The Art Of ‘Getting Old’

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.

-Brendan

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22 comments

  1. Nice post. Your writing has a natural ease and flow for the reader. I appreciate the contemplation you invest in your work.

  2. Yes, Frank is a total trip! Kind, joyful, generous, and kind of a flirt, but that keeps him young too I suppose 🙂

  3. Much love. I’m turning 35 this year and have been in a slowly crescendoing panic about my body crapping out before I get to do all the stuff in the mountains I want to do. Already I’ve noticed I come home from a ski day and I want to do go to bed instead of have a beer or two and hang.

  4. My climbing hero is also turning 63 this year. Your interest in people and outdoor pastimes are eerily familiar… we are certainly kindred spirits, Brendan. And ditto on what Steve said, thanks!

  5. I turn 51 on Saturday. If you think you need more recovery than you used to in your 30s…. wow. I keep thinking of that corny country song, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” A lot of it is picking your days and moments, saving up a bit for that ride with your 30-year-old friends.

    The changes have started adding up in a way I can’t push past anymore. So I’m talking with friends about embracing aging. They’re wise, I’m working on it.Trying to prize wisdom as much as vitality. And still go for it when I feel good. 2015 is only my second year mountain biking, and I’m hooked.

    Had a dream last night that an kind older professor was teaching me about the nourishment and wisdom that tortoises offer.

  6. Hi Brendan,
    I much appreciate your words. I always tell my friends-my heroes are not the people I watch in ski movies, at 25, hucking themselves off beautiful topographic features across landscapes. They are the people I meet in their 60s and 70s, still motivated to have adventures, get outside, move, inspire, grow and learn. I can only hope the same for myself someday. I will say-my dad has been a great inspiration to me, and given your history in Colorado, you might appreciate his story. He’s 64 years old, from Detroit, Michigan, and about to embark on a thru hike of the CDT this spring to raise money for Big City Mountaineers.
    Keep the faith,
    Natalie
    http://www.cdtjourneyforthekids.com/?page_id=2

  7. Thanks, Forest, for recognizing how wonderful it is to age! I used to dread aging. I just turned 53 and I’m loving every minute of it. (Especially enjoying my time with my 60-year-old boyfriend who happens to me a master blues guitarist.) I summitted Devils Tower with Frank in 2005 and we’ve been friends ever since. He never stops. I’m planning to spend the month of July at the Devils Tower Lodge to help with guests and carry ropes to the tower in the morning. Frank’s only complaint is that the ropes seem to be getting heavier. LOL

  8. Frank is one of those people who inspire so many of us with his skills and his wisdom and stories like these are a tribute to the influence one person can have on so many for so many reasons. Amen to Frank

  9. Brendan, I’m printing off a copy of this and putting it in the front of my copy of ‘Funny Shit In the Woods.’ This post captures so eloquently the evolution of thought I’ve had as I’ve let my white hairs grow to the middle of my back along with the rest of them.

    My very first backpacking trip, which also happened to be one of my first outdoor adventure experiences, was in Glacier National Park. A friend and I shared a campsite one night with a group of guys who summit the area’s peaks together for fun. We learned that the next day would be their 100th summit as a group. They couldn’t hold back their excitement that night. The youngest guy in the group was 63.

    Hearing their story made such an impact on me, and you described it so well. Thanks and keep it up.

  10. Great article. I’m fortunate to have known Frank since we were both about 10-years old. So, yep, I’m one of those old guys too. I usually think I’m doing pretty good for my age until my yearly trip to Devil’s Tower to visit Frank. Sometimes we climb together, sometimes we just enjoy hanging out together. Either way, I always come away realizing that Frank has this aging thing figured out a bit better than I do. And, I always come away feeling inspired, a bit better focused on doing better even though I’m getting older, and looking forward to my next visit with my long time friend, Frank.

  11. I can honestly say that Frank’s guiding me up Devils Tower in 2012 gave me hope that if I could do the Tower, just maybe Kilimanjaro was possibly doable for me too. I just got back from climbing Kilimanjaro (this was the second try; last year I came ‘walked, thank the Lord’ off at 15,300 feet after three days of dysentery), and at 68 I feel so blessed that the Good Lord gave me good health, legs and lungs to do it with relative ease this year.

    Frank’s the greatest example of hope, strength and spirit I have ever seen!! Thank you for your encouragement, Frank!!

    Harvey Bertrand, La Crosse, WI

  12. The year my mom turned 50 was also the year she learned how to do a tripod headstand at yoga class, learned to road bike (and even clip in!), and now at age 51 she’s travelling out of the U.S. for the first time ever! All this from a lady who works full-time, raised two kids, and has arthritis. Go mom!

  13. @Jeremy,

    Whippersnapper!, in my day things were so tough we turned 30 when we were 25!

    (Bwaahaaa!, sorry, couldn’t waste that one).

    Good one Brendan, lots of Franks down here in NZ & they inspire me as I teeter on the edge of 60.

    I’m enjoying being ‘more mature’, it’s a joy messing with people’s minds, especially when they arrive at work early & find this grey haired, white bearded old fart bombing around the car park on his skateboard.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtFEzhaNrT4

  14. Hey Brendan. I turned 55 last summer and this winter qualified as a level 1 ski instructor. My 16 year old daughter took the course at the same time and qualified as well. We spent this past winter’s Saturdays teaching at the same snow school. Growing older may be a reson for a lot of things but it’s not an excuse for anything. And rember, “old” and “young” are subjective terms.

    Thanks for a great post Brendan

    Gord

  15. I started running at the age of 36; slow at first, but then I won some smaller local races. From age 36-37, I ran 12 half marathons, 3 marathons, and 30-40 5K/10K/5-mile/10-milers. Before a race in Boulder, an adorable (insert sarcasm) 21-year old arrogantly proclaimed that he would retire from running by the age of 30 and that no one has any business running races after their 20s. What a jackbutt! I look sexier and more toned in my 30s, almost 40s, than I ever did in my earlier years. And I plan to continue to dangle off the sides of the highest mountains until arthritis takes over, and to cross a thousand finish lines (ok, maybe more like 100 or so more). Those new lines and wrinkles tell an important story, boast them with pride!

    (Brendan, you rock, sir!)

  16. Great article. I agree that we often focus too much on youth and its seemingly boundless potential, which can be discouraging to those of us in middle age. Frank’s story shows though that even we 40-somethings have got a lot to look forward to. Thanks for sharing, especially that fantastic photo.

  17. Love this! I summited Mount Rainier with my dad last summer, and he was 1 week post retirement and age 59. I love being able to climb with my dad, and look forward to doing it for a long time coming. We joked that he was probably the only person to summit Rainier the week after retiring.

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Article by: brendan