Medicine For People!
This summer a group of experienced mountaineers invited me to join them on a week-long trip through the eastern Cascades. We travelled about fifty miles, not a great distance as you hikers know, but a decent distance considering we went off the trails and beat our way through brush and over boulder fields to get there.
The trip leader was Don Jones, an experienced 73-year-old mountaineer. Don is so dedicated to high country hiking that he’s written a book on the art. All of the book chapters plus other tips are available on his website.
At 5' 7.5” and a weight of 165 pounds, Don is officially overweight. But in this photo you see him sitting on a rock, over a mile above sea level five days into the wilderness, relaxed and smiling after a thousand-foot-plus climb over tough country.
What does it mean to be healthy? One measure that’s been very much in the news is weight. The National Institutes of Health uses the BMI (body mass index) as the standard for ideal weight. The BMI uses your height and weight to estimate fitness and indicate whether or not you are overweight. The BMI is a fair tool but it has some drawbacks. It doesn't tell you if you have healthy brown fat, unhealthy white fat, or muscle. It doesn't tell you how you feel when you climb the mountainside.
The youngest of our group was in his 50s ; the oldest in his 70s. All of us have made adjustments to the passing of the years. While preparing for this trip, each of us had spent some time with the scale, weighing not ourselves, but the gear and food that we would be taking with us.
Instead of carrying 50 or 60 pounds of weight at the beginning of a one-week trek, all of us had pared to the range of 30 pounds, of which 10 pounds was food and 20 pounds was gear. Hundreds of nights in the woods teach a man what he needs and doesn't need for comfort and survival. He needs warm, waterproof clothing, shelter, the means to cook food, and the tools and skills to keep from getting lost. He does not need an espresso maker, camp shoes, a dish, or more than one pot. Our first day out, a fair amount of the conversation concerned the choices and compromises each of us had made to keep our loads light.
We tracked around mountainsides where there were no trails, no signs, studying our maps and compass, examining the terrain around us, discussing where we were and where we needed to go. Occasionally we came into terrain that was too steep or dangerous, and we backtracked and found another way.
After a long traverse along a steep mountain slope, we reached our highest camp, a place called Ice Lakes, some 7000 feet elevation, surrounded by icy peaks and snow fields. We remained there two nights, setting up kitchen by the lake the first night, to enjoy the view while we ate. The next day wind forced us to move the kitchen to a three-foot ledge overlooking a rocky declivity and a deep and compelling valley bounded by a distant mountain range. At night we huddled side-by-side while gale force winds nearly flattened our tent on top of us. The next morning, despite temperatures hovering in the mid-twenties, we were unfrozen, fully alert, and deeply happy.
Here’s Don on the way south from Ice Lakes. Just above and to the right of his head you can see the gnarly route we had taken to get to the lakes two days previously.
While some of us have to think about the scales all the time to help us manage weight, we need to keep that effort in perspective. In ancient times, the word for health was the same as the word for whole, with the additional meaning of hale – able-bodied, flourishing, alive and kicking. By this definition, all of us older guys qualified as healthy.
Don Jones, like most folks over the age of 65, has a few rattles in the chassis and gunk in the oil filter. Still, he returns to the woods and mountains to restore his soul. He doesn't let his medical diagnoses prevent him from living fully. He is whole.
This holiday season we at Monroe Street Clinic wish you health and wholeness. Life is for living. Enjoy!
PS Here is a photo of my own particular high point of the trip.
Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.