Butte resident and mountaineer Brent Cowley has seen the top of the world, having climbed some of the most famous peaks on the globe.
But Cowley doesn’t climb mountains just for the adrenaline rush – he’s also doing it for a cause.
Cowley raises money through a portion of his treks for the nonprofit Radiating Hope, which donates new and used cancer-fighting radiation equipment to developing countries.
Not everyone with a cancer diagnosis dies from the disease in the U.S. thanks to life-saving treatments like radiation. But in some developing countries, where access to radiation equipment is scarce, even treatable cancers can be a “death sentence,” according to nonprofit co-founder Larry Daugherty.
Radiating Hope raises funds for its operations by hosting mountaineering trips for participants who can either pay out of pocket or raise money for their climbs. If participants raise a baseline amount, they get to take the trip for free.
Donors can also purchase Tibetan prayer flags from the organization in the name of someone touched by cancer. Mountaineers will put their names on the flags and carry them on their expeditions, during which time they’ll fly the flags on mountain summits. Later, they’ll return the flags, which dedicators can keep as a memento.
Daugherty, an oncologist, said he started the organization with fellow oncologist Brandon Fisher. At first, carrying prayer flags was a way to honor their patients, but then it grew into something more, and Radiating Hope was born.
“It gave us a purpose behind our own passion (for mountaineering),” said Daugherty.
During a three-week expedition in May, Cowley will be carrying prayer flags scribed with the names of people touched by cancer atop Alaska’s Mount Denali, boasting 20,320 feet in elevation, in a solo campaign for the nonprofit.
Cowley grew up rock climbing, and he says the Alaskan peak has always loomed large in his imagination.
“Alaska is a land of wonder, a land of just sheer amazement,” he said. “Denali’s been a goal of mine since I was about 14.”
But what will be even more significant will be the prayer flags he’ll be carrying.
He explained the flags are intended to unravel in the wind and that each thread that blows away represents a prayer.
For cancer survivors, it can symbolize the disease leaving the body.
“The prayer flags have symbolic meaning, especially for those who have gone through cancer, in that they stand for hope and wellbeing,” he said.
In addition to climbing Denali, Cowley plans to join several others on a 2020 expedition with Radiating Hope as participants trek to the Mount Everest base camp.
In August, he’ll train with the Everest group in Alaska, and the group will meet again at the end of the year to train on Mexico’s Mount Orizaba, towering at 18,490 feet above sea level.
“When you’re on a rope team, it’s kind of an intimate relationship,” he said, explaining the need for so much training. “You have to trust them with your life.”
Cowley became involved with Radiating Hope after meeting Dougherty in Alaska, where he lived for three years with his wife and children.
Sharing a passion for mountaineering, the two struck up a friendship, and Dougherty invited him to take part in Radiating Hope.
Cowley, a certified registered nurse anesthetist, eventually made his way to Butte when his career brought him to St. James Healthcare. He and his wife currently live on the Flat with their five children.
Cowley took his first journey with Radiating Hope a few years ago, when the nonprofit organized a trip to Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
Climbing the mountain was certainly an accomplishment — he even got a chance to see snow settle on the mountain — but what made the trip special was the cause he was working for and the folks who made the climb, some of whom were cancer survivors or people who were climbing in the name of a departed loved one.
Some of the participants weren’t experienced mountaineers, Cowley said, but they pushed through nonetheless because of what the trip meant.
“They went up the mountain and suffered the whole time,” he said of some of the trekkers. “But (they) dragged themselves up the mountain to fly that flag and then bring it back down. It’s actually quite incredible.”
Daugherty said summiting the peaks can be a cathartic experience.
Doctors are among the nonprofit’s biggest supporters, and as Daugherty and Cowley pointed out, the high altitude treks can induce many of the same symptoms associated with cancer treatment, including nausea, vomiting, and fatigue.
For survivors, Daugherty said, summiting is often a metaphor for their journey, one based on struggle and hardship and coming out on the other side. For some, it’s a way to reclaim their bodies and show how far they’ve come from the depths of their illness.
The Denali trip Cowley will take this summer will also be a personal one.
Recently, his wife’s uncle Ron Anderson died from liver cancer, and Cowley plans to fly a prayer flag from the summit in his name.
Becky Cowley describes her uncle, a U.S. Army veteran, as a kind man who enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren.
“His greatest love was spending time outdoors, landscaping his yard, camping, fishing, and hunting,” she said.
There are many dangers when it comes to the weeks-long adventures her husband takes atop mountain summits.
But Cowley says she doesn’t worry about her husband. She knows he has the right kind of knowledge and skills. Plus, he’s doing it for a cause.
“I’m just proud of him,” she said.