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November 2023 Issue
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What’s age got to do with it?

Kathy Ombler using it, not losing it, to get to Winchcombe Bivouac in Tararua Forest Park. Photo: Shaun Barnett / Black Robin Photography

A wonder of tramping is that it’s a pastime you can do at any age and it really is a case of ‘use it or lose it’.

A wonderful attraction of tramping is that it’s something you can always do. Body parts willing, that is. Whatever your age, you can embrace the physicality, the friendships, the beauty and the simplicity of walking in the great outdoors. The blowing tussock, roaring waterfalls and, often, the silence. The ferns, the fungi and the birds. The water gulped from a cold forest stream. The thinking time when you’re alone, or unhurried conversations when you’re not.

Not everyone gets this though.

Apparently, I’ve become old. I haven’t really thought about it; just kept on tramping. But other people notice, and sometimes they make judgements. Like that morning in the Tararua Range when I was climbing the ridge to Jumbo Hut and met a group of 30-somethings bouncing down.

“Hi, where are you headed?” asked one.

“Hopefully up to Jumbo, across to Powell and down. I’ll see how I’m feeling at Jumbo,” I replied, keen to achieve this popular day trip, but unsure of my early-season fitness.

“That’s a long way! It’s very hot up there, and rocky and steep and scrambly in places. You shouldn’t go, it’s dangerous!” responded another.

Well, that’s wrong, I thought. I’ve been there before. It’s a beautiful tussock ridge with a little rocky section, but nothing technical. My favourite kind of country.

I guess he meant well. We parted ways and I thought about what just happened. Ageism? Gender bias? At first, I was indignant. ‘Who does he think he is?’ I muttered to myself, shoving ferns aside as I stamped onwards. ‘He has no idea how much experience I have – more than him, most likely!’ 

It turns out I wasn’t so fit that day and I took ages slogging up to Jumbo Hut. I pottered on as far as Jumbo Trig, looked wistfully ahead at the not-scrambly ridge, phoned my daughter to update her with my plans, and turned back the way I’d come. 

Several weeks later I returned to the Jumbo–Powell circuit, this time with Wilderness roving editor Shaun Barnett. We went up via Powell Hut, admired the flowering edelweiss on Holdsworth, chatted to other trampers (curiously no advisors this time), crossed to Jumbo and descended. It was an immensely satisfying day.

Tramping can be beneficial for ageing bodies and minds. New Zealand Olympic gold medallist, Professor Sir Peter Snell, studied sports physiology in the US. His speciality was health and ageing.

“People get old and stop doing things, then their body deteriorates and they can’t do things, but they just think that’s because they’ve got old,” he says. Sir Peter has written several books, including Use It or Lose It, a guide to enjoying a healthy old age

“In my book I tried to explain the merits of keeping your body and mind tuned up, and how doing so can prevent degenerative disease. We don’t all have to have the usual problems of old age. People over 70 can live pretty active, healthy lives and that can help to combat all sorts of illnesses.”

Many of us tackling the Walk1200km challenge get this. 

So, ‘use it or lose it’ has become my little mantra. Keep on tramping so I can keep on tramping. Gammy knees don’t help, but walking poles do. And, the fitter I am and the stronger my leg muscles, the more support they give my knees, which then hurt less. 

Sometimes I tramp solo and relish the freedom. Sometimes I go with friends on what they describe as ‘sensible walks’. Shaun might throw out a lure, like, ‘Hey, there’s a weather window next week, we could do the Neill Winchcombe Ridge.”

Shaun and I planned a two-night trip. Day one was long and up, steeply so; my body was not impressed. Bless Shaun for his load-carrying assistance and getting me to Alpha Hut by dusk. The next day we continued along the Southern Crossing route to Mt Hector then descended carefully, following the obscure, unpoled, craggy ridge to Winchcombe Bivvy. It was a delightfully satisfying day. Next day we climbed again, over Neill Peak then through mossy goblin forest, and by lunchtime we were relaxing on Cone Peak, just an easy three-hour walk from the car park. I was feeling smugly staunch when two people pottered their way up from the next valley, looking older than me and carrying bigger packs than mine. 

They stopped to chat. Shaun knew them; a husband and wife from Nelson. Turned out they’d just finished a longer and higher trip than us in much the same time. 

I asked Shaun how old they were. “Oh, they’d have to be in their mid-70s,” he said. A decade on from me.

We’re all different. What’s easy for some is difficult for others. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that when I get out tramping on a regular basis, it’s easier. Use it or lose it. Do what you can do. The mountains, and wonders of tramping, will be waiting.