A few years ago, two friends of mine, serious mountain men of western stock, told me of their harrowing adventure with their dad on a trek up Mt. Ranier. Their dad had been a college athlete and was fit his entire life; but then in his late 60’s, he overestimated his vigor. Worse, in the months leading up to the trip, the extent of their dad’s training was taking stairs rather than the elevator.
Undeterred, a father and sons started their enthusiastic climb under a Washington moon, with their sights set on Ranier’s craggy 14,400 peak. As the hours passed, my friends watched their dad’s energy wane. Still, he was determined, and the sons kept a close eye, reaching out to steady him when he faltered, encouraging him on. But the experience unsettled my friends, getting this stark vision of their dad’s frailty (this man who’d always been the strongest man in their story) set against this fierce mountain. Then the weather shifted, the sky turned ominous and the wind blew fierce and cold. Wind raged and great sheets of snow obscured their vision. They had to stop.
Pulling out their gear, they bivouacked while white rage pounded them for hours. There would be no summit. It was going to be tricky just getting their dad safely home. “Dad wouldn’t have made it even with clear skies,” my friend said. “He was exhausted.” When the storm broke, two sons walked their dad back down the mountain. You might think that this dad, humbled by his feebleness and his inability to keep up with his boys—and aware that he’d never see that peak—would have felt grim sorrow or regret, maybe a cavernous disappointment or even shame. Not at all. The whole experience was sheer joy. My friends’ dad journaled about the wild day, and I had a chance to read his full-hearted words:
It was a wonderful hike. . . . Both of them were so good to me, took care of me—didn’t mind my slowness. The camaraderie on the mountain is simply incomparable. Even though we didn’t make the summit (we couldn’t have, given the weather conditions) every detail in retrospect seems perfect—weather, vistas, mountains, Rainier itself, banter, physical exertion, pushing ourselves to limits. And being there with my 2 sons! It was a rich experience—the scenery, the comradeship, the bivouac, the danger.
This was a man who wasn’t really there for the mountain. He was there for the love, there for his sons, there to step into the wild terrain of friendship with two boys who were now more than men. My friends remember that day with genuine tenderness. The blizzard didn’t ruin a thing.