Not the Only Pain Sufferer on a Mountain

I’d like to introduce you to my new friend and climbing partner, Zach. Zach and I have something exceptional in common: he and I both use climbing to control severe chronic pain.

Zach practicing self-arrest recently on St. Mary's Glacier
Zach practicing self-arrest recently on St. Mary’s Glacier

Along with two other teammates, Zach and I will be climbing Washington’s Mt. Rainier this weekend. More on that in future posts, for now I want to focus on Zach:

About nine years ago, Zach was standing near a tree when it was hit by lightning. Though he wasn’t directly struck, the current traveled to his feet, and since then his soles have felt as if razor blades are continuously shredding them. The pain has been so crippling that for many years he was unable to walk.

What changed for Zach? About three years ago, he decided to stop taking pain meds. He says that change alone gave him approximately 30% reduction in pain. (I’ll save my rant on the perils of pain meds for another day.) With that modest improvement, he began to walk. Then exercise. Then hike and climb.

Sound familiar?

I’ve never met anyone else who, in their greatest moments of physical agony, thinks, “I need to go climb a mountain.”

Zach and I have talked about how difficult it was to begin exercising when, at first, it exacerbated the pain. How sometimes we have to push through harsh pain in order to reach the point where it helps.

He also says that though he typically works out every day, if he doesn’t, he has about a week and a half window before the worst pain returns. I could hardly believe it when he said that – that’s exactly what my experience has been as well. I remember after my first marathon in 2011, I took a break from running. Within a week and a half, my headache grew far worse than I had experienced in years. By two weeks, the pain was so intense I could hardly show up for work. I hadn’t realized until then that running and climbing HELP the pain, not just my emotional state.

Zach and I discussed how afraid we are of an unrelated injury or illness forcing us to be sedentary, even temporarily. We both fear aging and not being able to retain our active lifestyles.

 I find it fascinating that though our sources of pain are so different, the method we have found to cope with it is identical, and in many ways the experience of it feels the same.

Sometimes I feel that because I am able to exercise despite my chronic headache, its severity is discounted, especially by other pain sufferers. (“Her pain can’t be that bad if…”) Yes, it is true that many types chronic conditions don’t respond well to attempts at being physically active. But for those of us who are successful, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult. Continuously difficult. Meeting and connecting with Zach has given me the deepest sense of validation – he knows just how hard it was to become physically fit again despite the pain, and sometimes how hard it is to make ourselves continue to exercise.

 Zach also knows why I continue to push myself and how the benefit is greater than anything a doctor can prescribe.

I’m so excited for my trip this weekend, not just to climb Rainier, but also to share the trip with someone who lives a similar journey.

4 thoughts on “Not the Only Pain Sufferer on a Mountain

  1. Lois, I admire your strength in dealing with your chronic condition. And I can only hope to be as fraction as active as you are at 84. I’ll be honest, once upon a time, I thought that was a tad old…now it makes me laugh to think of your age being in any way associated with that horrible word! Hugs.

  2. Kudos to Zach, Lynn, and Tom. I understand some of what you are talking about, having suffered chronic fatigue syndrome for 25 years. It takes so much grit to keep exercising and going about one’s life. I feel that exercising has helped me, too.

    And I totally understand about “You can’t be that sick, if you can….” If I had just curled up in bed 25 years ago, where would I be now? I wouldn’t have written three books or spoken about breast cancer in all 50 states for sure.

    Lynn knows, but Tom doesn’t. I’m almost 84.

  3. Hi Lynn,

    I am fortunate not to have suffered the kind of pain that you and Zach have to deal with. I have experienced the degradation that goes along with aging — very frustrating indeed. I would love to start running again, but my knees and back will not permit that (arthritis I suppose). Of course, I don’t have the energy or endurance I had 20 years ago (also very frustrating). Even a moderate hike calls for some Ibuprofen. Fortunately, I can still ride my bike(s) — just not as far or as fast.

    You are my hero Lynn — enduring all that pain and accomplishing what you have makes me ashamed to even mention my comparatively mild pain.

    Keep it up my friend.


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