November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, is a special day for me. My first November 5th memory is actually of celebrating Guy Fawkes Day (or “Bonfire Night”) with fireworks and pints during my year studying abroad in England. It was not a particularly edifying cultural experience, but I’m glad I participated. My second November 5th memory was of giving a lesson about Guy Fawkes when interviewing for the middle school British History teaching position at St. David’s School (which I got—a mixed blessing if ever there was one). But the most significant of my November 5th memories was of nearly losing my life on the side of Moore’s Wall two years ago. Since then November 5th has become an occasion reminding me to be more mindful, more thankful for what I have, and more faithful to God’s calling upon my life. Here is the story of my experience as I wrote it up a few days later on my old blog. I hope some of you find it encouraging:
This past Saturday I climbed Moore’s Wall with my friends Michael and Tanner. Because we only had enough gear for two and because Michael and I had a little more experience with climbing and with ropes, we went up first while Tanner waited at the bottom.
The ascent was strenuous, but fairly straightforward. Only a few tricky spots. The toughest thing about it was the cold. The rock face was not in the sun and was icy to the touch. I had to pause every now and then to breathe on my fingers just to be able to feel the handholds. Still, it took us only a little over an hour to make the first pitch, and about the same amount of time to reach the summit.
When we reached the top, Michael set up the rig from which I would rappel down. The plan was for me to rappel to the first pitch, which was about 100 feet below, where I would belay Michael down and then from which I would rappel down to the ground, about another 100 feet below. There we would get Tanner set up for his ascent.
It didn’t quite work out that way. In short, between some miscommunication at the top, the lines running slightly off-course down the rock face, me being unfamiliar with this climb, and a few other things, I missed the first pitch and missed it pretty badly–without even realizing it. I jumped off an overhang, thinking that I still had a little ways to go, and found myself at the end of my rope about 70 feet above the ground.
When I saw the end of the rope my heart sank. I knew I was in trouble. I tried to yell up to Michael, but the rock overhang above me deflected my voice. Fortunately, Tanner was just below me, and could see and hear me. Michael could hear Tanner, but he couldn’t really hear me.
“What’s wrong, man?”
“Uh, Tanner, I’m at the end of the green rope.”
“I’m at the end of the green rope!”
At that point I had about four feet of green rope left and I was resolutely keeping my hand locked into the small of my back until we figured out what to do. I had two ropes, one blue and one green, running through my figure-eight, and I wasn’t familiar with this sort of rig or how these two worked together. I’d only ever rappelled on one rope before. Over the course of about five minutes of me shouting messages down to Tanner for him to relay to Michael and Michael shouting messages for Tanner to relay to me, we assessed the situation.
“Tanner, ask Michael if I can just keep going down the blue rope.”
The blue rope ended about 20 to 25 feet above the ground, but there was a ledge below me that I was pretty sure I could make my way over to before reaching the end of the blue. I was plotting that course when I heard Michael’s voice from the top, so loud and clear it was almost like he had shouted right through the rock:
“NO! If you get off of the green rope the blue rope will fall! You will FALL!”
…OK, Dave, stay calm. Don’t panic. If you panic, you’re through. Don’t do anything stupid…
“Tanner, call 911!”
I can’t say that I experienced any sort of adrenaline rush, or even much in the way of fear. Instead, I just set about the work of surviving; doing what I could to make sure I could hold on until help arrived. I found two toeholds on the rock face that allowed me to stabilize myself and to take a little weight off of my right hand.
I still had four…
…two feet of rope left.
I guess between all the shouting, and my hands being tired from the ascent and cold from the wind, I had been hemorrhaging inches without even realizing it. I tried to redouble my efforts to keep the rope from slipping. How does one grip more tightly than as tightly as one can? My knuckles were alternately white from gripping and purple from the cold. Some of the scrapes on my knuckles from the ascent began to bleed again.
“Dave, they’re coming! They said it might be a while! Can you hold on?”
…How long is “a while“? ”Can you hold on?” Are you kidding me? I guess we’re going to find out…
I decided that I needed to prepare myself for whatever was next and so I prayed the prayer of confession. ”Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone….”
I don’t think I prayed for more than just a few minutes. I confessed my sins, prayed for my family, and that was it. I thought about praying to be rescued, but I didn’t. I don’t know. I sort of resented the idea of spending my last moments begging for my life. And what if I fell? I couldn’t stand the thought of falling, falling, falling, knowing that my very last prayer–like so many before it–had gone unanswered. I didn’t want to spend my last moment disappointed. So I didn’t ask.
I didn’t have anything left to say to God, and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether He had anything left to say to me.
So I finished praying and tried to soak up what little life I knew I had left. How does one carpe diem while hanging, motionless, from a rock? I could see for miles and miles. The leaves were turning–yellow, and orange, and brown, and red as far as the eye can see. The best I knew to do was just to take it all in and to enjoy the only thing I had left: the view.
It would be hard to describe the beauty of the scene, and, even if it were possible, I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to do it justice anyways. But it was really something else.
…I think I hear sirens…Yes…those are definitely sirens!…just…hold…on…
“They’re coming, Dave! I can hear them! Just hold on!”
I had been hanging there for about an hour and a half at that point. It felt like an eternity. My hand was tired, cramping, numb. The harness was cutting off circulation to my legs and my right leg was completely asleep. I couldn’t feel my toes.
I now only had a few inches of rope left. Maybe three or four.
“Tanner, I’m slipping!”
“@%#&! Dave, just hold on!”
I groaned–not giving up the ghost but inarticulately roaring at the heavens, as if to say, “Just give me five more minutes!“
I stopped slipping, muttered some expletives under my breath, and, with my heart racing, gathered my thoughts.
“Tanner, tell my parents that I love them.”
“C’mon, Dave, you’re gonna be fine. Just hang on…”
“Yeah, whatever, Tanner…Look…just…please…just listen to me. Tell my family that I love them. Mom and Dad…and my sister…and tell the kids….”
I asked him to give my love to my family and friends, and to tell one person I was sorry for the way things had gone with us. And that was it. I didn’t have anything else to say.
Somehow I held on. I was hanging there for more than four hours before it was all over and they got my feet on the ground. Dangling there, hanging on for dear life, I watched the sun set over Pilot Mountain. I managed to tie-off what little rope I had so that I couldn’t slip any further. The rescue team dropped another rope from the top of the mountain and got a flashlight to me so that I could see to get unhooked from my ropes and hooked into theirs. And at 7:05 PM, Saturday, I touched down.
It’s not at all easy to know what to make of it all.
I sat there for hours facing death and what I saw was not so much death but a life inadequately lived. Things done and things left undone. I don’t know what to make of it all exactly, but I know that when I face death again, I do not want my last thoughts to be wasted on regrets and on sorrow for what might have been.
I had been reading Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation before climbing up that mountain. Palmer talks about our vocations and our identities being intimately bound up with one another, and of our identities as including both our strengths and our weaknesses, our potentials and our liabilities. You learn who you are and what you’re called to, says Palmer, through both your successes and failures–the things in your life that you rejoice over and the things you grieve over.
Being forced to sit and think about one’s life at what is quite possibly life’s end is an immeasurably great gift. I’m doing my best not to waste it. I wish I could say that I “hit the ground running,” seizing the day and having a whole new outlook on life, but that’s not really the case. I am still working through it all: what happened, how I reacted to it, and what my reaction says about me. I don’t think I’ve ever approached life frivolously, but I don’t know if I have approached life all that seriously either.
While looking death in the eye I began hearing my life, letting my life speak. If it is speaking in what sounds like a foreign tongue, that is because I am unaccustomed to listening. In any case, Life now has my full attention.
While I was up there I wasn’t sure whether God had anything left to say to me. I know now that while I was up there He was saying more to me than I will ever fully understand.
A lot has changed since 2011. In less than five weeks I am marrying the love of my life. I have moved to the greatest city on earth and am working with students I have come to love at one of the world’s top universities. My writing has gotten some traction (though I am still learning to speak the truth—as best I know it—in love, as best I know how). Life feels a lot more like living now and a lot less like aimlessly fumbling about. But I still have to work at being thankful for the life that I have and counting my blessings. I still have to work at living Christ’s life to the full and not shrinking back in fear when the path ahead looks difficult. I have not mastered any aspect of life by any stretch of the imagination. But whenever I am tempted to fear, to despair, to give up, to shirk, to shrink back, or just to grumble, I try to remember who God is and what He has done, to remember who Christ is and who I am in Him, to remember God’s many surprising blessings, and, of course, to remember, remember the fifth of November.
Cheers and Happy Guy Fawkes Day, everyone!