A year ago, when Phil Barto of the Outdoor Awareness Program called and asked if I would lead a group of disabled climbers up Mount Rainier, I was appalled: 66 people have died scaling Rainier in this century; 11 were to die in a single ice slide this summer, just a week before our unusual team was due to climb. A burst of bad weather can drive even the most experienced climbers back down a mountain -- which was how the 1963 American assault on Everest ended.
But the more I thought about it, the more I liked Mr. Barto's idea. I have learned on many mountains that what counts most is a certain quality of courage. I had climbed with novices; I was with Robert Kennedy in 1965 when he climbed his first mountain -- Mount Kennedy in the Canadian Yukon, which just happened to be the highest unclimbed peak in North America. And I remember what he wrote afterward of the courage of climbers -- "a courage with ability, brains and tenacity of purpose."
The disabled men and women who call themselves Pelion, after the Greek mountain that in mythology linked heaven and earth, were to show as full a measure of those strengths as any climbers I have ever met. As we worked our way up Mount Rainier, the deaf saw for the blind; the blind heard for the deaf; and Chuck O'Brien, who lost a leg in Vietnam, never faltered. The expert climbers could lend their skills, but the team made the summit only because of the heart and spirit of individuals whose real expertise was in overcoming. For before the members of Pelion climbed the highest mountain in the state of Washington, they had already climbed the highest mountain of their own humanity: they had triumphed over their disability.
George Leigh-Mallory, who disappeared on Everest in 1924, and who said it had to be climbed "because it is there," said something else about mountain-climbing that applies to the Pelion team: "Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves." These climbers had the toughness to take a chance; they knew from their struggle that had gone before that the untested life is not worth living.
There is another lesson for all of us, whether it is the peaks of the Himalayas, the Cascades or the mountains of the soul that we climb in our own lives. It is the lesson of sharing -- the truth that people really can help people. I scaled Rainier with 11 diabled men and women -- and they were as brave as the bravest I have been with on Everest or McKinley. They and all who are disabld deserve to share in the joy and challenge of sports and the outdoors. They can fish a stream, steer a boat, hike a trail, run a race or climb a mountain; they not only can keep up with the best, but also can push us to ask more of ourselves, to do better. Chuck O'Brien insists that, despite the loss of a leg, he is not handicapped. And at 14,000 feet on Mount Rainier, I saw how right he was.
Our attitude about the disabled should be different after the Pelion expedition -- not because they have changed, but because they have shown us the truth about themselves. When we play or fish or exercise, they should be a part of it -- not out of charity, but because they belong.
These were the climbers: Chuck O'Brien; Alec Naiman, who is deaf; Sheila Holtzman, blind since age 10; Frederick Noesner, blind since childhood; Doug Wakefield and Justin McDevitt, blind since birth; Paul Stefurak, deaf and the president of the Seattle Recreation Club for the Deaf; Judith Ochler, who is blind and diabetic; Ray Keith, blind since age 11; and Richard Rose, who stepped onto the summit of Rainier and exclaimed: "There's one for the epileptics."
In truth, it was one for all of us. It was one for the record books. It was one for the human spirit.