Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lake Placid elev. 1,801ft, Canmore elev. 4,430 ft.

Friday visit to the 4th and 5th grade classes at the Lake Placid Elementary School:

Because I didn’t think that talking about altitude training would be interesting for a bunch of 8 to 11 year olds, I decided to respond to the request in a different way: elevation and who’s conquered it. To start things off I figured I’d speak of elevation most relative to them: the Adirondacks Mts. around us.

My visit was on a Friday, post-lunch and I knew had to move fast to keep their attention and to not ramble outside of my 15 minute window. We started at the Lake Placid Elementary School, which is roughly 1,800 ft. I explained that I was soon heading to Canmore, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies - elevation 4,430 ft. My sketch on the board of  nearly 3,000 foot difference didn’t completely catch their attention. So, I asked if any of them had climbed Whiteface Mt., elevation 4,867, before? A bunch of hands go up and they start to catch on. By the time I arrive in Canmore I’ll at an elevation similar to Little Whiteface. I then asked if any had climb Mt. Marcy, elevation 5,344 ft, the highest mountain in New York. A few more hands and a few more hiking stories arose. I continued that when I was in Utah last month, elevation 5,528 ft., I was higher than the whole state of NY. They've become a bit more interested at this point. Then I pulled out the straws and had them give a low oxygen state a try. [I made a mental note of this idea when talking to an old MWSC teammate, Kate Whitcomb. Breathing through straws demonstrated to her school kids what it can feel like to exercise with less oxygen at a higher elevation.] I had them first inhale and exhale, with their noses plugged, through the straw. They didn’t think this was too hard until I had them try while doing jumping jacks. This gave me the results I was looking for: some felt tired, one felt a little dizzy, another described a “pressure” and all agreed it was a bit harder than normal breathing. Now they were all into it, and once the straw trumpets died down, I moved on.

Instead of boring them with red blood cell adaptation and oxygen carrying capacities, I introduced them to Jordan Romero. Jordan is only 13 and the youngest person to summit Mt. Everest. I read a few quotes from Jordan while passing around a photo of him on the summit of Everest wearing an oxygen mask.

Here’s how he described hiking with less oxygen in the air:
“It feels like you have cinder blocks on your legs. But we weren’t gasping for air up there. You know we were not suffocating, but we were breathing heavy…taking 5 minute breaks every 20 seconds.” They liked this description, so I didn’t bother mimicking skiing slowly during my first few days at a higher elevation.

Bringing their own knowledge of hiking and Everest to the conversation, they became increasingly interested in what this was all about, especially once they had to guess how high the tallest mountain in the world is. They came close to the 29,035ft, which was pretty good when you only live at 1,800 ft.

I also offered another neat quote from an interview with Jordan after he had accomplished his goal: “I wouldn’t recommend it [Everest] because it is a hard mountain and we prepared for it. To the kids out there, I just want to encourage them…to dream big…to find their own Everest.”

None of them were sure if they wanted to ever climb Everest, but I hope they got the point.

In the final moments once they got the gist of my ideas, I decided to take it one step further. What if they climbed Everest, with all the challenges we had briefly talked about, but they were blind? I knew I was talking about some intangible ideas to begin with, but couldn’t help exposing them to just a bit more. I passed around a photo of Eric Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit Mt. Everest, attempting to jump over a crevasse with the help of his teammates. They were genuinely amazed and just couldn’t believe it.

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Sir Edmund Hillary

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