Bob Hope said middle age is when your age starts to show around the middle. My middle thickened five years ago, and it’s been a battle to keep a roll the size of a meatloaf from taking over my life. I used to make my living with my hands and feet, as a carpenter and mountain guide. Workouts were long runs in the mountains, hard rock climbing, and bump skiing. Those days are over. Like the death of 10,000 cuts, injuries both serious and niggling have brought me scratching and mewling into middle age.
As the big four-oh loomed, I quit doing manual labor for a living and learned to stay on my feet while I skied. Falling hurt too much. Now at 43-years-old, my “10 essentials” are the 8 things I leave behind to make my pack lighter, the double-shot latte sloshing during the trailhead drive, and the special vitamin A that I gulp with the latte (hint: it comes in a bottle labeled Bayer.)
Yes, I had a midlife crisis. What did I do about it? I didn’t cry, I didn’t ruin my marriage, I didn’t buy new hair. Instead, I cowered in my garage, learned how to weld steel, and restored a 1947 Jeep from the ground up. Not exactly mountaineering, but the consolation prize was the ultimate rig for those 4-wheel-drive approaches that used to beat my Honda (and my knees). Don’t ask how much that Jeep cost; but knowing her husband was still part of the family (even if he was holed up in his cave) was worth it for my wife. Okay, I lie, I cried too. I call it the years of whine and roses.
But I’ve still got my feet under me — God and genetics are letting me climb and ski; albeit with care, forethought, and no small amount of angst. The key for mid-life athletics seems to be pacing. You need a delicate balance of workout and recovery. More than anything, not balancing activity with rest can put you down for weeks or months. Having been slapped that way more than once, I plan all this like a squinting bean counter in the back room of a numbers parlor.
But planning can get out of hand. They sell computer programs that help. Wait a minute; computers fertilize more fat than anything but television — the last thing I’ll do is sit in front of the thing and plan workouts as my middle spreads.
Is having a workout machine at home the answer? A radio advert for the Schwinn Aerodyne unit sounded pretty good for a while, then I realized the ad announcer was a half century older than me. Ads for Nordic Track got me thinking. That money got spent on our Jeep. The one item we do keep at home for the whole family is a “fitball,” which is simply a large balloon about three feet in diameter. While a fitball can be used for aerobics, what it’s really good for is a series of stretching, strengthening and stabilizing exercises you can do in a small amount of space.
Cross training works best for me. The fitball helps keep my overall coordination and muscle tone. Swimming keeps my cardio base, with the occasional bike ride and hike to keep the legs pumping. Time on a weight machine would be good, but the money we’d spend on a club membership we save for skiing the lifts, which is terrific for strength, timing, and fun — but only in proper doses. If your knees are getting creaky, too much resort hacking will pound out any grease you have left. Companionship is important. I find I’m behind the pack as much as I used to be in front, and the young animals ahead inspire me (especially the female ones.) Yet it’s good to occasionally go with someone slower than you — that goes a long way towards assuaging midlife angst.
Fat dread aside, for mountaineers the great question of middle age is risk. Recently, a middle aged friend fell to the ground while rock climbing. He survived with severe injuries that could have killed him. That same day I heard that Fritz Benedict, founder of the 10th Mountain Huts, had died at 81-years-old. While Fritz was never a devoted risk sport maniac, he got in his licks as a young ski racer in the days when a severe fall could easily cripple you. He also saw risk from the warrior point of view during his service in the 10th Mountain Division during the war. Fritz went gracefully from his youth to fifty years of contributions and family life, and in my conversations with him I got the feeling he never looked back with anything but satisfaction. I’d like to see my cratering friend and myself lead equally full lives.
When you’re young and single, risk sports add a spice to life that’s supremely positive. Then most people’s lives expand — you feel you’ve got other things to do. Perhaps you have a family, or you’re involved in a career that’s rewarding. Or you discover an artistic side of yourself. If such changes happen to you, and you participate in a risky sport, as you age you’ll have to ratchet back the risks you’re willing to take. Problem is, there’s a lag between what your young mind (in my case it seems to always be 18-years-old) and older body can do. I learned to laugh at fear doing hairy rock leads in my twenties. That same mind control now works against me; I can shut out the fear and do things I really shouldn’t be doing. And sometimes I’m too dumb to notice till the rush wears off.
Professional athletes get to (or are forced to) retire at some point in their careers. Most gracefully move to golf or bartending, but some return from retirement. For a few, it’s probably the money that gets them back into the arena. I suspect for most it’s simply a young mind forcing the old body to one more round. Some pull it off. Yet for most it’s a brief exercise with a foregone conclusion. For us middle-spread adrenalin junkies who aren’t professional athletes, it might be nice to have a such defined retirement: a specific moment when you decide to avoid avalanche slopes and fall-and-you-die skiing. Some force their “retirement” by giving up their sport. Climbers sell all their gear and take up sailboarding, skiers move to Florida. My view is that mountaineering is a life-long endeavor. You can love the wild years, phase into a mid-life of enjoying things with more care, and even participate during old age by staying involved with mountaineering culture such as clubs and literature. But at each phase, you have to make the switch.
I’m certain Fritz went through those same phases, and I’d like to live with some of the grace and poise he demonstrated. Yet the timing is hard. I can only hope that with forethought and contemplation I’ll know when I’m dreaming, and keep my dreams from killing me. Casey Stengel said, “It ain’t braggin if you can do it.” At this time in life, I paraphrase him and say, “It ain’t worth doin’ if you get killed doin’ it.” I only hope I can follow my conscious.
(A version of this article was originally published in Couloir Magazine, 1996.)