Challenges, Setbacks, Resilience and Self-healing

5/14/17: Six weeks to Shasta. I’m back on the AT. There’s a song running in my head—Another Op’nin’, Another Show*—except the lyrics have morphed: Six weeks en I’ve gotten the curse; four weeks en conditionin’ couldn’t be worse; two weeks, en I’m ever so meek; then outa the earth comes the big first peak! *(Another Op'nin', Another Show is the opening number of Cole Porter's 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate.)

Let me explain. Six weeks to Mt. Shasta and my conditioning has been going downhill for nearly 75 days. I think, believe, hope it has bottomed out and I’m heading back up. But I’m still bleeding. That’s going to be a limiting factor for recovery. And Shasta looms.

Hiked alone again today. It’s Mother’s Day. Sun’s out, temp’s 55 to 60. There’s a sea of vibrant green everywhere I look. One can still see into the forest but the new leaves cut the distance to less than half what it was in March.

Challenges and setbacks are not simply due to the elevation, steepness or length of climbs, or to the age of the climber. At 70 we all have our histories of physical trauma and life-related wear and tear. We carry our health concerns with us as much as we carry our backpacks. If you’ve read earlier post in this blog you might have noticed there’s a gap between Mt. Mitchell, NC (6684’) at the end of March and this entry. Four days after Mitchell, with team members Patrick, Cara and Tom (plus mountain dogs Diego and Dana) I skied up Red Lake Peak (10,069’) south of Lake Tahoe on alpine touring skis (more on that at a later point). The spring setback had already begun, but it had yet to hit me full force. Soon it would--not like a ton of bricks but like a pound of toxic dust.

For those who have experienced something similar this may evoke “been there, done that.” To others it may seem totally alien. In me spring tree pollens cause severe inflammation, painful cramps and internal bleeding. Medications—antihistamines to steroids—don’t stop it. Diet has little effect. Supplements—probiotics, prebiotics, anti-inflammatory herbs and oils… well, maybe in combination they ameliorate the intensity of the symptoms. Still from the first cedar pollen of late winter through the red maples and box elders, to the ash and oak I’m battling flare-ups, bleeding and anemia… not good things for one in training to climb 14,000’ glacial peaks. Talk about a challenge!

With few switchbacks this climb is relatively steep.

With few switchbacks this climb is relatively steep.

Today is the first day back on a trail of any significance since Red Lake Peak on April 1st. This is the same ridge hiked in January and February, though this section—from the Rt. 341 trailhead south toward Mt. Algo and on to Schaghticoke Mt—on average is steeper. There are not a lot of switchbacks on the up trails, the flats are short, and there’s a pretty good descent into the ravine between peaks where a stream is gushing from the heavy rains of the previous week. Where the trail crosses the creek, water crashes against the stepping stones and rushes through the gaps between. I test the first few stones… the rocks are slippery… the leap to the next stone is about four feet, and that stone is under four inches of fast flow. I check my pocket for my phone. Usually I keep it in a zip lock bag, but I’d forgotten to grab one before I left. So, I’m thinking, if I slip off, the pool below the rock is maybe five feet deep, I get soaked, my phone gets soaked, my training schedule takes a hit because I’m not prepared. I know the procedures if you’re on a long hike, but today’s goal is to get in 4+ miles with a 25# pack on relatively steep terrain, and get back in time to cook Mother’s Day dinner. Getting dunked will disrupt the plan.

The rains of the past week made the stream crossing a bit dicey.

The rains of the past week made the stream crossing a bit dicey.

I back out, move up stream. After maybe 300 yards I find an old tree fallen across the stream. The bark is soggy and loose, but I decide I’ve gone far enough off the trail so I pull myself up, stand, test the log, take a few tentative steps, then cross.

But we were talking about challenges. They are not simply the feats themselves, but how we react to them, how we view them, accept them, meet them face on or shirk them. Do we persevere if our first foray fails? Do we bang our heads against the wall in frustration, curse those who are more physically fortunate, or do we find an alternate route on which to advance?

I suspect my training log looks a bit different than most. I track workouts, training hikes, durations and intensities, but I also track ingestion, excretion and bleeding. That’s what you do when you have idiopathic ulcerative colitis. I say idiopathic because every gastroenterologist I’ve ever spoken to has said we (meaning the medical community) don’t know what causes it. They also say there is no cure; they can only treat the symptoms. This infuriates me; sets up a dual challenge. One to keep me from asking them, “Then why am I in your office?” and; two, to convince them pollen is the main trigger. My medical history is consistent with this explanation. Early spring, early pollen season, early onset of symptoms; late spring, late pollen season… well, you get the idea. I try to keep the meds simple. Suffice it to say I believe in ten years the current standard protocols for UC will be viewed to be as crude and as archaic as George Washington’s doctors bleeding him to death to get rid of bad humors.

Like so many guys turning 70, physical challenges are not confined to just one part or one system. Some of my undercarriage has been replaced… ah, that is, I’ve a titanium hip with chromium-nickel-cobalt large-ball and socket. Now that is something that works well! It was the recovery from the 2006 surgery that got me into hiking and climbing.

Wish I could do the same for my left knee. No ACL, no meniscus, no condyle cartilage. After damaging the joint playing football in 1966 my knee would randomly lock. A year later that happened as I was jumping down a terraced hillside; landed on my heel and drove the tibia through the joint and into the femur breaking the ends of both bones. It kind of wreaked havoc with other structures, too. There were no replacement knees in 1967, no artificial cartilage. They basically took everything out, smoothed out the bones, and told me if I kept active the bones would burnish themselves against each other. The joint hasn’t been right since, but it works. Didn’t keep me from getting drafted; nor did it stop me from playing league soccer until I was 56. Who would have thought?! On downhills, particularly if I’m not wearing my brace, the femur slides forward on the tibial plateau, but I’ve learn to disregard the crunching--when you know what it is, and know that it really isn’t doing more damage, you can displace the thought.

Because today is a return-to-training hike I take it easy. The day could not be more pleasant. I pause to take a few pictures atop Schaghticoke peak, sit beside an Eastern Ribbon snake sunning itself on the next rock. The clouds are beginning to gray. Rain is forecast, but not for a few hours. Then, within minutes the wind picks up. Time to head back.

View from Schaghticoke Mountain.

View from Schaghticoke Mountain.

Throughout the setback I’ve tried to keep up a minimal training schedule: two mile hike with 15-pound pack here, a dynamic motion work out there.  All the gastroenterologists point out that UC is an auto-immune disease, and that the trigger isn’t important once the disease has progressed to that stage. They want their patients on immuno-suppressant therapy, but that comes with collateral damage potentially far worse than the UC symptoms.

My view is that our bodies are self-healing organisms, that we have encoded in our DNA specific plans of action to deal with injury or invasion of our corporal environment. But you’ve got to give your body a chance. That means removing trauma and toxic elements; realizing that most pharmaceuticals are poison; doing what you can to facilitate healing; using pharmaceuticals only if more natural cures don’t work. To me, immuno-suppressants for life, is a life, and early death, sentence.

Can you will yourself back to health? Does positive attitude and action bolster the immune system in a medically meaningful way? Can one resolve to be resilient? Many of us know people who are “professional patients;” people who follow a track the opposite of what we are here encouraging. But between, there are people who are mentally tough, who take all the right steps, and who still succumb to affliction. Resolve does not guarantee recovery; resilience is complex; and the path to recovery may have numerous switchbacks and dead end trails. But… ya gotta try.

The wind has picked up considerably. I’m back at the steam. This time I head downstream to look for a better place to cross, then decide if I get wet now it’s okay as I’m on my way back to the trailhead. As I approach the stepping stones and logjam from below I see a lovely yellow and green stick on the rock I’m about to… oops, not a stick, a yellow gartersnake. Most of them are black with yellow striping; this guy’s yellow with black and green. I nudge him off the rock with the tip of my hiking pole and he slithers into the stream.

On the other side and still dry: I pick up the pace. As easy as I took it on the way out, I’m now pushing it on the way back, and feeling stronger with each step. Cloud cover has darkened the overhead. Rain feels imminent. Another tune begins streaming in my head. I’m thinking of individuals, and societies, and nations, all facing challenges with analogous elements, all having the same options and same tools to confront or to avoid. Some challenges may be easy to conquer; others may be beyond our abilities to meet, way beyond our capacity, completely impossible. But how do we know? How do we… should we… the tune playing in my head is from Man of La Mancha: To Dream the Impossible Dream.

It is now raining quite hard.