March 2, 2010
Pete Schoening’s Ice Ax
A few days ago I was in Golden, Colorado. Some know Golden as the home of Coors. But more importantly, it is the home of the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum. For climbers, it’s a fascinating place. For non-climbers, it’s at least interesting (as my wife and son would attest).
There is a lot of climbing equipment on display, offering a historical perspective on the development of modern mountaineering. I have a small sampling of those climbing artifacts in my garage. And a treasured piece—my grandfather’s ice ax from the early twentieth century when he was a guide on Longs Peak, Colorado—is in my office.
Much of the museum seems dedicated to high-altitude climbing, with Everest being the focal point. You can see a manikin dressed in Jim Whittaker’s actual climbing gear from his first American ascent of Everest in 1963.
I recently spotted the real Jim, a living Northwest icon—and coiner of the adage “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space”—buying a garden rake at a hardware store. After the mountain-top experience, I guess one must be prepared for life on the plane of the mundane. Everyday life—and home ownership—is the great leveler.
But I digress. The crown jewel of the museum, so far as I’m concerned, is Pete Schoening’s ice ax. The ice ax that did not fail.
Peter Schoening, another Northwest native, was on the failed 1953 expedition to climb K2 in the Himalayas. K2 (28,251 feet), while not quite as high as Everest (29,002 feet), is a much more severe challenge for climbers, and a cruel slayer of alpine ambitions.
I stared at this half-century-old relic, protected behind Plexiglas, for some time. It’s a lot like an ice ax I had in the 1960s, its wooden shaft is covered with nicks and scratches, the souvenirs of many a climb. Today ice ax shafts are generally made of aluminum instead of wood, which might break under severe strain. But there is no evidence of structural damage to this wooden shaft. Pete is gone. The rope is gone. But the ice ax remains, a material testimony to its moment of glory. It could effectively be used tomorrow on a climb of Rainier or Denali.
Since visiting the museum, I’ve been wondering if there is a Christian publishing equivalent—a book, that is—to Pete Shoening’s ice ax. (Look, this is the kind of thing you think about when you are an editor trying to gin up material for a blog.)
The Sunday school answer to my question would be “the Bible” (rather than “Jesus,” this time at least). But that’s too easy. I’m thinking of a “secondary” book that, thrust into the stream of publishing at just the right moment, has saved lives from perdition, just before someone—or several—went over the edge. So far I’ve not succeeded in coming up with a book that meets my criteria.
Not that I haven’t come up with important books that have changed lives—Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy easily come to mind as books that have had a lasting impact on individuals and generations of readers, and so any one of them might garner a lot of votes as being “Schoening’s Ice Ax of Faith.” But I’ve concluded there is something very personal about which books “save” at a particular moment, when one or two or five are about to hurl to their spiritual death. And so far as I know, the deployment of these books does not rest on the quick reflexes—and raw “luck”—of a Schoening. The impact of books is different from a quick and sure alpine belay, and the best of the best books are long lasting and work their influence quietly—sometimes in peculiar ways. And in many—if not most—cases, the story is yet to be told.
Obviously, Pete Schoening’s ice ax captured my attention and imagination. But what made the ice ax so much more interesting was a 2006 photo of a reunion of the families and descendants of that day in 1953 (the photo shows up here).
Of course! Pete Schoening’s ice ax had consequences extending far beyond that moment and day in 1953. What then, I wonder, are some of the stories of the generational impact of particular Christian books? Those are the stories I’d love to hear. Some day. (But if you have one right now, comment below!)