…Because teachers also have teachers. One of my favorite teachers, Hans Peter Royer of Tauernhof Bible School in Austria, lost his life last weekend in a paragliding accident. Remembering this great man and leader, the following memory from Upward Bound 2011 comes first to mind as I thank God for his life and ministry.
“I am thinking we’ll go look for Edelweiss,” Hans Peter says as we sit down at the table on the sunny terrace of Hofpürgelhutte. “Want to come?”
Nat and I, with trays of schiwasser and warm apfelstrudel, raise our eyebrows. We’ve finished with climbing for the day, and the students are scattered around the yard, sleeping or reading or playing on the slackline until supper in a few hours. As instructors, we haven’t climbed much today, instead spending most of the morning and afternoon on the lookout for distracted belayers and nervous first-time climbers among our thirty-five Upward Bound students. Though it’s been a safe and successful day, full of personal firsts for many, at the end of it we’re not exactly exhausted.
“Yes. When?” Nat replies without hesitating. (“This is one of those things,” Nat says to me later. “Those things you don’t ask questions about. He says, ‘Let’s go pick Edelweiss,’ and you just go.”)
“We leave soon. Five minutes,” Hans Peter replies. Nat and I abandon our treats on the balcony, retie our hiking boots but take nothing with us, as we’ve been told. As usual, Hans Peter sets a businesslike pace up the steep path, which veers to the left of our climbing garden and traverses a grassy slope up to a ridge.
“There,” he points. “Up there in those rocks is where we’re going. That’s where the Edelweiss is.”
Edelweiss-picking is typically the pursuit of young men, who climb to the cliffs on which the fuzzy white flowers cling, bent on bringing back impressive offerings to woo fair maidens. Austrian girls are apparently not impressed with mere roses; the flower’s worth increases dramatically with the risk taken to procure it. What we—two single women—are going to do with our Edelweiss once we find it is far from our thoughts as we trot behind Hans Peter up the path. This is a worthy quest, a rare Austrian adventure, and we were excited to seize it.
Further on, we meet the other three Upward Bound instructors, who’d set off with similar intentions, and they fall in with us. Hans Peter leads us to the left and up, towards an outcropping of rock perched on the green hillside. We can just see a small crevice, like a lazy yawn in a pointed face, where the sought-after flowers supposedly grow, and our quest arches that way.
I’d moved to Europe a year before, away from my own family and mountains in the Pacific Northwest, to teach English at Black Forest Academy. But here in Austria, at my summer job as an Upward Bound instructor, I find something familiar. Here again, I daily met the challenge of following someone up a steep path, confident that at the top there’d be a reminder that every breath, every step, every stone on these ancient mountains was evidence of the everlasting love our Creator has for us.
We reach the cave of Edelweiss just an hour before dinner, the late afternoon sun slanting golden in our eyes as Hans Peter instructs us to take “just one flower” and hold it in our teeth, so as not to crush it while we descend. Two years later, I’d give it to my fiancé, but without a recipient in mind just then I pressed it between Ecclesiastes 3 and 4. “A time for everything” on one side—my favorite lecture of Hans Peter’s, which still echoes back from the summer I was seventeen, myself an Upward Bound student—and “two are better than one” on the other, a passage I’ll hear read at my own wedding in December.
We spend a few minutes at the top, the panorama of sun-drenched Austrian and Italian Alps spread below us like a wrinkled green blanket. Buried far back in the cave, there’s a metal box with a guestbook in it, which we sign proudly, savoring the moment together before we head down for supper. We move more slowly on the way down, making sure of every step. Our leader tells us to grab handfuls of grass as we walk along, to anchor us to the hill in case we slip.
“This is dangerous,” Hans Peter comments matter-of-factly, peering down at the rock-strewn slope that ends, some twenty meters below, in the top of a cliff. “Really hold on here. With both hands, to the grass. It doesn’t look dangerous, but it is. Stay close, and hold on.”
The part of me that was once afraid of heights was numbed two decades ago by another mountain climber, my own father, but I believe Hans Peter’s warning. I know it’s dangerous, know that a hasty step could lead to a long fall. Our steps, then, are measured and slow, just behind those of our leader.
But, aware of the danger, I’m still not afraid. Because with Hans Peter, as with my dad all those years ago, it never mattered whether a place was safe or dangerous. Who I’m following makes all the difference.
Reflecting today on Hans Peter’s life and ministry, this memory stands apart from all the lectures and lessons he taught me, of which there were many. Because this—following confidently the Creator of mountain, air and stone—is how Hans Peter lived, and how he taught us to live. Aware of danger but not controlled by fear, knowing that ultimately our safety lies in the love of Jesus, who keeps writing our story every day we follow Him, this story that doesn’t end in death, but goes on into eternity.
And even through the sadness of losing him, I’m thankful for this teacher, whose life and words have rippled across continents and generations, and thankful for the God who promises that there are more glorious days ahead than this one I remember fondly, and that this goodbye–early as it is–is just for now.