By Peter Delannoy
A few nights ago in Phoenix, Arizona, I was sitting at the bar in a local Mexican restaurant with my wife, Linda, eating dinner. Looking around I noticed that this particular eating establishment was full of baby boomers. That’s not to say that younger people were not eating there, but I’d say at least two-thirds of the patrons were over 50.
After our drinks arrived, a pair of gentleman sidled in next to us and we struck up a conversation with them. One of the men was the talkative type and told us his life story without much prodding on our part. He leaned back in his tall chair, folded his hands on top of his generous belly, and reminisced about his life as an electrical engineer.
He seemed older than sixty-five years. He recounted to us his recent stroke and triple bypass surgery both of which had transpired very recently. When he described his heart surgery, he leaned forward, pulled down his v-neck shirt, and showed us a wicked red scar that split his breast bone.
I found his eyes with my eyes and I wondered how he felt about his condition. Like me, this gentleman has children and at sixty-five is pretty young to be facing such a severe set-back in health. Truth is, I didn’t know him well enough to ask him the questions that were burning in my mind. Questions like: What are you doing to regain your fitness? What are you doing about your weight? Are you in an exercise program? How are you modulating your blood pressure?
Meeting this guy has kept me awake at night because up until recently I never thought about aging and my own health. Things like heart disease and high blood pressure–these were the problems that “old” people had to contend with, not something that a younger person had to worry about.
I have always been active given that I was a career rock climber for nearly forty years. I was used to getting off the couch and into the fray with little thought to conditioning between the summer seasons. When you are young, your body tends to respond quickly to the change in intensity of physical activity. But as I got older, and the spans of time between climbing sessions got longer, it became much harder for me to rise to the physical challenges of the mountains.
Living the climbing life involved a cycle of climbing 3-5 days per week peaking in the summer months when the weather was most conducive to outdoor activity with the low point being mid-winter. I traveled throughout the western USA to climb but my main stomping grounds were the mountainous areas of Wyoming and the Black Hills, South Dakota. In the latter years of my career I was a full time guide for Exum Mountain Guides in Moose, Wyoming. This job mainly involved training clients to climb the Grand Teton.
I’ve guided a wide range of age groups up the Grand Teton from children to baby boomers in their sixties. I’ve even guided the mountain as a day climb from the parking area with clients that were in savage shape. Climbing the Grand in a day is a massive undertaking involving over 11,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and a fifteen mile trek which is pretty much like climbing straight up and down a stair case.
During the last season that I guided for Exum the long hike to the Lower Saddle of the Grand felt especially severe after a year of teaching chemistry and climbing solely on the weekends. The approach to the Lower Saddle is seven miles with a 5000 foot elevation gain. Even then I should have admitted that doing nothing during the off-season was ill advised. But I still thought I could just “tough it out” and and climb mountains like the Grand Teton on demand: after all, this is what I had done all my life at this point.
Over time I segued out of climbing to pursue SCUBA diving. Throughout my life I’ve always wanted to dive. Maybe because of Loyd Bridges and Sea Hunt or maybe because of all the episodes of Jacques Cousteau that I watched as a kid. I’ve always had a deep curiosity concerning the world that exists below the surface of our oceans, lakes and rivers. Secondly, back in 2008 I was casting around looking for something that my family could do that was different than climbing so we took an open water SCUBA course and got our certifications to SCUBA dive.
Soon we were traveling to Caribbean locations and enjoying the reefs. We traveled to Cozumel, Mexico a number of times–this location rapidly became my favorite destination for reef diving. You can’t beat drifting along a wall free to view the animals and corals that populate the reef.
Turtles the size of coffee tables, moray eels the size of large dogs, schools of multi-colored fish, octopus, etc. Cozumel is a divers dream come true. But over the years I began to tire of the reef diving and started to investigate the more technical aspects of SCUBA diving: wreck diving and cave diving.
I read everything I could get my hands on concerning both disciplines. Stories about John Chatterton diving the Andrea Doria off the east coast of the USA and the exploits of Sheck Exley who actively explored the Florida springs. Ultimately my interests drifted toward cave diving when in the fall of 2009 I saw Extreme Cave Diving on PBS and was inspired to become a cave diver.
In the spring of 2010 I traveled to Florida where I was certified to dive caves. Completing the ten day full cave course was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically. Again, I literally got off the couch and on to a plane and did the course which I barely passed by the skin of my teeth.
Years later, in 2014, I completed Advanced Sidemount with Patrick Widmann as my instructor. The process took six months and a massive amount of training both here in Arizona and in Tulum, Mexico. It was during this course that I finally realized that I needed to be in a fitness program that was year-round. Diving in Mexico had transformed my psyche to another level of self-awareness.
Sometimes things in life coalesce to a point where you realize a deeper truth. For me it was the realization that I am an adventurer at heart. But squirming my way into a submerged cave was pushing my own physical limitations to a point that I needed to make a lifestyle change or stop cave diving.
Simultaneous to this epiphany was a wellness session in a cold gymnasium where I was confronted with high blood pressure and a high, resting heart rate followed a few months later by an episode with gout. All these things together got my attention and pushed me to find CrossFit which I now participate in 3-4 days per week.
This brings me back to the guy on the bar stool. We all have challenges that we face in life and in the case of the guy on the bar stool, his heart condition is his Grand Teton climb. Granted everyone has a right to choose whether to climb a mountain or not. Like Erica Salzmann-Talbi communicated to us in her piece on walking–it all started with walking her dog, Sargy and ended this year with her walking more than 800 miles.
It’s just a matter of taking one step at a time. A friend of mine once offered me the following advice about climbing The Nose on El Captain in Yosemite Valley, California. He said, “When it all seems impossible just remember that if you just keep going one foot at a time eventually you will top out.” He was right. The climb took us four-and-a-half days but we made it. Climbing the Nose was a transformative experience and changed me forever.
Don’t be afraid to get off the stool. Just take the first step and don’t ever look back.
Photo: Patrick Widmann