Here’s to health and longevity

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Here’s to health and longevity

The outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) has become a dominant topic in recent weeks among local hiking circles here. On my last excursion, my companions and I tried to figure out when I could have last come into contact with a camel, which many scientists have pinpointed as likely suspects in the transmission of the virus to humans.

I answered that I had been around dromedary camels, common in desert areas, when I worked in Mauritania in western North Africa about two years ago. I told them about how I had touched camels and drunk camel milk.

“Should I be worried?” I asked innocently.

My friend gave me an honest answer. Infections cannot harm a person with a strong immune system, she said, adding that mountain-climbing is the best sport to boost the immune system because it strengthens the leg muscles. We then drank to good health and long years of mountain-climbing. I would have questioned if our knees would sustain us until our graying years, but then I remembered two women who were still avid climbers even at a ripe old age.

I met one of them at a ridge along Mount Bukhan on a freezing day last winter. I was treading carefully over the rocks, slippery from overnight snow. Then a slim woman whizzed past me. Clad in a black rock-climbing suit, the woman was almost skipping over the rocks as if she was a squirrel. She looked like a climber in-training in her 30s.

Later, I came face-to-face with the “squirrel” resting on a rock. To my surprise, she was not in her 30s, but 77. She must have been the oldest woman I’ve come across on a mountain trail. She was full of energy, with defined muscles. I presumed she would have been passionate about exercise her entire life. But again, I was wrong. Over lunch, she told me that she hadn’t gone near a mountain until she was in her 60s because of her husband, who practically lived on a mountain.

She had suffered from depression after her husband passed away and nearly drove her daughter-in-law crazy. But her life changed after she took her dead husband’s hiking stick and went trekking on a mountain nearby. Since then, she has climbed Mount Bukhan two or three times per week for the past 25 years. She no longer has time to nag at her daughter-in-law or get sick. And she has never been happier.

“I would have died if not for the mountain. I would also have driven everyone around me nuts,” she chuckled.

Then, she hopped back down the mountain, saying she had an appointment. I had a feeling I would see her again.

But recently, I broke my own record, meeting an even older hiker. She was 82. I went along on the mountain trip because I was curious to know how such an elderly person could climb the notoriously rough Mount Sokri trail.

But I was amazed when I actually met her. She had the thighs and calves of a soccer player. And she was so fit that nobody could imagine she was in her 80s. I was in for more surprises as we ascended. She kept to the front of the group during the entire eight-hour hike and came down the steep trail without any trouble while I was gasping for breath.

She’s known as the “Big Sister of Mount Dobong,” and she treks Mount Seorak and Mount Jiri numerous times a year, camping out around mountains nationwide. She even celebrated her 80th birthday atop a mountain.

I asked her where she gets all the stamina. She clapped her strong thighs. She had been weak and fragile when she was young. At 40 years old, she began trekking, taking care of her health while staying in a lodge near Mount Seorak.

She moved to a neighborhood below Mount Dobong and for the next 40 years, she has climbed small and big mountains every day. She encourages novices to attempt a round-trip to Mount Jiri, the largest mountain on Korea’s mainland, because few can refuse an 80-something woman who offers to guide them.

After a rigorous eight-hour hike, she turned to me and beamed. “That was fun, wasn’t it? Let’s do it again soon.”

I secretly blushed, because I’d been telling my friends that I would only have 10 years or so to climb the mountain. How can I complain about aging in front of such a kinetic golden girl like her?

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff JoongAng Ilbo, June 20, Page 25

*The author is an international relief worker.

by Han Bi-ya

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