Aging Rockers

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UP! UP! Jerry Dodgen, 72, in Georgia's Crockford-Pigeon Mountain area

Dick Bass, a Texan who salts his speech with darlin' and dadgum, was 51 years old and clueless about expedition climbing when he decided to summit Mount McKinley in 1981. Bass, the owner of Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in Utah, had no idea McKinley was among the hardest U.S. climbs. He made the decision to brave the elements after a particularly tough employee pronounced that he would never cut it on the mountain. Bass vowed to prove her wrong. "I didn't even know how to put a tent up," he says. But off he trudged, defiantly.

For 13 days, Bass, along with nine other weary hikers, poured sweat and plodded upward, carrying a 70-lb. backpack and lugging a 35-lb. sled. At the final ascent, the amused Snowbird guide sentenced him to lead rope — the tiring position that carves out the group's path. Bass relished the challenge, and as he spied the wide ribbon of snow upon the mountain's ridge, he untethered himself, rushed the summit and yodeled a Tarzan yell. "I was told all the way I wasn't gonna make it," he says. "Shoot, I walked everyone to the ground." Bounding down the mountain afterward, disregarding his aching legs, Bass resolved to climb the highest point on each continent. Four years later, he became the first person in history to complete the Seven Summits, which include Everest; this spring Bass, now 73, returned to Everest in an attempt to become its oldest summiter.

Bass isn't the only old-timer who spends his free time sucking wind in the mountains. A gaggle of weather-beaten seniors are following in his footsteps up jagged peaks, skirting crevices and negotiating rocky paths. Some started late in life; others have climbed since Depression-era Boy Scout outings. "We have what we didn't have 50 years ago, which is a group of people over 50 who've stayed fit, who are getting out, who have disposable income and who've achieved a very high level of performance," says Peter Metcalf, CEO of climbing manufacturer Black Diamond Equipment.

And so it is that a third of the American Alpine Club's members are over 50, as are almost 10% of Outward Bound's wilderness-trip enrollees and an increasing number of guide-service clients. "They want to experience as much as they can before they check out," says Lou Whittaker, 74, a guide on Washington's Mount Rainier for a half-century. But couch potatoes beware. To succeed at the summit, you must be cautious, alert and in phenomenal shape; otherwise, you put yourself at high risk (see sidebar).

For those who are fit, climbing often becomes more an addiction than a hobby. Suzanne Rowen, 50, for one, dropped out of her high-powered Wall Street job and moved west to immerse herself in the sport. Yosemite climbing pioneer Royal Robbins, 68, offers an explanation: "Climbing does tend to call for the best that's in us," he says. "There's something about climbing that really forces people to come to grips with their weaknesses and their true being."

That metaphysical note may ring true for some; for others, climbing is just an excuse to visit far-flung travel spots — from Kilimanjaro's icy heights to the pockmarked limestone of Sardinia. Even novices can access these kinds of locales with the help of adventure-travel companies, many of which organize, train and lead climbing excursions. The views can be breathtaking. "There you are at 10 at night, some thousand feet up on the wall on a beautiful ledge, and it looks like a Peter Pan world down below you. There's tiny lights in the valley; the rock is gorgeous, shining — it's a rare place to be," says Dick Duane, 64, a Berkeley, Calif., lawyer.

Mountain and rock climbing might appear to be better suited for young and agile bodies, but some contend that climbers improve with age. It's true that joints stiffen as we get older and strength often declines, but a keen sense of limitations may give older climbers a leg up — especially in a sport that is as much mental as it is physical. A certain amount of self-awareness helps aging climbers stay safe — they know when to call it quits. Take Jim Wickwire, 63, who as a young man took dangerous risks, becoming one of the first two Americans to summit K2 in the process. But this spring, when he was climbing Everest, a sinus infection and breathing trouble gave him pause; after several frustrating days of waiting to acclimatize, Wickwire turned back. "When you're young, there's this feeling of invulnerability. As you get older, one begins to see the finite side of life much more acutely, and one is less willing to take those risks," he says. Bass, accompanying Wickwire, also retreated when his back flared up.

This sort of balance between bravura and caution is mandatory, says Yuichiro Miura, 70, who on May 22 beat out Bass to become the oldest person to summit Everest. "For any adventure, the most important thing is an attitude of 'willing to risk your life' and, at the same time, of taking all possible cautions and seeing absolute possibility to return alive," he says.

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