Photo: Ogwen MRT
Last summer, I received a phone call which no one wants to hear. A friend and former climbing partner had died suddenly at home from a massive heart attack. Dave was only in his sixties and was still out in the mountains every week with his Collie.Tramping oe'r hill and down dale right until the end. Although it was a shock, this wasn't the first time outdoorsy friends have suffered heart attacks. Four friends have so far bounced back from heart attacks and what they all had in common is that they are all either of average weight or on the skinny side of average. None of them smoked, ate badly, drank heavily and all were/are highly active.
How can this happen? Is it genetics, stress, overworking the body or just a freak occurrence that defies explanation?
What I do know from my days in a mountain rescue team is that deaths in the mountains from heart attacks far outweighs deaths from falls. In a nutshell, if you are going climbing on Tryfan, you've more chance of dropping dead on your way up to the Heather Terrace than falling off Munich!
My aforementioned friend was once on his way up Foel Goch above Nant Francon when he stopped to chat to a walker who had stopped for a fag and a coffee on his way down . When Dave returned he noticed that the walker was still there and as he passed he noticed that his cigarette was still held between his fingers but had burnt down to ash.Yes..he'd just expired from a heart attack. A few weeks later on the same mountain,a female friend walked up with her husband. Near the top he stopped for a rest and urged her to carry on to the top without him. Yes...you've guessed it. By the time she got back to him he'd passed away.
Of course,if we lived our lives by avoiding risk, stress or exercise we wouldn't get out of bed and the only life worth living is one in which we push ourselves to our limits to achieve something of lasting worth. However, we can't ignore the fact that once you get passed 50 or 60,the risk of heart attack increases considerably. Not that young people or the younger middle aged don't suffer heart attacks too,but stats show that the mid 50's to mid 60's seem to be the optimum age for a heart attack. Those old climbers and walkers who reach their 70's and 80's are more likely to succumb from other ailments like cancer, dementia, Parkinsons, and strokes it appears.
Somebody once told me that the average life expectancy of a member of the UK Fell and Rock Club is 88. That's way above the UK average so does this throw another element into the stats. A matter of class? Given that clubs like the F and R, the Climber's Club and the Alpine club overwhelmingly have a middle class membership, does it suggest that you can avoid a heart attack if, as a nice educated middle class professional ,you are more conversant with the positive effects of exercise and diet and the detrimental effects of smoking and boozing?
Well, yes and no. Yes in that if you are aware of those positive and negative elements it can help you live a longer, healthier life; No in that as previously mentioned, none of my friends who suffered heart attacks were obese,junk food gobbling, chain smoking boozers.
In the last couple of years I've twice undergone heart tests. Once after I had a dizzy spell and palpitations while driving on a motorway. The doctor suspected an irregular heartbeat and I wore a monitor for seven days which revealed no abnormalities in my heart patterns,and recently, after suffering chest pains-in hindsight probably indigestion- I had two sessions on a tread mill and a cycling machine which again raised no issues.
For years now and without medical recommendation, I've taken one 75mg aspirin a day in the hope and belief that aspirin reduces the risk of blood clots which cause heart attacks and strokes. Will the strategy work? Who knows? Heart Attacks in the mountains from exertion appears to be something of a lottery for all concerned but maybe,just maybe,that tiny little pill might just be the difference between life and death?