Frank led up the first pitch of El Matador as I fed out rope, the west face of Devils Tower glowing gold as the sun dropped to the horizon and my friend Forest shot video of him. He placed only a few pieces of protection as he cruised up the pitch. I chatted with three guys from Laramie at the base of the route.
“Do you know how old Frank is?” one of the guys asked, as we watched Frank climb.
“I think he’s going to be 63 in a few months,” I said.
“I hope I’m climbing that well when I’m his age,” another guy said.
“I’d love to be climbing that well now,” another guy said, and we all chuckled.
Frank lowered off the top of the first pitch, and he and I were the last ones to descend the talus at the base of the tower. As I followed him down, I started thinking that he’s quite a different 63 years old than most: Last year, he was able to take advantage of the National Parks Senior Pass, which gives senior citizens unlimited lifetime access to America’s national parks for $10, and at the same time climbed to the summit of Devils Tower more than anyone, since his day job is owner and operator of Devils Tower Climbing Guides. Plenty of clients and friends decades younger than him (including me) have watched him dance up the routes on the tower, mystified how he makes it look so easy. Last February, he rode his bicycle from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida, because I told him it was fun, and because it’s cold and quiet up in northeast Wyoming in the winter.
I’ve spent a couple full weeks with Frank, and sometimes I think the only thing that’s old on him is the climbing shoes he wears until they blow out in five places.
I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that we tend to focus on youth in our culture, and make heroes out of more younger people than old: athletes, musicians, actors, celebrities. We say things like “You’re only young once,” and somehow we tell few stories about people who are only young once, but make that “once” last 50 or more years.
After about our mid-twenties, most of us are beginning the slow aging process, and fighting it in our own ways: coloring gray hair, trying one of the dozen methods to refresh our receding hairlines, wondering what we can do about the new line on our face and if anyone else notices it. Sometimes we stop fighting and let the extra pounds pile on and chalk up the lethargy and joint pain to the reality of aging instead of inactivity.
Or, we become people like Frank. Or my Forest’s father, Doug, whose 78 years old looks more like 58, with his daily skinny dips in the creek behind his home.
A few weeks ago, a couple friends and I stopped at the bottom of a ski hill and noticed a group of men in their 60s and 70s getting ready to jump on the chairlift. Someone said, “I hope I am still getting to do stuff like this in my 70s,” just like the guy at Devils Tower said about Frank. It’s a great thought, and a great thing to say, especially in a world that focuses so much on the unwrinkled skin and fresh faces and bodies of the young.
I asked Frank to send me a bunch of his old slides for a film project we’re working on, and he told a mutual friend of ours that finding the slides took a long day of looking through photos of “all his dead friends,” which, when you’re a climber in your 60s, I suppose happens. I’m glad Frank stuck around until the time we got to become friends, when he was 60 and I was 33. And I know no one has to tell him what a privilege that is.
When people say things like “I hope I’m still getting to climb/ski/hike when I’m in my 70s,” I have started replying, “I just want to be 70 someday.” And, I suppose, to keep being “young once” the whole time.