Mark and I sat in the front window of a Denver coffee shop, talking about aging. Mark was 44, I was 37. Thirty-seven and a half, to be accurate—not only closer to 40 than 30, but somehow closer to 40 than 35.
“I don’t know, what’s old, really?” Mark asked.
“Geez,” I said. “”Sixty?”
“Nah,” Mark said.
I had started seeing crow’s feet and smile lines on my face in the mirror a few years earlier, and having the same reaction everyone has: a little sadness, a little wondering if I’d done something wrong to already be seeing signs of aging (answer: YES). Then I’d shrug and go about the rest of my day because there was nothing I could do about it now, short of traveling back in time to not smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for six years, or spend hundreds of afternoons up in the mountains where no amount of sunscreen can block all the skin-damaging UV rays, or just be born with the last name Kardashian.
Mark and I were talking about being old, though, not looking old. I had met Mark at a book signing event I did for recovering addicts, a group I could get up and speak in front of because I had gotten sober at age 23, when I had woken up in a jail cell. I had always told myself that that moment was the end of my being young, but several years of perspective has made me think that I still don’t know what being young means, or what being old means, and most other people probably don’t either.
When I was 10 and my brother was 12 and going into seventh grade, junior high seemed so … adult. Sports with real uniforms, lockers, showering after gym class, people had boyfriends and girlfriends, and at least one kid in each class already had facial hair. When I was in eighth grade, I couldn’t imagine being a senior in high school, with a car and a driver’s license. And then suddenly, when I was a junior in high school, 14-year-old kids seemed so young. When I was 21, high school felt like ancient history, and when I was 26 and I saw a photo of myself from my freshman year in college, I thought: You look like a baby.
I think this is how it goes as we age: “Young” was just a few years ago. When you’re 40, you think about being 30 as when you were young. When you’re 50, 40-year-old you was young. And so on. Youth is a sliding scale, I guess.
In The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks Halten is released after serving 50 years in prison, and we watch him, bewildered, try to adjust to a 1954 society that’s completely transformed from the last time he saw it, in 1905, when he was a young man. “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry,” Brooks says.
Most of us won’t have a shock quite that visible as we grow older—the world passing you by seems to come gradually. I remember my dad not liking the music I listened to when I was 15 and he was 43 (I listened to A Tribe Called Quest albums through headphones when he drove me to 6 a.m. basketball practice). In the 90s, no one’s parents liked hip hop, and that was maybe part of why so many young people embraced it. It’s really hard for me to imagine an adolescence without listening to music my parents hated, and at the time, it was hard to believe I’d ever be old enough to not understand new music. And then one day, I caught myself saying something only an “old guy” would say: “When I was a kid, hip hop was …”
It’s not just the crow’s feet and smile lines, the grey hairs popping up. Maybe you start to question the functionality of the way young people wear pants (is that even comfortable?). Someone drives by your house blasting music from a car stereo and not only do you not recognize the song, you genuinely worry about the driver’s hearing health (tinnitus!). Maybe you go to a concert and notice everyone looks … kind of … old, and you remember the musician on stage put out their first album 25 or 30 years ago. Maybe you decide Snapchat isn’t for you.
You try to tell yourself that there’s nothing wrong with growing old, even as you try to exist in a world that seems to spend most of its energy—at least visually—focusing on the young: musicians, athletes, actors, celebrities, models. Maybe you try some “age-defying” skin products, or supplements, or a combover, before one day you just say fuck it and get comfortable with it. And then maybe you decide to consider yourself lucky to have gotten to the point where you can feel sad about looking a little older.
David Lama died in an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies last week, at only 28 years old, with two other climbers, Jess Roskelley, 36, and Hansjörg Auer, 35. I was not friends with any of the men, but they were friends of friends, so I saw the news via personal tributes on social media before I saw any news stories. I had interviewed David Lama at Mountainfilm in 2015, when he was only 24 but already had the climbing world’s attention with several incredible climbs (including the first free ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre), and I remember afterward reflecting on how different David Lama’s life had been from mine, and how at 24 I was still trying to climb out of a hole of self-sabotaging mistakes I’d already made, which is a world away from climbing Cerro Torre. And now, less than four years later, he had died climbing at age 28.
Beyond asking David a few questions during our hour-long panel discussion, I didn’t know him, and I didn’t know either of the other two men at all—but there are a whole lot of people who would tell you that the world would be a better place with them in it, living out their natural lives. But they won’t get to, which is a tragedy for the people close to them.
I thought last week about what I’d have missed in my life if I’d died at 28, like David Lama: I’d never have met my wife. I wouldn’t have traveled to some of my favorite places in the world. I wouldn’t have seen the bottom of the Grand Canyon, climbed a big wall, or skied Mt. Shasta. I wouldn’t have met half of the people who have become some of my closest friends. And even if every day doesn’t feel like a treasure because I spend half of it answering emails and wringing my hands trying to get work done, I can’t imagine not having the past 12 years, or, hopefully, the next 30 or 40, whatever they look like.
When Kyle Dempster died at age 33 back in 2016, I wrote a piece about my handful of memories of him, all the while thinking: it’s so sad we won’t get to experience Kyle Dempster as an older guy, whatever that would look like. I imagined him a little hunched over, maybe a few grey hairs hair left on his head, still puttering around his coffee shop in Salt Lake City, maybe telling a story here and there about his adventures as a young man.
Plenty of things can take you before your time: illness, car accidents, natural disasters. From the correct angle, grey hair and wrinkled skin can look far more like a privilege than an indignity.
In 2015, Tim Urban wrote a post on WaitButWhy about visualizing and quantifying how much time you have left in your life and what you could do with it. The post went viral because it affected thousands of us in the same way: it showed how little time we really have here, and what we can do with that time really just comes down to math, and priorities. If you read 12 books per year and you live to be 80, you’ll only have time to read X more books. If you go on two backpacking trips per year and you’re 35, you’ll go on X more backpacking trips in your life. If you see your parents twice a year and they live to be 80, you’ll only see them X more times before they die.
That way of looking at things started to affect the way I looked at big things, like seeing my parents and family, and the occasions when I traveled far from where I live, sitting somewhere and thinking, “This place is great. I’d love to come back here someday.” And then: “But will I, really?”
As an adult, I have always had the same reaction when I see someone in their 70s moving around a city by themselves: I assume they’re lonely and sad. This, I’ve learned in the past couple years, is statistically unlikely. Happiness, researchers have found, is a U-shaped curve, starting high at the beginning of our lives, dipping in our 20s and 30s, flattening out in our 40s, and then increasing from then through our 80s.
So those folks in their 70s, completely contrary to my assumption, are probably having a great time. And if I get to be that old, I’ll probably have a blast too, no matter how much hair I have left or if my wrinkles start to grow their own wrinkles.
Of course, to an 85-year-old, those 70-somethings are “young.” And to the 70-somethings, I’m just a naive 40-year-old kid. And if the data is correct, I am starting my stint on the bottom of that U-shaped curve, which I think is real. I’m not unhappy, but I am starting to be aware of the lives I won’t get to live—I’ll never be young and hungry and living in New York, for example, and playing in the NBA is probably out at this point (I mean really, it always has been). I’ll never be named to a “30 Under 30” list or anything like that.
It’s not helpful to dwell on those lives we won’t live, or things in the past we could have done differently (why didn’t I stay in marching band in high school?). And if I believe my friend Chris Kalous, it’s pretty rare to start doing your strongest climbing after age 40 (although another friend, Kris Hampton, sent his first-ever V11 this year, at age 44).
There are things, like explosive strength and agility, that decline with age. So do we fight those things, or do we choose other areas where we can improve and see positive progress? I’ll take the positive progress.
A few years ago, at 36, I started dipping my toes into ultrarunning, trying a 50K, then a 50-mile race, then another 50-mile race, then a 100-mile race. I don’t know why, but it seemed to click with what I’ve needed the past few years—long days out by myself to think, one hour, or two hours, or five hours at a time. It was antisocial compared to climbing in the gym, didn’t have the bond of friendship you form with climbing partners, or the quick hits of adrenaline that skiing or mountain biking had. It was just me, out there, chugging along, letting my mind wander.
Am I good at it? I would say objectively, no, I am not good at it. Am I learning, and getting better at it, even though every day I run I’m getting further away from 40 and closer to 50? I think so.
Most importantly to me, though, I have latched onto something really foolish, something so ridiculous that when you sign up for a race you can’t believe you’re paying money to do it, and when you show up at the starting line, you can’t believe other people are dumb enough to do it too—that we go out there and spend 24 to 40 hours traipsing around in the mountains, in the dark, in the rain, getting blisters, chafing, going to very dark psychological places, inhabiting many personalities, and the day after, feel like we’re 110 years old because of creaky joints and inflamed soft tissues. When I was in high school a long time ago, I ran 100-meter and 200-meter dashes on a flat rubber track, the complete opposite of a mountain trail ultramarathon. One day, ultramarathons will be something I used to do when I was young, too, I suppose. But for now, that’s what I’m doing to celebrate being alive and mobile, I guess. Does it make me feel young?
I don’t know, what’s young, really?