Since its inception a couple of decades ago, CrossFit has progressed from being a new approach to physical fitness, to the best way to keep fit, to the only way to keep fit — at least, according to its devotees.

crossfit class

A few months ago, one of the big outdoor magazines ran a question-and-answer section.  A reader asked, “Did anyone hunt in the mountains before CrossFit?”  To the internet generation of hunters, it would seem that no one who doesn’t do CrossFit could possibly be in good enough shape to climb a mountain and stalk a bighorn.

The short answer is, of course, “yes.”  My candidate for the greatest hunter of all time, Jim Corbett, was raised in the foothills of the Himalayas where, later in life, he hunted man-eating tigers and leopards.  Most of his life, he lived near the hill station of Naini Tal and for most of his life, when he needed to go somewhere he walked.  A ten-mile walk was nothing and 20 was routine.  Corbett led such an active life that he hardly needed any extraneous fitness program.

To give a specific example of Corbett’s toughness, both physical and mental, consider this:  At one point, he suffered a ruptured ear drum from a gunshot close to his head, which resulted in the formation of a large, excruciating abscess.  He was deaf in that ear, one eye was swollen shut, and he could swallow nothing but liquid.

Unable to sleep because of the pain, Corbett decided to take his mind off it by hunting the Talla Des man-eater.  It was operating in an area that necessitated part of the trip by train, but Corbett hiked 14 miles to the rail terminal and then another 24 miles from the train into the man-eater’s territory.  This included what he described as “some difficult climbing” — all the while under-nourished and weak from pain.

While he was in the jungle hunting the tiger, the abscess burst and the tiger almost got him instead, but he recovered and killed the tiger a few days later.

Personally, I can only imagine that kind of mental toughness and determination, but one should not discount the importance of his physical conditioning.  For Corbett, as for all mountain hunters, what counts is not strength so much as endurance.  This is the ability to carry a heavy load on your back while putting one foot in front of the other, climbing steadily and covering miles.  The former requires leg strength, while the latter requires both strength and stability, and is enormously debilitating.

A friend of mine is a CrossFit devotee and the workouts he describes are undoubtedly arduous, but they never seem to include really serious endurance exercise.  By that, I mean a 10-mile run (or longer) – or hiking six miles with mountain boots and a 60-pound pack.  And, to really build up endurance, you have to do this repeatedly for months on end.

Jim Corbett

Jim Corbett, certified badass

One critical point about backpacking in mountains is the need to shoulder your pack and keep going, not just for a day or two, but sometimes for a week or ten days straight.  There are no days off in between to allow your muscles to recover.  Having hunted in many mountains on several continents, I’ve concluded that the only way to really get mountain-fit, as opposed to gym-fit, is to be in the mountains, slogging up and down all day every day, while also becoming acclimated to the difference in altitude.

Having said that however, obviously the better shape you’re in when you get there — especially the leg and back muscles and cardio-vascular system — the quicker you’ll adjust.  Also, the quicker you’ll recover.

A century ago, mountain hunters had no ATVs or helicopters.  Of course, there were horses and even if you were on foot, as so many Brits were in the Himalayas and the Pamirs, they might have mules or bearers to carry their kit.  Still, it was common for an officer on leave, going into the mountains, to be away for two months.  Even if all you’re carrying is your rifle, two months in the mountains hunting ibex or Marco Polo sheep is strenuous in the extreme.

I’m all for CrossFit and similar programs.  Anything that gets people on their feet and moving in this age of texting and video games gets my vote.  But CrossFit didn’t invent physical fitness, regardless of the claims of the YouTube heroes.–Terry Wieland

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