Climbing Half Dome

By Stephen B. Bond

It all began as an innocent conversation. I was turning 60 years old and someone asked what was on my bucket list. I thought for a moment and offhandedly said, “I’d like to climb Mount Whitney! I’ve never done it before and it would be a challenging adventure!” (Mount Whitney rises 14,505 feet above California, making it the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.)

Stephen Bond and elders from Summit Christian Church, Sparks, Nevada, march on to the summit of Half Dome in August 2015.
Stephen Bond and elders from Summit Christian Church, Sparks, Nevada, march on to the summit of Half Dome in August 2015.

As soon as the words left my mouth, they seemed to take on a life of their own. It wasn’t long before the elder team at my church jumped on board and we began planning our grand adventure together.

By now you’ve probably noticed this article is about climbing Half Dome, not Mount Whitney. What happened? It turns out that lots of folks are climbing Mount Whitney these days. So a lottery system was instituted that caps how many are allowed to make the ascent. Our team submitted three different dates into the lottery but were not selected for any of them. (This is one of many reasons I’ve never purchased a ticket for the Mega Millions lottery game!)

So climbing Half Dome was Plan B, because I had never climbed it, either. Half Dome is a massive granite mountain nestled in Yosemite National Park. In terms of elevation, it’s not that impressive, only 8,839 feet. But anyone who has seen it never forgets it. Half Dome is one of the most iconic peaks in the world. (And it is also a pretty doggone difficult hike, but I will get to that in a moment.)

LEADERSHIP LESSON 1
God doesn’t always open the doors for Plan A, so wise leaders keep their eyes open for Plan B.

“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps” (Proverbs 16:9, New Living Translation). Since I am a consummate planner, this can be frustrating. Once I’ve taken the time and effort to create a solid set of plans, I appreciate when God actually uses them. And, frankly, it can bother me when he doesn’t. But over the years I have learned that God’s Plan B is always better than the Plan A I had so meticulously crafted.

Seven of us from Summit Christian Church’s elder team made the trip. We got up at 4:00 the morning of the ascent, and were at the trailhead beginning our climb by 5:00. One of our men is a marathon runner (in fact, he’s run a 100-mile race three times!), so he would have no problem making the 17-mile, round-trip hike. Another elder had made the trip previously, so he knew what he was getting into.

The rest of us were not so sure. We were full of enthusiasm and expectation, but to be honest, we were also a bit nervous. I had climbed plenty of mountains as a young man. But now I was turning 60 and I wondered if I still had it “in the tank.” I’m pretty sure that same thought was running through the minds of at least a couple of others as we began hiking with the early morning sunlight filtering through the trees.

LEADERSHIP LESSON 2
People will only rise up to the level of challenge we call them to.

Human beings are incredibly resilient. When we are pushed, we can accomplish remarkable things. All of us have heard about heroic parents who summon nearly supernatural strength to lift vehicles off their trapped children. So, one vital role of leadership is to summon our people to greatness. We must call them to become people they never dreamed they could become and to do courageous things they only imagined they could accomplish.

In this case, climbing Half Dome became a metaphor for me calling myself and our elder team to go beyond the status quo. I had never made a 17-mile hike with an elevation gain of 4,800 feet. It was going to push our elder team and me beyond our comfort zones.

“The cables” may be the most difficult part of the climb up Half Dome.
“The cables” may be the most difficult part of the climb up Half Dome.

And that was precisely the point! God has called us to boldly lead Summit Christian Church. But we will only lead the church as far and as high as we are willing to be challenged ourselves!

To get to the top of Half Dome, one must climb a nearly vertical section of solid granite. These final 400 feet of the ascent are known as “the cables.” For a non mountain climber like me, “the cables” looked like insanity.

From a distance, the people climbing up and down simultaneously on the cables look like a trail of ants. I spoke with a couple of hikers who were waiting at the base of the cables. They had come all that way, but simply could not summon the courage to attempt this section.

The truth is, climbing “the cables” is pretty freaky, especially since I am not crazy about heights! But I had been preparing for this moment since we began the hike. I knew I would face this, and I knew it would be scary.

I had decided ahead of time that nothing would stop me from getting to the top. Cables or no cables, I would make it! So as soon as we got to “the cables,” I grabbed some sturdy gloves (essential for protecting your hands) and charged up with no delay. And I kept looking up. Not once did I turn around and look down at the hundreds of feet of nearly vertical drop below me

LEADERSHIP LESSON 3
Leaders must keep their eyes on the goal(s) of their organization.

The tenacity and focus of the entire organization will rise and fall with its leader. It did not matter that “I didn’t like the cables.” Yes, it was challenging, but it was not going to keep me from reaching my goal. So I fixed my gaze on the top of Half Dome, the goal I wanted to achieve. If leaders do not keep their eyes on their organization’s goals, it’s unlikely those goals will ever be achieved.

Some of the men in our group were able to move along more quickly than others. This meant we got spread out along the trail. But, every hour or so, the lead hikers would pause to allow our entire team to regroup. The journey up the mountain was hard—I never perspired so much in my entire life. We consumed gallons of water! But tackling this challenge with my elder team not only spurred me on, it gave our entire group a treasured memory of accomplishing a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).

After about eight hours of arduous effort up the mountain, all of us reached the top of Half Dome. And we did it together!

LEADERSHIP LESSON 4
The heart of leadership is drawing the best out of our team and then celebrating together what we accomplished together.

Something incredibly special happens when we accomplish goals together. I cannot fathom how empty I would have felt if I had been by myself. But to be standing at the top of Half Dome with my elder teammates made the accomplishment incredibly exhilarating!

The trip down the mountain was actually much harder than the trip up. The last 5 miles were acutely painful, in my case, because my boots hadn’t been fully broken in and I had developed massive and extremely painful blisters on both feet. Toward the end of our 15-hour adventure, I was shuffling along the trail in the dark like a 100-year-old man. I had mysteriously aged well beyond my 60 years!

But this is where I saw the character shine in my fellow elders. All of us were tired . . . beyond tired. Several of us had painful blisters. But not once did I hear a harsh word or any kind of put-down. In the heat of the furnace, when we were weary to the bone (and some of us in pain), the men stood tall in Christ. I have never been more proud of Summit’s elder team!

LEADERSHIP LESSON 5
Character trumps everything in leadership.

At the end of the day, who we are in the dark (our character, that is) determines the kind of leaders we are in the daylight. This summer we’re going to try again to climb Mount Whitney. I can’t imagine a finer group of men to climb with than Summit’s elder team! And, by the way, this time I will make sure my boots are broken in!

Stephen Bond serves as senior pastor with Summit Christian Church, Sparks, Nevada.

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