My Own Private Everest

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Mount Everest

Physical fitness has always been important in the military. It certainly has become a factor in promotions — and even retention — over the last 30 years. When I joined the Navy in 1979, I wasn’t the most fit person in the world, but I was a swimmer, and I liked to bicycle. I never ran.

I joined the Navy at age 27, and decided to become a Navy diver, thinking it would be fairly easy since I was a very good and strong swimmer. Ha! Did you know that you ran more than swam at the dive school? It certainly wasn’t a fact known to me…

While I managed to pass the Navy’s diver qualifying test, I knew I needed to be stronger and fitter when I went to dive school. I met a Navy SEAL, a man who was to become my husband (now ex-), who ran with me every morning, swam with me at noon (at least I was a better swimmer than he…ha!), and doing calisthenics after work every day, for four months.

While I finally made it through dive school, it was the most physically demanding thing I had ever done. Up to that point.

As a Navy diver, I had to stay fit throughout my 21 years of service. In my 30s, I got into triathlons; in my 40s I got back into swimming, and started doing open-ocean swims. I retired at age 48, and continued swimming until a friend challenged me to run a marathon with her.

So, for my 50th birthday in 2002, I trained for and ran, not one — but two — marathons. (I haven’t run since!). In my 50s I got back into cycling, and did numerous century — 100-mile — rides, and several even-longer cycling events.

However, after my dog tragically died in 2009, my grief was so great that I stopped exercising.

I really let myself go, and gained about 30 pounds. I moved to Bremerton, Washington in 2010, and started trying to get my life back together. I joined a women’s cycling group, and a hiking group. But going out only twice a week did not get me back into shape.

About the time of my 60th birthday, I saw a Groupon half-off travel promotion for a 12-day sightseeing and yoga trek in Nepal. I got excited, and decided that this would be my 60th birthday present to myself. I’ve just returned.

Imagine working out on a stair-climbing machine for six to eight hours a day, non-stop except you can rest and take a lunch break, but not get off the machine. The stone steps range from 3 inches to as high as 16 inches, unlevel, and slippery at times due to creek water running over them.

You have to maneuver around donkey and cow dung, avoid being run over by porters (as well as pack animals) who are almost running up the mountain carrying all sorts of goods on paths that ranged from 2 to several feet wide, all while rising in altitude from 4,400 to 10,000 feet. That is trekking in Nepal.

This was harder than six months of dive school and daily physical training; harder than the 360-mile, six-day bicycling trip over the Allegheny Mountains I did in 2004; harder than training for a marathon. I kept telling myself, one day at a time. I stopped frequently, the extra weight I carry not helping at all. With three liters of water on my back — about seven pounds — I was grateful that the more I drank the lighter my load.

Darlene Iskra

The author at Poon Hill.

Yet, the experience was life-changing. The highest point we reached was Poon Hill, at 3,200 meters. We left in the morning about 5 a.m. so we could get there in time for the 6:10 sunrise. The climb was treacherous, slippery, and rose about 275 meters in less than a mile. When we got to the top and saw the extent of the glorious and glacier-covered Annapurna range as the sun rose and shone on the peaks, we all felt as though we had climbed Everest. We were at the top of the world.

Being physically fit is easy when we are young. As we grow older we tend to take our bodies for granted, and let them go. Yet, I found during this trek that even though I had abandoned my body, it had not abandoned me. My heart at times felt like it was pounding out of my chest (in my mind I pictured a cartoon character whose heart blasted out of his chest when he saw a pretty girl), yet I never thought of quitting. I had to stop frequently, sometimes after only two or three steps, to catch my breath. But I made it.

The trip helped me to reach a place within myself I had never touched, and I vowed to change my ways and cherish my life, my friends, and the people I meet along the way. The yoga helped me to concentrate on the task at hand; the Buddhist philosophy and temples we visited helped me to understand my place in the world, and the effect on me of the people I have known in my life. Seeing life in a developing country made me realize not only how blessed we are to live in the United States, but how precious life is. I vow never to take it for granted again.