I recently turned 65. Yeah, I know! But before you stop reading, this is a tale for the young and, well, the not-so-young. The question is, “When do you stop climbing?”
Does age even matter in climbing? Yuichiro Miura and Tamae Watanabe hold the Everest age records at 80 and 78 for males and females, respectively. Bill Burke began his quest of the Seven Summits at age 60 and got his second summit of Everest at age 72. And Art Muir recently made Everest at 75. Then there are the 13-year-old Everest summiteers Jordan Romero and Malavath Poorna. And let’s not leave out eight-year-old Roxy Getter on Kilimanjaro, not that I think that’s a great idea. By the way, the sweet spot to summit Everest, and most 8000ers, is age 35.
I started climbing at age 38, kind of a late bloomer in the climbing world. I never lived out of my car, was never in the “dirt-bagger,” club or did anything other than work. But then I discovered climbing. Mont Blanc was my first respectable climb. Much to the disgust of my French guide, I didn’t even know how to attach the strap-on Camp crampons that I had just bought in Chamonix. He scoffed, sighed, said something I didn’t understand in French that I’m pretty sure wasn’t a compliment as he strapped them onto my new climbing boots. So yea, I was a novice who didn’t know what I didn’t know and didn’t even know what to ask. But I loved the day, fell in love with climbing, and got my first of several summits on this historic Hill.
As I moved through my forties, I climbed like there was no tomorrow. I never had a grand plan; I just climbed when I could, trying to explore as many of the big mountains around the world as possible with whatever time and money I could carve out. But, as you know, it always comes down to time and money.
Failure is not Learning
I gained skills the old-fashioned way, jumping on trips with friends, asking a ton of questions, and falling a lot. I gravitated to the big mountains, the ones over 20,000-feet or 6,000-meters. And I wasn’t good. For my first 22 climbs, I summited only 13 times, 59%, but I learned a lot.
1995: Le Buet, Tour Ronde, Mont Blanc
1997: Kala Patar (Everest Base Camp)
1998: Monta Rosa, Mont Blanc, Mont Blanc, Cho Oyu
1999: Ice Climbing in Alaska
2000: Grand Teton, Ama Dablam
2004: Hood, Rainier
2006: Broad Peak
2007: Denali, Shishapangma
2008: Aconcagua, Orizaba, Everest
My summit rate improved as I entered my fifties. I no longer climbed for bragging rights but rather for a purpose, to honor my mom Ida who died from Alzheimer’s Disease, and to raise money for medical research. As a result, my summit rate increased to 74%.
Learning from my forties, I changed almost everything when preparing for a climb. I trained differently (real-world vs. gym and running), what I ate (balanced diet, no fad diets), who I climbed with (friends and limited western guides), and most of all, my expectations about my performance. I realized that I wasn’t in a race with anyone, including myself. I needed to move at a pace my body would allow. When I got tired, I rested; hungry, I ate and tried never to become thirsty. I slowed down to go faster.
2009: Mt. Whitney
2010: Mt. Vinson
2011: Aconcagua, Lobuche, Everest, Denali, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Carstensz Pyramid, Kosciuszko
2012: Ben Nevis, Alpa Mayo, Rainier
2015: Lhotse (earthquake)
2018: Island Peak
2019: Cayambe, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo
2020: Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi
Age – a limiting factor at some point
In my Summit Coach consulting business, some potential clients ask what it takes to get into climbing and how to do what I’ve done: the Seven Summits, Everest, all the Colorado 14ers, K2, and more. I always give similar advice:
- Get a good education
- Find a stable job
- Save money
- Find the balance between climbing, work, and family
However, when it comes to climbing, be patient, and don’t be greedy. Take the mountains as they come. Start with the basics on rock and ice, then move through ever more challenging and higher peaks as your time and money allow. However, many people are content to ignore the high mountains and take tremendous pleasure from staying with one discipline such as rock climbing.
I recognize that I’ve been very fortunate with the climbs I have been able to do, especially being born in the flatlands around Memphis, Tennessee. And I worked hard to make it happen, albeit with some costs along the way.
As a result of my experiences on 34 previous climbs, including eight on 8,000-meter peaks, I became the oldest American at age 58 to summit K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. I’m proud of that achievement and grateful to my teammates and the Sherpas, who helped me. I became convinced that I could climb as long as my body was healthy. But time moves on.
I wanted to summit Lhotse starting from base camp in 2015, but the tragic earthquake stopped everyone that year. I returned in 2016, but I stopped myself at 21,500-feet, Camp 2. On my 60th birthday that year, I watched the sunrise from the summit of Colorado’s Longs Peak at 14,256-feet with dear friends. It was my 45th summit on my “training” peak.
While training for Dhualagiri in early 2017, a massive wind gust cartwheeled me down a rocky slope on the 11,000-foot Twin Sisters here in Colorado, breaking my leg in three places, curtailing my climbing for over a year.
Still, my heart, soul, and spirit were in the high mountains, but my brain told me no. However, determined to continue, I climbed in Nepal, Ecuador, and Bolivia over the next three years. Even though I made several 20,000-foot summits, the experience just wasn’t the same as in my fifties. My full essence was speaking to me.
Last November, my entire family caught COVID-19 from an unknown source. My wife spent two weeks in the hospital. I had a milder but lingering case for months. Once again, climbing came to a halt. I did one 14er in 2020 instead of my usual five or ten. I began to focus on lower peaks in the 12,000 to the 13,000-foot range, and I had fun. Finally, I turned the corner from the virus and summited Grays Peak last week, my first 14er in over a year. It felt good.
So back to the age thing. I’m in good health. I had a battery of tests as I joined Medicare to establish a baseline for the next few decades. But I’m not 20, 40, or 50; I’m 65. And my drive to climb is strong, balanced by the realities of how hard I can push my body. I have a good life. I don’t want to lose it in the mountains.
So when do you stop? It’s a unique and personal question for each individual. Spainard Carlos Soria Fontán is on Dhaulagiri for the 12th time this month. He’s now 83 and wants to complete the last two of the fourteen 8000ers. I know other climbers who “retired” early after accomplishing their objectives or were unwilling to take risks as family or responsibilities grew.
It’s a tricky question of when to take the foot off the accelerator. But when you see traffic ahead, the answer is easy. I’ll probably never return to an 8,000-meter peak. I’m comfortable with that as I approach the second half of my 60s. There are more mountains in Colorado that I haven’t climbed than 7000-meter ones throughout the world.
So yes, I still love fighting for breath at high altitude, the challenges of expedition life, the sound of crampons crunching in the snow, the feel of cold, hard rock on my fingers, the feeling of satisfaction back home – regardless of the result and, of course, the anticipation of the next one. I will visit 20,000-feet as long as I can, but now is the time to give back through Summit Coach, writing, speaking, and my life’s purpose of being an Alzheimer’s Advocate. It’s been a good run that’s slowing down, not over.
Memories are Everything