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Despite struggling with lung disease, Winnipeg's Ian Fish plans to scale B.C. mountain

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As a little boy, Ian Fish would lie, frightened, in a plastic oxygen tent, while his mother reached into its zippered opening to hold his hand.

Back then, in the late 1960s, the young boy would battle asthma with visits to the hospital several times a year for oxygen treatments -- a way to help his lungs get the air they needed. It's an experience that Fish, now 52, can't forget.

"Imagine being five years old, lying in a tent... (doctors) coming to touch your chest with a stethoscope through a little hole," says the Winnipegger, noting the oxygen tent scared him as it hummed ominously like a hotel ice machine.

"It was a tough thing."

Today, Fish -- a health consultant who specializes in information technology -- still battles breathing issues. His asthma has evolved to stage 2 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the result of years of unmanaged asthma and scarring of his lung tissue. His lungs function at only 60 per cent capacity, his doctor says, making it impossible to take a full breath.

That won't stop the father of two teenagers from climbing Mount Robson -- the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, and the least-attempted, Fish says -- in September.

It will be Fish's third mountain climb for charity -- he has raised more than $15,000 in two previous climbs.

It'll also be his most difficult ascent. The towering British Columbia mountain is paved with ice and dotted with huge glaciers -- some cracked to reveal deep crevasses that could easily swallow up the even the most experienced climbers.

"A lot of people attempt it and don't succeed at the summit. It's a notoriously bad-tempered mountain," Fish says over a cup of green tea at a Corydon Avenue coffee shop.

He's been eating well and exercising to prepare for his upcoming trek, which he will complete with his mountain guide. This climb will last a week or more. He'll have his asthma medicine close, along with his climbing tools.

Why take the risk?

Fish is raising money for the Manitoba Lung Association. Three million Canadians -- and 100,000 Manitobans -- have some form of lung disease.

But his reasons for climbing hit close to home in so many ways.

He completed his first charity mountain climb in 2012 -- Alberta's Mount Athabasca -- to bring attention to his own disease. He also had his sister in mind; she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and had half of her left lung removed in 2011. (She has since recovered and is in good health, says Fish.)

During the second climb of the same mountain in 2013, his reason for climbing took another turn. That's the year doctors diagnosed his now-late mother with lung cancer. Her situation was unusual, considering neither his mother nor sister had ever smoked or had asthma.

Fish has another sister who also battles asthma.

It's impossible to detect Fish's lung disease during a casual conversation.

But the River Heights resident admits he could not have climbed even a flight of stairs in 2010, when he was in the worst shape of his life. That's when he weighed 240 pounds and gasped for air during even a short walk.

"I was obese. My body mass index was over 30," says Fish, who hadn't stepped on a scale in years before a 2010 appointment with his lung specialist. He made the appointment because he was feeling ill.

That's when found out his lungs were functioning at only 60 per cent of their normal capacity. His doctor warned him he could die if he didn't change his lifestyle. "It blew my mind."

 

His weight gain and ill health shouldn't have been a surprise; for years, Fish had travelled extensively for work, eating high-fat meals while on the road and skipping exercise. He says he was a "binge" eater who loved snacking and red wine. "My wife was concerned about me, for sure. I wasn't that active, always sitting on the couch right after coming home, moving up from a (size) 36 to a 38 pant.

When he found out about his prognosis, he went into a depression for a week or two before dusting himself off and joining a gym.

Two weeks later, he went back to the gym for his first workout -- 20 minutes on a recumbent bike. Competitive by nature, Fish didn't let his constant wheezing get in his way. He made it through the exercise with a puddle of sweat below him.

He eventually hired a personal trainer to get him ready for his goal: to climb Mount Athabasca.

It wouldn't be his first experience on a mountain. As a young University of Manitoba student, Fish took a summer job as a mountain buggy driver at Mount Athabasca. It was then that he first dabbled in mountain climbing. At the time, his asthma was under control.

For Fish, mountains also represent the love that his mother, a physician, and his father, a community health professor, shared.

"They met at the (Alpine Club of Canada). They took a course together back in the '50s. There's some sort of symbolic mountain love in the family."

With a steady program of weight training and aerobic exercise, Fish lost 50 pounds in 18 months. He was nearly strong enough to tackle his first climb.

He also discovered healthy eating -- meals consisting of lean protein, healthy fats and slow-acting carbohydrates.

Each of his two journeys up mountains has been filled with perilous moments. On his second climb, while navigating over ice and rock, Fish's guide, Max Darrah, fell into a crevasse that was hidden by fresh snow.

"His whole body, waist down, was dangling over 200 feet of blue ice," says Fish, who used an ice screw and ropes to pull Darrah out of the rut. Five minutes later, Fish also landed in a crevasse from which Darrah managed to rescue him.

The Mount Robson climb will last five to 10 days, compared with the daylong climbs they completed in 2012 and 2013.

Darrah, who is based in Jasper, says Fish is the rare type who can take the pain of a long climb.

"I think you kind of have an appreciation for suffering -- endurance. Not every minute of every day is going to be enjoyable," says Darrah, noting that, aside from being stronger than ever, Fish is "focused, committed and persistent."

"It's just really important that we're on the same page going in. It's a very big undertaking," says Darrah.

Fish says his family worries about him but understands how important his journey up the mountain is for him -- and for the Canadians with lung disease.

"For those people, just getting up in the morning and moving is probably the same amount of energy as it takes me to climb a mountain," says Fish, who believes staying active and eating nutritiously is the key to managing lung disease.

"I think about them and about just the improvements that they can make, not so much through medicine... but just by owning their disease."

For Fish, climbing mountains is more than beautiful views. It's about freedom. It's the opposite of his childhood experience encased in an oxygen tent.

And it's worth a few life-threatening moments.

"You could die on a climb like this, but if you die, you die happy doing something you love," says Fish. "It seems a reasonable risk. Or I could do nothing and be just like I was before and I'll die at 60 and I would have done nothing."

To donate to Ian Fish's Manitoba Lung Association fundraising efforts, log onto www.mb.lung.ca and select "donate to Climbing Over Lung Disease 2014."

 

Have an interesting story idea you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at shamona.harnett@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2014 D1

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Updated on Monday, July 7, 2014 at 6:48 AM CDT: Adds photo, changes headline

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