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Mission: Denali 2007

Big mountain, bigger need

By Jim Doenges

WANTED: Experienced mountaineering Jesus freaks for hazardous mission trip. Expect extreme cold, thin air, crevasse and avalanche danger, long separation from loved ones, noxious tent aromas, possible ridicule or worse from other climbers, and potentially uncomfortable remodeling of your own heart. Inquire with Climbing For Christ!



A view of Denali from the camp at 7,600 feet, near the base of Ski Hill.
hoto by Steve Nutting)

“God created this place on another scale than the other parts of the earth I have visited. It is big. Very big.” I wrote those words in my Denali climbing journal on day six of a successful 19-day climb of Denali’s West Buttress 16 years ago. At that time, I had not accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. God was tugging at my heart, using conversations with my Christian tentmate and climbing partner, Dave Lesh, to draw me closer. Only later did I begin to understand just how big and awesome and loving is our God, and how great was my need for His grace. Now I understand that part of our purpose here on earth is to share Jesus. Mission: Denali 2007 will be about discipleship.

Over the last 30 years, there have been increasing numbers of people on Denali (Mount McKinley). In 2005, there were 1,208 climbers from 37 nations on the West Buttress climbing route during the brief spring climbing season. The average trip length was 17.3 days, providing lots of time for interaction among climbers. All of these climbers spend time acclimatizing at the 14,000-foot camp before the more difficult climbing higher on the mountain.

The first climbing party to reach the top of Denali was led by a Christian missionary named Hudson Stuck, who later became the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon. Todd Jenner, a member of Climbing For Christ’s Board of Directors, retraced Stuck’s route in 1994 when he was 50 years old. Jenner summitted on the anniversary date of Stuck’s climb (read First Ascent of Denali).


Karstens Ridge

Karstens Ridge, retracing the first ascent. (Photo by Todd Jenner)

In Stuck’s account of his first ascent published in 1914, The Ascent of Denali, he states that on the arduous journey to the base of the mountain, his party stopped to celebrate Easter at a mining town. Stuck gathered local prospectors “in that neighborhood for the first public worship ever conducted in the Katishna camp.” The Climbing For Christ team will follow his example and organize and lead what may be the first public worship at the 14,000-foot camp on the West Buttress. We pray that God provides opportunities to share our testimonies and the Gospel on the mountain. We will seek to be obedient to 1 Peter 3:15.

In 2005 another Climbing For Christ board member summitted Denali. Pastor Derek Fullerton made it to the top via the West Buttress route with member Steve Nutting. Speaking of their experience handing out Bibles on Denali, Fullerton said: “We could see God’s hand on all that we did with those Bibles. It was phenomenal. We gave them to people from all over the world.” (Read the Final Report from 2005.) The Mission: Denali 2007 team will follow their example and also distribute Bibles on the mountain.


Derek Fullerton ascending

Pastor Derek Fullerton shouldering a heavy load. (Photo by Steve Nutting)

After a week on Denali I scrawled in my journal that “the sound of climbers getting ready for the day is probably the same throughout the world. It is a soft clanking of metal on metal. Not loud, but it fills the air. Ice screws, pickets, flukes, jumars, and the distinctive sound of spring-loaded gates of carabiners snapping shut. Snapping shut after putting on the climbing harness, snapping shut after roping up, snapping shut after attaching prussiks.” To this cacophony we wish to add the sound of worship, songs of praise, and heartfelt prayer. Stuck’s party recited an ancient hymn on top of the mountain; we will seek to make a joyful noise heard at all the densely populated camps on the West Buttress route.

Rest days and other periods of acclimatization to the thin air on Denali will allow time for discipleship — not just with other climbers but among the Climbing For Christ team as well. We will devote ourselves to classical spiritual disciplines and partake in daily devotionals, corporate and individual prayer, and regular times of sharing testimonies and teaching one another.

Unlike Stuck’s party — which left behind a tent on the summit and a large cache of gear lower on the mountain — the Climbing For Christ team will exhibit the most progressive environmental stewardship practices. This year the National Park Service is expanding the voluntary use of “Clean Mountain Cans” (CMCs), which are receptacles for human waste on Denali. Thanks to some great advice from Roger Robinson, Lead Mountaineering Ranger for Denali and one of the creators of the CMC, the Climbing For Christ team will set an example and seek to be one of the few expeditions ever to remove all its waste from the mountain. We will do it because we want to model summit stewardship and glorify God.

We live in an era where mountaineers in distress on Everest are left to die by selfish climbers who pass them by, like the beaten man left to die on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the story told by Jesus. Like the Samaritan of the same story, the Climbing For Christ team will seek to show that the love of Jesus knows no national boundaries and we will put the needs of others before self.

Because of a generous donation of a satellite phone by members of Talkeetna Community Church in Alaska for use during the expedition, others will be able to read about the team’s activities from the mountain on the Climbing For Christ Web site and respond to daily prayer needs of the team. The team hopes to share and teach with this church after the climb. We pray that it is the beginning of a long-term relationship as well, as this church strives to serve its community. Talkeetna is a small town that swells with climbers and tourists each spring. Bumper stickers there read, “Talkeetna: a quaint drinking town with a climbing problem.” It is a mission field.

Mission: Denali 2007 will be difficult and not without risk. At 20,320 feet and located close to the Arctic Circle, Denali has been described as one of the coldest mountains in the world. The expedition will be long, with tremendous elevation gain, crevasses, and avalanche hazard. In a wonderfully understated description of the ardors of ascending Denali, Stuck “hesitates to describe it as recreation.” The glacier approach is a “ceaseless grind which Denali demands” and “the rapidity with which the weather changed was a continual source of surprise to us … sometimes it was bitterly cold in the mornings, insufferably hot at noon, and again bitterly cold toward night.” The evening after summiting, Stuck wrote in the team diary that, “I remember no day in my life so full of toil, distress, and exhaustion, and yet so full of happiness and keen gratification.” One steep slope on the West Buttress is known as the “Autobahn” because it was there that a team of German climbers fell to their deaths. Another area is known as the “Orient Express” for similar reasons.

The very last sentence I wrote in my Denali climbing journal years ago was, “I can’t wait until I do this again.” Many years later, my anticipation is about opportunities to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ, and shared experiences and discipleship within a community of faith made up of members of Climbing For Christ on one of God’s majestic mountains. As we climb for Christ we can live out Psalm 121 — we will lift our eyes up to His mountains, and we will know where our help comes from. It comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Jim Doenges, a staff member of Climbing For Christ, will lead Mission: Denali 2007. He asks that you please consider joining the Denali team in prayer and support.

This story originally appeared in The Climbing Way (Volume 6, Winter 2006-2007). Posted Dec. 12, 2006.

The Word

“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect...”
— 1 Peter 3:15


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