We had just thrown down our backpacks and starting strapping on our snowshoes when the weight of our situation first hit.
We had decided to snowshoe up to Crater Lake that day in an attempt to reach one of the top photography spots in Colorado. The last All Trails entry informed us that as long as we had snowshoes, there should be no problem. The trail was beautiful, winding its way along the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, cragged mountains accented by streaks of melting snow and ice accenting their peaks. The forest itself was alive with the sound of spring in the Rockies, icicles dripping, water pouring down from every rock ledge, into gurgling streams, and dashing over breathtaking waterfalls.
After the first few miles, the trail became increasingly difficult, and our feet fell through the melting snow every ten feet or so, but it was nothing I hadn’t faced before. It wasn’t until we passed a few other couples about eight miles in that I realized we were up against a true challenge. Our interactions with them were short, and they looked at us with blank, dead tired faces. But their words were always encouraging, “the lake’s only a mile and a half up!” or “You should have no problem with those snowshoes and a group that size.”
So we pressed on. And with every strain to lift a snowshoe, I became more determined. We were going to make it. We’d done too much work to back down now. (And, if I can only get to the lake, I can dry my socks!)
Two miles after we passed our last fellow hikers, a couple who had turned around and decided to camp there for the night, we still had not reached Crater Lake. My youngest sister and I continued to trudge on, occasionally stopping to wait for my sister and our friend and offer more words of determination. “Guys, it can’t be that far! We will make it.”
We did — although it took some convincing for me to even realize the hollowed out portion of the forest covered by feet of snow was a lake. It was 6:30, and the sun was just beginning to disappear behind the cathedral spires of mountain towering over us. With dry socks and jerky, everything felt better, and we determined that if we make all speed back to ensure we passed the snowshoe portion of the hike before dark, we would be safe. A few miles along the winding trail in the dusk — or even with the full moon — would hardly be a challenge, so we thought.
We were just about to take off our snowshoes after the last of the deep snow when I noticed a sudden, visible change. It was no longer dusk. It was dark. Unbuckling our snowshoes, we began to shake off the ice and adjust our shoes for the most comfort possible considering their soaked state. That was the first time I realized our situation was serious. It was growing dark rapidly, with no moon in sight. Our feet were soaked to saturation point—I had been sloshing around in ¼ in of water from the melted snow that had made its way into my boots each time my snowshoes potholed into the three-to-five foot mounds of melting snow. Our phone batteries were dead. We had no flashlight. No dry socks. No gloves, hats, or winter coats. We were stuck.
But I didn’t have time to contemplate the situation. As soon as we had sat down to invent a new way to jerry rig straps for our snowshoes, my youngest sister started going into shock. She had already hiked sixteen miles, trudged up hills in snowshoes, and carried a significant weight of supplies on her back. With any other girl, I would have right then given up on making it down the mountain that night. But I knew Lexi: she possesses an inner strength, perseverance, and determination unlike any other girl I know. So we prayed, and encouraged her to press on, desperate to get to our car before search and rescue came looking for us.
That was when we started singing.
I think it was my sister Ella’s idea. We had determined in our quick prayer and survival meeting that the only way we would survive the trek down was to stay close together. Our friend had pulled out his Nikon camera and was using the screen as a light to illuminate a few feet of the trail at a time, just enough to discern the next few footprints ahead of us. We put Lexi in the middle and Ella and I trailed at the end, tasked with making as much noise as we could to scare off any mountain lions.
We started singing hymns, as loud as we could between our heavy breathing and passing off to each other warnings of treacherous rocks and trees looming in the path. We mustered our best attempt at King Alfred’s War Song (a versification of Ps. 91) and started loudly reciting Psalm 91 for good measure. For miles, we trudged on, dodging rocks and roots, reciting Scripture, and singing. Sometimes it was only Ella singing, the rest of us exerting all our energy to just keep walking. I smile now looking back at the irony of some of our songs: a three-part harmony to Joy to the World, the First Noel, and odd conglomerations of praise songs and ancient hymns.
But in the moment, the irony was dimmed by what felt most natural. We were in a literal dark wilderness, quickly losing strength, and there was nothing more natural than to cry out to God, rehearse His promises, and feel His presence.
It was on that mercilessly long, seven-mile trek in the dark, stumbling along trying to see just enough ahead to avoid the next rock that my determination, my own inner strength I had been proud of on our trek up, began to dissipate. We had definitely discovered we were not invincible! I was too tired at the moment to understand all that God was doing in my heart, but He was beginning to eat away Julianna’s strength and replacing it with His own.
All along that lonely trek back, the final stumbling into our car right as search and rescue was pulling up, the dream-like three-hour drive home, a question was whirling in my mind. I was humbled. What I thought was determination to accomplish a goal had caused havoc: suffering for my sisters and our family friend, and even worse, trauma for my family and friends who had spent most of the night putting together a search team to find us. Only because I didn’t have the most basic common sense in hiking to turn around before it got dark.
So I began to ask myself, Where is determination a God-given trait to be used for His Kingdom and where is it arrogant, self-reliance? I had seen both in my heart and was entirely sick of the latter.
I think of Brother Andrew’s thirst for adventure as a young man used by God for hair-raising Bible smuggling efforts into the Soviet Union. God did not change Brother Andrew’s personality. But He did transform his heart, direct His focus toward gospel efforts, and teach him hard lessons in depending on God.
And yet, gospel-directed, Christ-exalting determination is far from the self-determination the world exalts in. The tale of Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing survival in the Antarctic through inspiring self-effort appeals to this world. J.O. Fraser’s breakthrough with the unreached Lisu tribe of China through two years of only prayer does not. Both required out-of-this world determination. But Fraser’s was a determination marked by humility and persevering dependence, not self-confidence.
Our hiking adventure was a lesson I won’t soon forget. Not only am I going to take a wilderness survival course before I attempt another dangerous hike, I am also slowly learning what it looks like to balance wisdom and determination.
And in case you were wondering, we did get some good pictures.