Here’s an easy way to promote a healthier community
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a group of 10 climbing up a mountain on skis in Montana.
We climbed all day— stopping here and there to catch our breath or to grab a snack or a drink of water. We swapped stories along the way and made each other laugh as we made the slow ascent to the top. The snow fell all day but the constant climbing kept our bodies warm. We weren’t in a hurry and that was part of what was so great about it.
Our guide told us about the White Bark Pine that we climbed through and the birds that gather the pine cones into piles that the grizzly bears eat when they are awake. At one point, he called out that he found a hole in the snow and thought that there might be an ermine in there. We all watched eagerly as he gingerly poked his pole into the hole to try to scare it out. To our great surprise, the hole exploded as a large sage grouse burst out from where it had been under the snow — its wings flapping loudly as it flew away from us. Someone screamed in surprise — maybe we all did — and I began laughing uncontrollably at the unexpected gift from the forest floor. It was glorious.
We continued up the mountain until at long last, we were at the top. The wind up on top was stronger as we were above the tree line and no longer protected. We ripped the climbing skins off of our skis, locked our heels into our bindings, and prepared to ski down. We were given some vague directions as to which way to go and where we would rendezvous at the bottom, and off we went, one at a time, until it was my turn to launch into a full downhill assault in eight feet of powder. It was pure magic and what took all day to climb up, only took minutes to fly down. When we met at the bottom, we were all exhilarated and breathless and worn out in a good kind of way. Then we headed back to the hut for dinner and some much needed sleep before getting up again to do it again the following day.
What was unique about our group is that we were all Iraq War veterans who had been invited on the trip by a giant of a man named Stacy Bare. I had met him last year at the Colorado Outdoor Industry Leadership Summit in Denver where he had caught me off guard with his very moving speech about the effects of outdoor activity on improving mental health.
Stacy had returned from Iraq like many veterans suffering from PTSD — and suicidal — until a friend took him rock climbing. The thrill and focus of the outdoor experience changed his life, brought him peace and made him want to live. Today, Stacy is the outdoor recreation director for the Sierra Club. He organizes outdoor adventure trips for veterans all over the U.S. as a way to combat the mental health crisis plaguing our veteran population while also teaching about conservation and stewardship of the land.
It’s a great program tackling a difficult subject, but Stacy wants to take it further and actually change our model of health care. He sees a day when doctors prescribe outdoor activity instead of just medication and health insurance pays for outdoor equipment needed to do those activities such as biking or hiking.
So of course, during our trip, I couldn’t help but think about our own mental health crisis here in western Colorado and how easy it should be for us as a community to embrace programs such the one I attended in Montana.
Not everyone on that trip was suffering, but everyone on that trip left better than they had arrived. We all know how even a quick walk outside can improve our mood and how grumpy some of us get when we don’t get enough exercise. In the midst of all the hard issues our community is currently tackling- attracting new business, creating jobs, increasing revenues — creating a healthier community by getting more people outside is an easy one. So let’s do it.