Sunday, July 22, 2007

Up for Air

The human body is an amazing system of equilibrium. The lungs take in air, and pull it into increasingly small passages that terminate in tiny, bubble-shaped alveoli. Here equally tiny blood vessels adjacent to the alveoli transport oxygen-poor blood. At a molecular level oxygen diffuses through cell walls, from the higher concentration in alveoli to the lower concentration in the blood. Red blood cells gather up the oxygen, and take it to the other tissues and organs in the body that need it – to digest lunch, to concentrate on a crossword puzzle, to bike up a hill.

This process came to mind as we were climbing up an unnamed peak in the Sierra, somewhere near 12,000 feet above sea level. We were going up a steep slope of boulders and coarse scree -- not unlike a Stairmaster, but add loose rocks and gusts of wind. Sometimes my body would need an extra boost, and I would take a deep breath, or stop briefly to catch my breath. With this brief renewal, I could continue on.

I was thinking how, if the system is working properly, that just a deep breath is enough to keep things in equilibrium. How if the system is not working, many deep breaths may not be enough. I was thinking of my mother-in-law, lying in a hospital bed 300 miles south of the peak I was scaling, breathing at a rate twice what is normal, even with an oxygen mask. How just something as small as a fragment of a blood clot, loosened from its origin in her leg, could travel to those tiny passages in her lungs, and prevent air from reaching the delicate tissues where oxygen could be transferred to the blood of life.

We were rewarded with a panoramic view – we could see the rounded batholiths of Yosemite to the north, the forest fire haze in the Mono Basin to the east, the craggy peaks of Ritter and Banner to the south, and the rest of the Sierra wilderness to the west. We headed down to spend the night at a campsite along a creek, one of the most beautiful I can remember. And we slept soundly, tired from our exertion, but our bodies are healthy and we are renewed by morning.

But Mom will need time to dissolve the clots, and will need to take medications to keep her blood thin for the rest of her life. And we will continue to embrace our youth, keep our bodies healthy to keep the system working, so we can reach many more summits.

Top Photo: View from our campsite in the Marie Lakes Basin.

Bottom Photo: View looking east from an an unnamed peak, with Marie Lakes in the foreground, and Waugh Lake in the distance.

Video: Water leaving Upper Marie Lake.
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