What Mount Rainier Can Teach Us
Rising 14,409 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier towers so far above Seattle that a person can forecast the day’s weather by it. When the most glaciated peak in the entire continental U.S. is in clear view, the day holds pleasant temperatures and dry skies. If clouds obscure its lofty flanks, settle in for a typical Seattle day- drizzly and bone-chilling gray.
In a similar way, Mt. Rainier offers those who would climb it unsurpassed opportunities to assess the human condition. Ascending over 10,000 feet on snow and around crevasses big enough to swallow 18-wheelers is a towering challenge. Success is unique to each person, but all must face certain struggles along the way. This was readily apparent last summer as Summit Adventure guided nine participants up the Emmons-Winthrop route.
Two of them, Bill and Hank, each attempted the climb very differently [note: the names were changed for this blog]. Juxtaposing their stories makes me wonder if Rainier has something to teach us about justice and humility. The Bible is filled with tales of undeserving people prospering while good folks are afflicted with calamity and injustice. Both men left Mt. Rainier with opportunities to learn from the struggles that came their way.
Bill’s scuffle with the mountain came on the descent after he turned around at 12,000 feet. Though his attempt was laudable, Bill was bitterly disappointed. At 55, following months of hard training and 15 lost pounds, he had high hopes of summit bragging rights to friends and family back in the flat lands of the Midwest. But the altitude made Bill sick and the climbing wore him out- his physical and mental stamina utterly spent.
Hank fared little better physically, which wasn’t surprising since he had done little training. He was second on my rope team and I regularly had to pull him along to keep moving. It wasn’t unusual to turn and find Hank lying in the snow, nearly lifeless. Solid yanks on the rope would encourage him to get up and stagger along, numb to everything around him. Though his preparation was minimal, he escaped the nausea and headache that characterize altitude sickness. Somehow, he kept going and I marveled to see him stand atop the summit.
Bill was deflated; Hank- euphoric. One trained very hard and was denied the summit; the other did virtually nothing and stumbled to the top. It just didn’t seem right, unfair even. Though I enjoyed the company of both men, and was glad for Hank’s success, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why couldn’t Bill have summited too?”
It is another form of the age-old question- why is life filled with injustice and unfairness? The psalmist in 73:1-5 struggles with us:
Truly God is good to the upright,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant…
For they have no pain;
Their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not plagued like other people.
But Rainier challenges Bill and Hank in different ways about their humanity, and by extension to all of us. Bill needs to resolve the issue of what it means to NOT meet a goal, or prosper. While certain goals are noble and worthwhile, we always need to evaluate them against God’s priorities. It is my hope and prayer that Bill finds contentment in the preparation and effort he put into his Rainier climb.
Hank’s cavalier preparation was a very different struggle. He made it to the top while others turned around. Indeed, he barely summited, but I wonder if Hank will be tempted in future endeavors to look back on his climb of Mt. Rainier and think he can succeed with similarly little effort.
Both Bill and Hank can learn valuable lessons about their human frailty from their time on Mount Rainier. As for me, Rainier’s grandeur is a reminder that God is far bigger, wiser, and stronger than us. God is the ultimate judge of what is fair and sees the big picture of our lives on earth and throughout eternity. No doubt God will use Bill and Hank’s time on the mountain for their good. There is great contentment in that.