Some mountains inspire road trips. Others inspire pilgrimages. Tibet's 22,027-foot Mt. Kailas is perhaps the globe's most famous pilgrimage peak. Devotees trek for weeks to reach Kailas, which Hindus say is the dwelling place of the god Shiva and Buddhists consider to be "the cosmic center of the universe."
In North America, Mt. Rainier has become among the most prominent pilgrimage peaks. The lure of the 14,410-foot Washington state giant is partly due to its accessibility. The most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48 looms only two hours from Seattle. Rainier packs big-mountain weather and mountaineering challenges, but it's also a people's mountain: The standard routes are not difficult, and the peak can be bagged in as little as two days, conditions-yours and the mountain's-permitting. About 11,000 people attempt to climb Mt. Rainier annually; only about half of them summit.
There's another aspect of Rainier's allure. For many, conquering Rainier is a metaphor for conquering a personal challenge. Survivors of life-threatening diseases often climb Rainier to symbolize the final ascent in their recovery. For others, it's an antidote to a mid-life crisis, proof that you haven't gone soft.
That seemed to motivate my brother-in-law Bobby when he said last year that he wanted to climb Rainier with me before he was 50, then two years away. Bobby is a wisecracking, hard-driving New Yorker, gifted athlete, successful business owner-and neophyte mountaineer. He and I had connected on hikes among Vermont's highest peaks, where I live. But Rainier? I figured it was his way of triumphing over middle age.
Mt. Rainier has been on my dance card since my infatuation with mountains began some two decades ago. But a career and a family soon became my only dance partners. Rainier drifted from my thoughts-until my friend Dennis Shaffer called last spring. "I'm going to climb Rainier in June. Can you come?"
My wife and newborn son peered at me as I considered the question. I mumbled about scouting the trip I would take with Bobby (Dennis' permit only had room for one more), but she waved off the excuses and nodded her assent. "You owe me," she said. I told Dennis that I was in-but I would ski down.
Late last June, I found myself moving one ski ahead of another up the flanks of the giant ice cream cone. It was a magical feeling to be creeping up its slope in the silver light. Seattle twinkled in the distance. The sky was clear, the snow firm, and we buzzed with excitement knowing that these were perfect conditions. Sunrise painted our world red, orange and yellow as we greeted the day. Eight hours after we started up the final leg, the Emmons Glacier, Dennis, fellow Vermonter Paul Hannan and I stood atop the smoking volcanic crater that is Rainier's summit. I was bursting with a pilgrim's pride-but a wave of altitude-induced nausea rudely reminded me of a devotee's proper humility.
My reward was to claim the longest ski run in the U.S.: most of a nearly 9,000-vertical-foot descent (the top 2,000 feet were too icy to ski) that was punctuated by frequent stops to suck air. The skiing up high was challenging-gloppy, runneled snow kept me working, but I was inspired downward by the sensation of soaring over the entire Northwest.
With the glow of Rainier still fresh last fall, I received a call from my brother-in-law. He had just learned he has cancer. He faces stiff odds. He is going to beat it, he reassured me.
Bobby visited recently after starting chemotherapy. I asked if he still dreamed of climbing Rainier. "Every day," he replied quickly, his eyes shining brightly from his now bald head. "It will be my symbol of conquering this disease."
We will embark on his pilgrimage next June. I understand now that the goal of a pilgrimage is not so much to reach the summit. It is to celebrate life with each step on the journey.