how we will support this church in its mission of sustaining the congregation in ministering to the world. The church is here for us as we seek direction and support for our lives. The church is here as a community of discernment and celebration to revive and refresh us. How will we offer our time, talent, and treasure to this community of faith which grounds us?
On that fateful day in May 1996 on Mount Everest, expedition leader Scott Fischer and guide Anatoli Boukreev had a conversation about the game plan for getting all of the clients down the mountain safely. Boukreev tells us about this conversation: “When I met Scott, my intuition was telling me that the most logical thing for me to do was to descend to Camp IV as quickly as possible, to stand by in case our descending climbers needed to be resupplied with oxygen, and also, to prepare hot tea and warm drinks. Again, I felt confident of my strength and knew that if I descended rapidly, I could do this if necessary. From Camp IV I would have a clear view of the climbing route to the South Col and could observe developing problems.
“This intuition I expressed to Scott, and he listened to my ideas. He saw our situation in the same way and we agreed that I should go down. Again, I surveyed the weather, and I saw no immediate cause for concern.” [The Climb, p. 178]
This was a very good plan. This provided the balance needed to support the climbers. Base camp was the setting for recovery and outreach. If Boukreev had not gone down and had been on the mountain with the others, it is likely that he himself would have died. Then he could not have helped the three people that he did save.
May the wisdom of Jesus lead and guide us as we think about how we are called to support this faith community which in turn sustains us. Amen.
In addition to The Climb, other sources for consulted include:
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
Climbing High: A Woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy, Lene Gammelgaard
High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, David B. Breashears and Michael Gross
Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, Beck Weathers and Stephen G. Michaud
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.