More Lies About Aging, and What We Can Do When We Set Our Minds To Something Big
The last few steps weren’t that big a deal, really. The altitude wasn’t horrible, only about 17,058 feet. The third highest peak in Kenya. The two sisters were nearby, snow-touched, a deep glacial lake well below.
The three guides from eTrip Africa ran up the short metal ladder and waved me up. My pack lightened by the three guides to mostly a water supply, TP and snacks, the last few feet to the summit were a breeze.
Top of the mountain.
Five years almost to the day, I’d done precisely the same thing with Kilimanjaro with the same company. Different guides. ETrip Africa is my go-to for East Africa, this is my third trip with them.
These three guides hadn’t been on a mountain other than Kili. We all agreed: Mt. Kenya was one hell of a lot harder. Lower, but harder. You can argue that those last few thousand feet up Kili are a bear, and I’d agree, but you didn’t have to hike across the rocks and a damned high scree field and down the other side in the dark and cold at speed the day before the summit. Nine hours or so of hiking, after a short night. Those are challenging conditions.
Ben’s outfit took up the oldest man who ever summitted Kilimanjaro ( Dr. Fred Distelhorst, at 88). His only problem was his hearing, and he drove those around him mad with his constant WHAT? WHAT? But he made it.
In about six weeks I turn 66. Back in early July, when I knew I’d be heading back to Africa, I took Ben up on his offer to do this climb. That gave me my BHAG (Big Hairy Ass Goal) for the year.
Look, I’m no superwoman. I’m not a born athlete, and I’m not a gifted climber by any stretch. I am, however, determined, and I train like a banshee. I threw my heart into building my legs, garnering plenty of compliments from the BF as the muscles grew and became more defined. I ran endless steps, hiked even more to break in my heavy Lowa mountain boots. The mountain boots that outshined every single piece of gear I took on that trip. Mountain boots with a grip so effective that I on occasion had to actually lift my leg by the thigh to get the boot to let go- and on some of the rocks where were hiking, that was a gift.
Most women my age spent much of November on line shopping for their kids and grandkids. Fine by me. This isn’t a slam about a way of life. It is, however, a statement about what we can do if we want to live out loud. I hear people say how lucky I am- as though I had a trust fund (I live on a disability income from the military for my service) or somehow stayed in five-star hotels and resorts. Geez. You should see where I stay. Often there’s no water at all, other than what we hike in on our shoulders. Whatever it takes to be able to subsidize an experience.
The accumulation of (largely worthless) things keeps people in financial prison. Those who say they want to do what I do, or at least travel, or at least take a break once in a while seem not to realize that there’s a tradeoff. I can’t buy designer clothing and do what I do. I can’t waste money on pricey cars and dumb crap and do what I do. Not only that, I have to work exceedingly hard on my body to get me up and down that mountain safely. Or ride a half-wild horse. Or kayak icy oceans. Whatever.
Unlike Kili, after our summit, we had three more days of eight hours a day hiking before we were done. That’s unimaginable if you’re not in shape. As it was, my left hip developed a hitch in its giddyup, and at night, my thighs spoke to me in Aramaic for lack of a good stretch. We were beset by rain a lot so that getting out on the grass (which in some campsites were decorated with remarkably huge puddles of buffalo shit, and I mean really, really big) wasn’t an option. I had to do what I could in the confines of a three-man tent, which had a lot of room, considering, but you can’t do much yoga in those conditions. So I ached.
By the time we hiked (and I limped) in to our final camp spot, my legs were begging for a bit of a rest. I was the last one in, no shame in that at all, and I was exceedingly grateful for a chance to just sit for a while. The hotel, as it was, had no lights, no amenities, no TP, no nothing. Two days prior, I’d forgotten to slather SPF on my bare hands as we hiked up the scree field, and the wind and high altitude sun had so badly scorched the skin on both hands they were well nigh useless. All I could do was bandage them with gauze, Rocktape them tightly and let them heal. They still hurt.
Minutes after I had a little rest, I was full of energy again. We were done, the summit achieved, and we were full of stories to share. And we did.
I cannot speak for the millions of women my age who make different choices about how to live. Who, when their husbands die or divorce them, as is happening much more so today than ever before, find themselves with endless time on their hands. Not everyone has resources, but then, you do NOT need scads of money to have a full life. If anything, the less you have the more resourceful you are, a lesson I continually learn from the world’s poor. People who whine that they have to have money to do what I do aren’t motivated enough. That may sound harsh to you but I find it simply remarkable how many folks I run into all over the world who are not folks of means but who are living one hell of a life. They aren’t constrained by assumptions about how much money they should have or what people their age should be doing.
It is a lie about aging that we have to slow down. It is true that I need to be more mindful of where I put my feet if for no other reason than my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. But I still walk at speed because I love how it makes me feel. I don’t fear falling because I know how to roll right back up.
(In fact, there’s a funny story about just that. The day after the summit, we were camping next to a small lake. Ice crusted the inside of our tents and we were all full of energy and eager to get coffee. I leapt out of my tent full of enthusiasm and made a beeline for the mess tent. Promptly did a spectacular ass over teakettle trick tripping over the guy wire for my tent fly. Rather than go down hard, I hit my shoulder, rolled and stood right back up, laughing. The sad truth is that most people I know in their sixties wouldn’t get back up at all if they fell down.
It’s remarkable what skydiving can teach you about how to fall and roll right back up. But I digress.)
It’s a lie that we should expect to have our bodies fail us. It’s true that if we don’t challenge them, exercise them, feed them well and work them hard, they will by god revolt, and we will look revolting. It’s not inevitable. Possible, but not inevitable. It’s a lie about aging that “I’m too old to do that.” What is true is that age isn’t the issue. Your motivation has more to do with it, and your willingness to sacrifice a bit of comfort in exchange for something else- like adventure, or a special view, or a chance to see Paris in springtime, or whatever you promised yourself “some day.”
So much of what we see in aging is the result of lousy medicine, bad habits, laziness, our belief systems, our culture of youth worship, polypharmacy and a great many more so -called facts of life that we’ve allowed to skew our ideas of and experiences with the aging process. That I can climb a mountain that was much harder than Kili at nearly 66 is nothing more than a testament to how much I wanted to do it, and do it well. Besides, nothing better than a BHAG to give you great gams.
There are plenty of men and women older than I am who are far more accomplished, who do far more adventurous things than I do, who make me look like a rookie.
I AM a rookie.
But I’m a hard-working one. As a result, I have options. People’s options narrow when they buy into the bullshit we’re told about passing the sixtyish milestone and beyond. While there are very real issues having to do with disease, or accidents, or disability (please, I’m also a disabled vet but I don’t use that as an excuse), for the majority of us, especially in the West, we have most of our resources at our fingertips. We simply don’t choose to use them, and invest vastly more energy in making excuses rather than making a vivid life.
Nobody guaranteed me a summit. When I began my trip, the guides and I had a briefing. I told them I had no idea if I’d make it. There was as good a chance I’d get altitude sickness as anyone else. Never did. But the recognition that I am not promised either a summit or even another sunrise is part of what moves me forward. I did summit. Easily. But I don’t take that for granted. Not on your life. That’s why I train.
Consider the options. We can believe the lies we are told about aging or we can carve out our own paths. People who have disabilities are remarkably resilient, and many of them are determine not only to overcome them, but to have those disabilities become the stepping stones on which they live a remarkable life. When we have less, it’s surprising how much more we find we can do.
This is the season for giving, as they say. What will you give yourself this holiday season? The promise of a vivid life? To finally do that thing you always spoke about? Write that book, take that trip, go pet pandas in China? Take a chance on late in life love, cruise down the Nile, write poetry? To take the time to ease your body back into better working order, step by gentle step?
Or to go quietly into that good night, carrying a basket full of “shoulda, coulda, wouldas?”
My mother died having never set foot in Africa. It was her lifelong dream. My father’s final years were marked by battles with cancer from a lifelong smoking habit and years of alcoholism. My only brother took his life at 62, after battles with drugs and alcohol and mental health.
How will your life story read?
My holiday wish for you is to give yourself permission to write your own novel, your way.