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Story Last modified at 10:37 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Challenges tolerable if broken into increments
Mountain Echos

Frank E. Baker

Eagle River's Chris Olds was in the news not long ago after winning the 2011 Iron Dog snowmachine race with teammate Tyler Huntington. Other names have surfaced: Dallas Seavey for his 2011 Yukon Quest win; Egil Ellis for his best elapsed time in the recent Fur Rendezvous sled dog races; John Baker for his record-breaking run and victory in this year's Iditarod; Kikkan Randall and her great Nordic skiing performances.



I bet if you were to ask any one of these competitors how they cope with such daunting challenges, they would tell you categorically that they routinely break the events into smaller events, or increments, and develop strategies for each.

I think this technique can work for all of us, no matter what our situation. I used this approach once when rehabilitating after knee surgery. I was in Houston, Texas, where it's as flat as a phonograph record. But not far from where I lived, I found a 50-foot high hill with a 35-degree angle and began hiking up and down, gradually increasing the number of repetitions. After a couple of months I was doing nearly 150 repetitions to simulate climbing a mountain about 7,000 feet high. OK, so it took four hours. When I finally returned to Alaska where verticality reigns, my fitness level didn't lag too far behind my outdoorsy friends.

I've used the incremental approach often on hiking and climbing trips. I try to divide the route into stages, or sometimes when I'm getting tired, number of steps taken. There are many mini-successes that can be attained inside the overarching goal. I like to take advantage of those small successes.

I've found that in our often frenzied lives, it's helpful to use to-do lists.

Aside from the obvious benefit of organizing ourselves, crossing items off the list is quite rewarding. Lists foster the one-thing-at-a-time approach and can prevent us from getting scattered and frustrated.

Some people denounce procrastination, calling it a "character flaw." I prefer to think of it as a prioritization tool. I suspect people who claim they never procrastinate aren't doing very much. With my to-do list firmly in hand, I might seem very organized, but I'll be the first to admit that procrastination is part of my overall strategy for getting things done when I want them done.

People who are ill also use the incremental approach to cope from day to day. Sometimes just getting through the hours of a single day is a considerable challenge. For some, and I know people in this situation, the incremental approach is all that keeps them going.

Our animal friends seem to be adept at dividing projects into phases. Beavers will find some good trees that aren't far from their house site and begin the felling process. They'll gnaw on a large tree over days and even weeks. Once they've gotten a good-sized tree down, they'll begin the process of removing limbs that they transport across the lake to construct their dam and to build their house. As loggers, construction workers and engineers, beavers are steady, methodical and driven—seemingly undeterred by obstacles or distractions.

Dall sheep are worthy practitioners of the staged objective. On several occasions I've observed small groups of ewes and lambs moving gradually up a mountain toward an obvious objective—a small saddle or pass that will lead them to another valley. They could have attempted the ascent directly in one continuous move—straight up a gully. But instead, they opted to make small traverses and break the climb into several stages, or pitches, which were each much easier to achieve. It was obvious that the leading ewes were doing this for the benefit of the younger, less experienced climbers in the group.

A couple of summers ago I spotted a black bear crossing high on a mountain above the south end of Eklutna Lake, and it wasn't until I observed the bear for awhile that I realized she was engaged in some kind of deliberative, staged objective. For nearly an hour she traversed south across the mountain, just beneath the cliffs. I was then surprised to see her join up with a much smaller bear, obviously a cub. Why she had left the cub unattended for so long, I'm not sure. But it seemed apparent she had just executed some kind of plan. It could have been a side trip simply to gain information, or "intel" on food availability, or a route across the ridge into the next valley. Whatever the case, the reunited sow and cub slowly descended into the west fork of Eklutna River.

The idea of dividing big tasks or challenges into smaller, more manageable ones isn't anything new. But as I've mentioned in past columns, the concept might be worth re-examining if it helps reduce stress and simplify our lives. Or in Chris Olds' case, win snowmachine races.

Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and Eagle River writer and poet.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.