The outdoors always had a pull on Heather Johnson.
Growing up, “we used to come up here every summer and hike pretty much the same trails in Montana,” she recalled. “I’m from New Hampshire, so we were always into the outdoors, hiking, hunting, that kind of thing.”
Since moving to the Columbia Falls area early last year, the certified surgical technician has trekked to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, finished a 26-mile hike along Swiftcurrent Pass and the Highline Trail, and probed many other routes by foot, snowshoe and ski. She has her sights set on the area’s tallest mountains and hopes to start “peak-bagging” soon.
Anyone attempting these hikes needs fitness and willpower. But Johnson also has to manage asthma every step of the way.
Nearly 25 million Americans live with this respiratory condition, which inflames the airways and can make breathing difficult — especially when exercising or moving through the pollen, smoke and cold weather of northwest Montana.
Johnson, 42, has had asthma since childhood, but found her symptoms worsening around 2010.
“I had pneumonia twice, and it was after those two bouts of pneumonia that I really started struggling and really having problems with my asthma,” she said.
The mother of three could no longer coach her daughter, a competitive gymnast. A former triathlete, Johnson noticed that even trying to run a mile was difficult.
“I basically almost gave up on doing anything, and just saying, ‘Uff, this is how it’s gonna be,’” Johnson said.
But she said after “some soul-searching, I decided that I was gonna take my time and progress.”
Moving around the West for her family and job, Johnson gradually adapted to tougher conditions. In southern California, “everything was sea level, so I started doing everything at zero altitude, and then as I felt like my lungs were getting better, I started progressing.”
Another move brought her to central Arizona where the hot, dry climate has long attracted the cough-prone.
“Arizona was very flat, tempered, easy for me,” she said. Johnson remembers her friends telling her, “‘My God, you’re hiking in Sedona! You’re climbing these big boulders!’... Before, I mean, even doing a small triathlon was impossible.”
She credits Big Sky Country, where the air is “fresher” but “a little thinner,” with pushing her to the next level.
“Moving here to Montana helped me increase that stamina ... I maxed out about 6,000 feet in Arizona, [but] climbing here actually helped make my lungs better.”
Johnson has learned to pace herself as she negotiates the area’s peaks and valleys. On a Tuesday morning stroll through Kalispell’s Herron Park, she said that “I actually hum in my head now, I do a row-row-row-your boat.”
“I give myself 60 hard strides, and if I’m breathing OK, I give myself 60 more, and if I need to stop, I’ll stop and use my inhaler.”
Tactics like these have boosted her range. She estimates she now “maxes out” at 8,000 to 9,000 feet.
But her trajectory hasn’t been a straight shot to the summit.
“I failed Siyeh [Pass] in September,” she said. “We made it to the saddle, and my friend caught me, and she’s like, ‘I know you’re gonna push yourself until you get there … [but] I don’t think we should do it anymore.”
“The smoke was really thick that day ... So we turned around and just stopped that whole attempt,” Johnson added.
“You could definitely feel it,” she said of the smoke that filled the Flathead Valley last fall. When conditions force a turnaround, “it’s not a failure, it’s knowing that life is better than death.”
Over the years, Johnson has shared insights like these with fellow asthmatics; first via Facebook, then over a blog, Montana Hiking Gal. Job training recently put these projects on hold, but she’s now looking forward to resuming her work.
Often, she said, those with medical conditions “think ‘I can’t,’ when in small steps, even if it’s not the ‘big deal’” of a major hike, “you can.”
One of the people she’s helped with that goal is Lisa Cook, a surgical technician from Alabama who spent six months in the Flathead Valley last year.
On their hikes through Glacier, Johnson “always told me to take my time, and that really helped me ... She’s done it before, so she just guided me her way,” Cook said. Her tips included using handwarmers and body heat to keep her inhaler from freezing.
Johnson doesn’t claim to have all the answers. “I don’t want it to be just about what I’m telling people,” she said of her blog. “I want people to give me their tips.” And she advises asthmatics, “before you do this stuff, always talk to your doctor, always make sure your meds are keeping you at your baseline.”
She spoke with a vigor rarely seen on the first morning after the holidays, beneath a low, gray sky and temperatures in the teens.
Scaling a low fold in Herron Park’s fields, Johnson said, “the only time I’ve had difficulties here was my first time going up to the top and that was [during] my first couple weeks here.”
“I run up here now,” she said.
Johnson’s blog can be found at www.montanahikinggal.wordpress.com. She also manages a Facebook page called Montana Hiking Gal.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.