2012 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors
Into Thin Hair
Rocking the golden years
by Don Mellor
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG we were always looking for a new, hip joint. Now we’re just interested in a new hip joint.
Getting old happens to all of us, and as it does, we have a choice: Sit back in our recliner chairs, thumbing old scrapbooks and complaining about our ailments. Or get out there and keep on pluggin’.
That choice holds true whether our passion is hiking, biking, kayaking or skiing. And there’s a host of oldsters demonstrating emphatically that it holds even for high-end rock- and ice-climbing. It isn’t just titanium and glucosamine sulfate that are keeping them going. It’s perspective and attitude.
Like every other shortsighted youth, I used to believe that climbing—with its renegade subculture and intense physicality—was the preserve of the young. When I entered the local climbing scene in the late 1970s, all I heard about was the mythical Geoff Smith, leader and mentor to a band of Plattsburgh crazies who called themselves the Ski-to-Die Club (see “Ski to Die,” February 2008). Smith was revered by the younger guys, and his ascents at Poke-O-Moonshine were already legend. Hanging around the counter at Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid, all I heard was “Geoff this” and “Geoff that.” I recall asking one of his minions if I might meet the guy and maybe climb with him. “Oh, he doesn’t do those things anymore,” I was told. “He’s 30.”
That was the old thinking. Climbing was a game for the wild and untamed. It was a pursuit woven inextricably with youth and rebellion, long hair, windowless vans and funny cigarettes. An old person on a rope would be, well, unseemly. He might shatter if he fell.
Then I met Fred Beckey. He’s the uncontested leader in ﬁrst ascents in North America; he’s logged more time and more vertical feet on a climbing rope than anyone in the U.S.—maybe the world. He started with his brother in the 1930s, and last I heard he was still out there, at age 85, hobbling down the trail, roping up before some big mountain wall.
Beckey’s peregrinations led him twice to the Adirondacks. In the early ’80s he climbed Mount Marcy with Tony Goodwin. Years later he called me to see if I could help him arrange a slide show (he’s a master at cobbling together a living while climbing almost every day). After the presentation we took him out for a beer, but while the younger guys were locked in climbing chatter, Beckey was working the ﬂoor, exchanging phone numbers with young hockey moms.
“So you’re a teacher?” he asked the next morning. “Important job. I’m thinking of getting my degree in education. In fact, I just interviewed at the University of Washington to see if I could get into their program. I think I’d enjoy teaching.” At 73, Fred Beckey was still wondering what to do when he grew up.
Today, the rock-climbing scene is more encouraging than ever to older folks. The sport isn’t as edgy as it used to be. The safety gear is really good. Climbing is no longer a feature on ESPN’s X-Games. Too many kids have had too many birthday parties at indoor climbing gyms. Hard to be a renegade when your dad and your dentist share your outdoor adventure.
There’s nothing stopping seniors from giving it a try, even if they have sworn off stepladders. Despite depictions of climbing as ﬁngertip-clinging to overhanging walls, a lot of climbing (especially here in the Adirondacks) happens on less-than-vertical slabs, where thoughtful footwork is more important than Kevlar tendons. In fact, there’s clean open rock at just about every angle, from the slides on Whiteface and Giant Mountains to the big slab at Chapel Pond to the very friendly little plane of rock off the Copperas Pond trail, in Wilmington Notch.
Up there on Notch Mountain you might meet Royce Van Evera, a silver-haired gentleman who started in his mid-40s and is now one of the region’s most proliﬁc rock guides at the age of (will you still need me, will you still feed me) 64. I was out with Van Evera recently, and he’s climbing better than ever—another testament that you climb with your head, not your arms.
Me? At 59 I’m holding pretty steady. My new hip is a technological wonder. My left-hand tremor is useful for chasing away deerﬂies. I started wearing cheap reading glasses out on the rock (oh, that’s where they put the footholds!). There are strategic little slices in my rock shoes to accommodate bunions and bone spurs. And I remain careful, wary of falling into the absent-minded complacency that comes along with doing something so often for so long. Tommy Yandon, 66 and still one of the best ice-climbers I’ve seen, told me once, “I don’t get scared anymore…. And that scares me.” I practice moderation because, like every aging athlete, I fear the downward spiral that could result from an injury.
Many years ago at an American Alpine Club summer outing at the Ausable Club, an elderly man approached me and asked, “Have you ever tried my route on Wallface?” I didn’t know who he was or what he was talking about. Gerry Bloch went on to describe the many attempts he had made to forge a new route on the Adirondacks’ tallest cliff. His ﬁrst exploration was in 1943. On his closest attempt, he’d made it within 150 feet of the top. “Want to try?” he asked. I learned that Bloch was only 72, but that evening he looked 90: skinny, frail, hunched at the shoulders.
In the parking lot at Adirondak Loj later that week, I began to understand something about aging and how you face it. As Bloch and I packed for the three-day trip, he started by ﬂufﬁng his sleeping bag into his pack, protesting, “I can’t ﬁt another thing. You’ll have to carry all the camping and climbing gear.” My pack weighed at least 80 pounds, his probably less than 18.
Up on the cliff he showed me another trick (which I haven’t yet employed— heck, I’m not even 60). Instead of dragging the second rope clipped to the back of his harness as he climbed, he ﬁxed it in front of him, onto my rope, so as I pulled up the slack for his belay, I was taking the load of both lines. On the second day of the trip, as the rain clouds were giving way to patches of deep blue, Bloch ﬁnally grabbed the bushes atop the 700-foot cliff, 49 years after his initial foray.
He didn’t ﬁght the aging process; he embraced it, ﬂowed right along with it. And like Fred Beckey, he still dreamed. A decade later, as I sat plopped on the couch watching the evening news, I listened to Tom Brokaw report a new record set in Yosemite National Park: “After nine days on the wall, 83-year-old Gerry Bloch has broken his own record for being the oldest person to climb the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan, the country’s highest rock face.” Fred Beckey, Gerry Bloch, Tommy Yandon, Royce Van Evera—these men inspire us graying climbers to keep the dreams alive. But sometimes reality says otherwise. Bodies age at different rates, and despite every effort to stay ﬁt and healthy, things break, or decide to stop working. It just doesn’t seem fair.
So went my thoughts as I sat in my car outside a nursing home in Elizabethtown last winter. On the drive back from a day of ice-climbing at Poke-O-Moonshine, my friend Vic Benes, visiting from New Jersey, mentioned that a friend lived up here someplace and wondered if I knew him. Turned out that I knew his kids and that the gentleman was living in the Horace Nye Nursing Home. After a full day of grade 5 ice (really hard, really steep, experts only), Benes asked if we might stop in Elizabethtown on the way back to Lake Placid.
My deﬁnition of incongruity will forever be the sight of 80-year-old Benes, slender and straight, wearing a silver ponytail, a snug Gore-Tex climbers’ suit, and bright yellow ice boots, striding into the old folks’ home to visit a friend who wouldn’t recognize him. Benes had little to say on the drive back to Keene. My guess is that he, too, was weaving in his head the sadness of aging and the importance of climbing.
Time is as inexorable as gravity. It’s easy to see each as an adversary. But to the maturing climber, the passing of the days and the gentle tug from below make it all worthwhile. So many things are satisfying simply because they don’t come easily.
Retired climbers, you still know how to tie a ﬁgure-eight knot. Admit it: It wasn’t your body that stopped you from climbing. It was the kids, the job, the adult shift in priorities. The gear is in your basement. Take two Ibuprofen and blow the dust off your carabiners. The rest of you: Tell your neighbors that Sunday’s shufﬂeboard match is off. Then sneak a little off the top of your last Social Security check and give Royce Van Evera a call.
HANG IN THERE
The author offers guiding and instruction during the summer. Contact him at email@example.com, or check out these area experts:
Karen and R. L. Stolz, Adirondack Alpine Adventures, Keene (518-576-9881, www.alpineadven.com)
Adirondack Mountain Guides, Keene (518-576-9556, www.adiron dackmountainguides.com)
Adirondack Rock & River Guide Service, Keene (518-576-2041, www.rockandriver.com)
Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides, Keene (518-569-8910, www.cloud splitterguides.com)
Royce Van Evera (518-524-1105) or High Peaks Mountain Adventures, Lake Placid (518-523-3764) R
edline Mountain Guides, Lake Placid (518-524-3328)
RockSport, Queensbury (518-793-4626 www.rocksportny.com)
Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid offers mountaineering among its summer classes. Call the store at (518) 523-2505 or school director Dan Sandberg at (603) 933-0295.