Object Lessons from Three Cups of Tea: What Christians can learn from a climber and his failed attempts

By Stacey Tuttle

Greg Mortenson, in his book Three Cups of Tea, which I have admittedly only just begun, writes of an experience he had on the way back down from a failed attempt to summit K2.  Pakistan’s K2 is considered by most climbers to be the most difficult to reach on earth.  It is also considered by many to be beyond compare in terms of alpine beauty.  Photographer Galen Rowell spent years trying to capture the beauty of the region.  And though his photographs are stunning, he “always felt they failed compared to the experience of simply standing there, dwarfed by the spectacle” of what he considered the most beautiful place on earth, a place he dubbed “the throne room of the mountain gods.”[1]

Though Mortenson had been among those peaks for months, it wasn’t until he was lost, alone, exhausted, hungry and near frozen that he finally saw and appreciated their beauty.  He explains, “All summer, I’d looked at these mountains as goals, totally focused on the biggest one, K2.  I’d thought about their elevation and the technical challenges they presented to me as a climber.  But that morning…for the first time, I simply saw them.  It was overwhelming.”[2]

There are several things about this which struck me as I read.  The first thing is a simple little lesson:  what seemed like failure to Mortenson (not reaching the top of K2 and getting lost on the way down, twice) was actually the beginning of a much greater mission and humanitarian effort.  Oh that we all had eyes to see how our failures are often the spawning bed of things much greater and more worthy our efforts. 

The second thing which strikes me is how much effort (in every realm: financially, physically, emotionally…) it took Mortenson and Rowell and countless others to reach this place of such austere beauty.  It takes total commitment and devotion to reach K2 and its surrounding mountains…a commitment which anyone who has been there is likely to say was absolutely worth it.  Despite the reward, the fact is, few of us will ever be willing to do what it takes to get there.  It’s a mountain; that’s OK.  Not everyone needs to see it.  But, it seems to me the quest for the summit of K2 is, in many ways, analogous to seeking and finding God.  Jesus said that the cost of following him would be great.  He asked followers to give up their possessions, leave families…he even asked them to give up their very lives to follow Him.  What would make this sacrifice worth it?  Because when you do so, Jesus takes you to the summit, to the throne room of God.  He invites you to an experience where you are dwarfed by the beauty, the grandeur, the magnificence and glory of the King of Kings.  It’s an experience which all who have gone there before us have said was worth every sacrifice.  Yet how many really experience it? 

Imagine someone saying that they love to climb, that they are true climber.  They have all the gear.  They practice climbing every day at the local climbing wall.  But they never go to the mountains to climb.  Surely they will never experience climbing in the way that someone who climbs K2 and Everest will…or even any lesser mountain.  An insignificant mountain would still be a greater experience for a climber than an indoor climbing wall. 

I think America especially is full of Christians who are like that indoor climber.  They think they love climbing (following Jesus), but have never really, truly experienced it.  Lest you think I am pointing my fingers at others, let me start with pointing it at myself—I am a Christian in America…I absolutely wonder at my own lame experience of Him.  Lame, but not because of Him.  That’s like the indoor climber looking at K2 in a picture and thinking it doesn’t look like that big of a deal.  If he has a lame experience while climbing the indoor wall, he can hardly blame K2 for the lame experience.  He has only to blame himself for not being willing to invest more time, money, effort, energy, etc. into climbing something better and more worthwhile.  My lame experience is because of me.  It’s because I have invested so little.  Because I lack discipline, patience, desire to get to the throne room of God on the top of the mountain.  I am comfortable down here where it’s easy and not too risky.  If I climb indoors the temperature is regulated, I am safe and secure with little risk of injury, I can fit it into my schedule, rather than it becoming my schedule.  I don’t have to face persecution, or even uncoolness for my faith.  I can fit it in when it’s convenient: church on Sundays, a quick prayer in the shower or driving down the road and a 15 minute devotional squeezed in somewhere.  I can have it all:  Jesus and the American dream.  Except, I’m not really getting Jesus anymore than the indoor climber is experiencing K2.[3]

The final lesson which stood out to me as I read about Mortenson’s experience on the mountain is the difference in the way he viewed the mountains.  All that time he had spent among the peaks and he never saw or appreciated their beauty until after he’d spent a cold night lost and alone among them.  He had never before stopped to admire them or to enjoy them.  He knew everything about them.  He had studied them, memorized them, talked to others about them…but all for the sake of knowledge, not appreciation.  He was using the mountains and his knowledge about them to help him reach his goal.  Once his goal was lost and he was lost, he finally was overwhelmed by them. 

Again, I feel that the mountains are analogous to God.  So many of us approach God like Mortenson approached those mountains.  We study, memorize and talk to others about God and his Word.  We learn how to use God (not that we would actually call it that) to accomplish the goals in front of us.  In a sense, God himself becomes a challenge, a goal, a mountain we want to summit.  But we miss the point of simply enjoying Him, appreciating Him, worshipping Him, marveling at Him.  And I think more often than not, it’s not until, like Mortenson, we are lost and have failed that we are finally able to just sit back and appreciate God and His beauty, rather than trying to study and master Him. 

So, here are a few challenges…for myself and for you.

  • Look for ways in which failure (not failure because you didn’t try, but true failure—when you gave it all you had and it just didn’t happen) might turn out to be a good thing…or at least have some positive ramifications.  (Why do I hear Garth Brooks singing Unanswered Prayers in the background of my mind right now?)
  • Take an honest look at your devotion to Christ.  Are you climbing mountains or climbing walls?  What would it take to take your experience of Christ to another level?  What would it take to climb a higher peak?  Maybe we should stop and ask first do we really believe Jesus is worth it?  Maybe that’s our problem – we don’t actually believe He’s worth it.  If we did, surely we would be willing to do more to take that climb.
  • With all our Bible studies and churches and Christian podcasts, radio, T-shirts, seminaries… what really is the point of our study of God?  Is it to help us achieve some goal we set out for ourselves, or is it to truly admire, enjoy and appreciate God more fully?  I have no doubt that Mortenson’s technical understanding of K2 greatly enhanced his wonder and awe of its beauty—once he was finally aware of and overwhelmed by it.  But the technical knowledge may never have led him to an experience of reveling in them.  Is your technical knowledge of God and his Word the point for you?  Or is it heightening for you the real point of knowing Him, loving Him, worshipping Him?


[1]Mortenson, Greg, and David Oliver Relin. Three Cups of Tea. New York: Penguin Group, 2006, p 18.

[2] Ibid., 19

[3] For more on Christianity and the American Dream, check out Radical by David Platt.