Mountaineering: Warning: Geezers Wielding Ice Axes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, February 1995

Mountaineering: Warning: Geezers Wielding Ice Axes

In the latest Himalayan trend, youngest on top is a rotten egg
By Laura Hilgers

You're on to an eternal loser when you do that one, aren't you?" remarks renowned British alpinist Chris Bonington, fresh from several days of rock climbing in Colorado. "No matter what your age, there'll always be someone out there older than you."

Bonington, still sprightly in a climbing harness at age 60, is poking fun at the sporting world's latest manifestation of George Foreman Syndrome: advanced-in-years-and-proud-of-it mountaineers vying to be the oldest to top out on this or that Himalayan peak. Bonington, of course, is in the thick of the trend, but in this year's most high-profile case, Dick Bass, the 65-year-old ski-resort mogul and the first person to climb the highest peak on each continent, has announced that he's planning another assault on Everest in the spring of 1996. Reason: to recapture the oldest-on-top record, which he held for eight years but lost in 1993 to Venezuelan guitar maker Ramón Blanco. Blanco, at 60 years, five months, and eight days old, was five years and 29 days older than Bass when he summited Everest.

Bass, who'll be 66 at the time of the climb, insists he didn't have the age record in mind last year when he first concocted his return to the mountain. "I just wanted to climb it without supplemental oxygen," he says. And he'll still try to do that, but Bass now says he'll strap on an oxygen bottle if the going gets too tough. "As long as I'm over there," he says, "I may as well try to regain my title."

While there aren't any hard numbers available for how many senior citizens are out there bivouacking above timberline, anecdotal evidence suggests that Everest isn't the only mountain they're flocking to. Last October, a Japanese climbing club made up of former college buddies in their midfifties -- and aptly named the Silver Tortoises because of their white manes and poky style -- summited Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh-highest mountain. One climber, 55-year-old Tamae Watanabe, became the oldest woman to stand atop an 8,000-meter peak. And perhaps putting climbers everywhere to shame, 71-year-old Brit Mike Banks will lead a group of over-60 climbers to the Tian Shan region of China in July.

So what's a geezer expedition like? "Slow," barks Bonington, who this summer will celebrate the tenth anniversary of his Everest climb by ascending Drangnag-Ri, an unclimbed 21,000-foot peak in Nepal. "That part's a real pain in the ass." Not surprisingly, the Silver Tortoises were one of the slowest teams on Dhaulagiri last fall. They kept up with other teams on the mountain only because they rose each day two hours earlier. But there are advantages to being advanced in years. Senior climbers, it turns out, may be considerably less vulnerable to acute mountain sickness. A recent study carried out by several of the nation's leading high-altitude experts and published in Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that people over 60 are only half as likely to develop AMS as people between 20 and 39. "Though we don't yet know why that is," says 81-year-old Charles Houston, one of the authors of the study and a renowned former climber.

Of course, younger climbers have their own theories. "Look at the Seven Summits," gripes 39-year-old Scott Fischer, a prominent American climber, suggesting that the geezer phenomenon has as much to do with economics as pulmonary efficiency. "A rich old guy can pull off the feat fairly quickly. To climb, you need time and money. And old people have both."

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