This is a story with a happy ending. But as with any adventure, it presents challenges.
For the last seven years, Fred and Judy Works’ lives had been somewhat on hold.
The couple continue to work in Allen County, though they now call Manhattan home. Judy is a nurse practitioner for Monarch Cement’s health clinic in Humboldt. Fred is an attorney.
Their troubles began when Fred began experiencing idiopathic pulmonary issues, limiting his activities for the better part of two years. Out of nowhere, he would find it difficult to breathe. A simple walk could be taxing, let alone hiking in their beloved Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado where Judy’s family has a cabin.
The fear of when it could strike was debilitating.
Then five years ago, Fred broke his leg in several places while hiking in Chile, requiring many surgeries. Since then, he’s also had surgery on a broken arm and several repairs to a knee bum. He was on crutches for 18 months.
The effect was cumulative.
At age 65, “I felt like an old man,” he said.
Increasingly, Fred’s health concerns began to make both their worlds feel smaller. Constricted.
So, it came as a surprise when their son, Colby, age 24, suggested last year they embarked on a Himalayan expedition, including a hike up to base camp on Mount Everest, altitude 17,598 feet.
In spring 2021, Colby spent a month hiking in Nepal, as had his older brother, Dylan, several years earlier. Their sister, Abby, has also toured the region.
With a solid year of proper training, Colby advised, the elder Works should have no problem.
Depressed by the limitations his health had created, it took Fred some time to get on board.
“I wanted to take the trip. But I had doubts whether I could,” Fred said.
Judy, age 63, however, jumped at the idea.
“If we didn’t do it now, we wouldn’t be doing it at all,” she said.
Earlier this month, the couple returned from four weeks in Nepal.
Their successful goal of reaching Mount Everest’s base camp pales in comparison to what it’s meant to them personally.
For Fred, it’s a new lease on life. “I could go hiking tomorrow,” he said.
For Judy, her husband is back in the fold of life.
But it was not without its hiccups.
Once committed, Judy began serious training.
Fred did not.
For Christmas, Judy gave him a gym membership.
It sat unused.
Fred’s procrastination wore on Judy.
“By this last summer, I decided that if he’s not ready, I’m still going,” Judy said. “This was really important to me and something I really, really wanted to achieve with him. But I couldn’t force him.”
If Judy ventured alone, “it would have created serious friction in our marriage,” she admitted.
Thankfully, they didn’t have to test that scenario.
Two things motivated Fred to do more than go on long walks across the Konza Prairie.
A July trip to Chicago included a hotel room on the 15th floor. The couple took the stairs several times a day, a challenge Fred found invigorating.
A few weeks later, a trip to Colorado gave him the confidence he had healed sufficiently to hike.
At that point, he had a little more than two months before the planned trip.
Judy feared it was too little, too late.
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to make the climb,” said Judy. But at least if I failed, I knew I’d worked really hard for 18 months to get into shape. I did my best to have a chance at succeeding.
“If Fred couldn’t make it after training for only two months, in my mind that’s a different type of failure,” she said.
After 38 years of marriage, Fred is accustomed to Judy’s frankness.
What’s also true, Judy admitted, was her inability to appreciate Fred’s fear of falling after his Chilean hiking ordeal.
“I was terrified of any kind of downhill,” he said, recollecting his fall had been caused by simply slipping on loose rock. “That was a huge mental barrier.”
With those fears put to rest after hiking in Colorado, Fred put Judy’s Christmas gift into action and began working with a trainer to improve his endurance, strength and balance.
“He’d come home from a workout and say, ‘I feel so much better!’”
Judy learned how difficult it is to smile while biting your tongue.
As a nurse, Judy knows all about how to be healthy and how aging can be a complication. She ticked off “fun” facts: After age 40 the body loses 1% muscle mass every year; For every year after 50 the body will further deteriorate without a good diet and exercise.
“My goal had always been to be a healthy 95. Now, I’d settle for 85 and healthy. But I realized if I didn’t start changing my lifestyle, I’m not going to reach either.”
“So, I started addressing my excuses,” she said.
One bad habit was going to her computer after work to read the “stupid news.”
“All that did was make me mad for the next hour.”
Instead, she hit the gym or went for a vigorous walk.
At work, she began climbing the two stories of stairs in the main administration building. Three times a week, 90-minutes a piece.
“I’m not sure if there hadn’t been a goal that I would be where I am now,” she admitted. “That deadline makes a difference.”
The works are experienced hikers. Both have pushed themselves in terms of distance, altitude and exposure.
The Himalayas, they discovered, demanded deeper reservoirs.
They hiked six to eight hours a day for 19 days straight, at soaring altitudes.
By Day 2, they were hiking at an elevation of 12,000 feet, with each successive day going higher.
“That’s where the difficulty came from,” said Fred. “It wasn’t sore joints or weak muscles. It was just a lack of oxygen.”
By necessity, they climbed slowly so their bodies could acclimatize to the altitude.
“It was frustrating because I’ve never had to hike that slowly,” said Judy. “I had to find a pace where I could keep going and not have to suck air. Once I did, it was comfortable, but slow. Sometimes I felt I was walking in slow motion,” she said.
“Our 30-year-old guide, Pemba, had never taken anyone as old, or slow, as we are,” said Judy. We were his learning curve. He said that after climbing Mount Everest, we were his next biggest achievement!
Unlike in Colorado, the Himalayan trails don’t include switchbacks.
“In the morning, you walk out of your teahouse and the trail goes straight up, literally,” said Fred.
In some cases, the trails are steep rock steps cut into the mountainside.
They still shake their heads at the memory of porters hiking up the trails in flip-flops or slides while hoisting 200 lbs. packs.
“They just flew by us,” Fred said, in awe of their strength and stamina.
An important lesson they learned from their son Dylan was “don’t forget to look up!” to enjoy the stunning vista.
It was only on their descent that Fred and Judy realized their achievement.
Going up, you’re just plodding along. It’s an intimidating hike. Going down made us realize how steep the trail was,” Judy said. “We were so proud of ourselves.”
Judy is especially proud of Fred.
He did so great. Of the three senior members on the trip, he was the strongest.”
They also became philosophical.
For one thing, fear is a terrible inhibitor.
“I had become an old person because I was afraid to trust my body,” Fred said.
And though she may not have let on, Judy was in the same boat. “I’ve been worried about Fred for seven years,” she said.
“We create barriers for ourselves that limit us,” Judy said. “Sometimes you just have to dream big to break through.”