By Dane Neufeld
My wife and I recently completed the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, one of the great Alpine hikes in the Canadian Rockies. It is not an extreme adventure by any means, anyone who can hike can complete it, but it does take you through some pretty spectacular terrain. The majority of the 45-kilometer (27.9-mile) trail winds through the high country above the tree line, but below the mountains walls and peaks that surround the various mountain passes we travelled. Though we missed the high season of wildflowers by a few weeks, we were still spellbound by the wide and erratic beauty of these mountain meadows.
There are barely two months of the year when these mountain passes are free enough from snow to be easily navigated. The life that suddenly explodes there passes away quickly, but there are few created displays of majesty and glory and that can compare. Thin streams splash and drift down the ramparts of mountains; it seemed we were hopping another clear, gravel-bottomed creek every couple of minutes. (In my opinion, W.H. Auden’s “River Profile” is the greatest watershed poem ever written.) The chaotic undulations of the meadows and the enormous piles of boulders and granite debris point to a massive withdrawn power that has only recently departed. It is hard not to feel in such places, that the glaciers must have been there only yesterday. In some cases, they almost were.
The sun shone for most of the two days that we were traveling, which was a great gift. The weather can change at any moment and condition the entire experience. Storm clouds can tumble over mountains and completely submerge a range, and they did the day after we set foot on level ground. At one point we stared with serious reservations as the distant trail ahead of us traversed a scree slope up toward The Notch, the high point of the trail between two peaks. From a distance we wondered if the powerful winds would not carry us off into oblivion. This kind of beauty is almost always accompanied by danger and uncertainty, even if our fears are sometimes exaggerated by the scale and enormity of the landscape.
There is not an abundance of visible wildlife above the tree line, and it is not entirely surprising, though we did see the occasional whiskey jack and a few marmots among the rocks. Nor are there any signs of human settlement, contemporary or historic. People have traveled these passes but never stayed for very long. While there was part of me that didn’t ever want to leave, another part of me was eager for the moment we returned to stable terrain. Especially when night falls and the rock faces loom like great shadows against a dark sky, one feels the full force of the mountains’ inhospitality. On his long travels in the Canadian wilderness, Duncan Campbell Scott once wrote:
Above curves the great dome of darkness,
Scored with the limitless lines of the stars and the planets;
Like the strong palm of God,
Veined with the ancient laws,
Holding a human heart that sleeps,
Wild with rushing dreams and deep with the sadness,
That dwells at the core of all things. (“Rapids at Night,” D.C. Scott)
The desire for a mountaintop experience of God has left many climbers aching and melancholy; somehow the mountains have a way of refusing our deepest desires to experience the complete depth of creation. If there is an element of sadness or strangeness in our experience of creation, it stems from our incapacity to transcend creation’s “frustration” and its “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:20). I too have gone in search of these revelations, but I know enough by now to have adjusted my expectations. It is sufficient, in a way, to “touch the hem of his garment” and to trace the lineaments of God’s creative power that sustains all things, but which remains concealed, in a sense — beyond our full apprehension.
In this way the high country is not a complete metaphor of the life to come. Though it does point beyond its towering peaks and ridges to a reality that we are not yet prepared to enter. Its beauty both draws us and repels us; we simply cannot handle the fullness of all that is there nor the fearful majesty that signals the all-surpassing reality of God.
The prophets had no greater language at their disposal when they struggled with the reality of God’s presence and words to his people. Mountains were signs that referred simultaneously to the judgment and salvation of God. Micah wrote: “The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope” (Mic. 1:4). That even the mountains dissemble before the presence of God is a resonant reminder of God’s unimaginable power. Yet Isaiah recorded: “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it” (Isa. 2:2). When the presence of God is established finally in our midst, it will evoke the greatest form of wonder. That we will be invited to ascend the “highest of the mountains” and remain there with the Lord is, to me, a thrilling hope and promise.
Though it is true that “neither height nor depth can separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:39), created elevations provide a vivid image of the distances God’s love descends to be with us, and the heights we have been called to ascend in the power of the Holy Spirit. When our theological language begins to feel generic or vacuous, it is a good thing to immerse ourselves again in the language of creation, through which the gospel has been communicated to us.
The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the incumbent of St. James, Calgary.