Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Work and Mountains

Not all kinds of work are the same. I don’t mean that laying bricks is different than programming a computer. That’s obvious. I mean that certain kinds of physical effort are healthy, both to the body and to the spirit; whereas, other forms of burning calories only tend to burn you out. Some work is both tiring and good for you. Other kinds of work are just tiring.

A number of years ago our family lived in Colorado and enjoyed hiking to the top of the state’s highest mountains (called 14ers by the locals because they exceed 14,000 feet in elevation). I say that we “enjoyed” it, but this is only true in the sense that one comes to enjoy hard work. It can wear you out while at the same time invigorate your soul. There is no way that a middle-aged man would have kept climbing those peaks if it weren’t for the whole-body effect that such an effort provides.

To climb a 14er with any dignity requires ascending at least 3,000 feet using your own power. Most 14ers require climbing more that this and many of them take more than a day to summit and descend. The ascent, takes at least several hours, and is roughly the equivalent of climbing stairs for several miles. Coming down is easier at first, but then can be even more painful if your knees are like mine.

Even for a physically fit mountaineer, such an effort is very demanding. For less fit individuals, like me, it becomes a matter of mind over body. The lack of adequate oxygen and the relentless incline soon make it virtually impossible to move with speed. At some point, usually not far above tree line, you learn that if you can’t find a pace with small enough steps that you can endure for a long time, you’ll never get to the top.

It’s also quite helpful to take aspirin before hiking too far. This not only helps relieve pain in the legs (and back if your wearing a heavy pack) but it helps mitigate the low oxygen in your blood. In the thin atmosphere of high elevations, you need all the help you can get to move oxygen into your body.

I recall one hike we took to the top of Mount Bross. The climb itself was just over 3,000 feet and was one of the least demanding of Colorado’s 14ers (this doesn’t mean it was easy - it wasn’t). We chose it so that my six-year-old son could join us. My 15-year-old son was hiking with us along with one of his friends. They were both experienced in the Colorado high country and would have been happy for a harder climb. When we were about 100 yards from the top, the friend decided he had enough energy to run the remaining distance. He did, and then turned purple. Fortunately he had enough sense to sit down before passing out.

One of the wonders of the high country is the boldness of the mammals. Chipmunks and pikas will watch you with interest at close range, waiting for a handout. Marmots, on some trails, will come right up to your grounded rucksack wiggling their noses. Mountain sheep and goats hardly bother to lift their heads to look at you. They seem to know that oxygen-deprived bipeds are no threat to them at all.

Another part of these long and strenuous hikes is that you have a lot of time to think. You think about the trail in front of you. You wonder if your stomach is awake enough for a snack. You guess how long it takes for a tiny primrose or a dwarf spruce to grow just a few inches. You wonder why you’re so happy to be so sore.

The reason, of course, is that humans - in fact all animals - are made for work, physical work. Our bodies - including our brains - are healthiest when they work. If you’re a bookworm like me, it’s quite surprising how much reading energy you acquire at the end of a long hike. The very thought of a good book can be more exciting than the thought of a bath.

But I don’t mean to glamorize work, especially hard work. Most of the time it isn’t nearly as exhilarating as climbing a mountain. Sometimes it isn’t exhilarating at all; and, in excess, it can be harmful. Even so, not working is much worse. We deceive ourselves if we think our bodies and minds will respond favorably to processed dinners and TV after a day in meetings or in front of a desk. No doubt these activities make us tired. But they aren’t the kind of work we were made to do. If you want to be happy, give your body some physical work to do. You’ll feel better.

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