Layton Kor, a legendary 72-year-old American climber, relaxes on a belay ledge during an Arizona climb. Photograph © Stewart M. Green
You’re never too old to be a climber. Well, that’s not quite true. If you’re in your 80s you might be a bit too old to start rock climbing but if you’re in good cardiovascular condition, have reasonable fitness, and are not too overweight then go for it. You don’t have to be muscle bound, able to do 20 pull-ups or be able to leap small cars to go rock climbing. Instead, you have to be willing to try something new, willing to fail, and willing to be patient.
Always Be a Beginner
A lot of folks adopt a defeatist attitude as they get older. It seems easier to relax in a rocking chair in front of the television or on the front porch than to continue to step out into the world and try new things. If that’s you, adopt a new mantra—“Always be a beginner”—and start on the path toward becoming a rock climber. Just reading this article means you are already on that path.
Almost Anyone Can Climb
You don’t have to be an adrenalin junkie, spiderman, or super jock to go climbing.
As a professional climbing guide with Front Range Climbing Company in Colorado Springs, I regularly take older folks climbing. Many times our senior clients ask for a mature and experienced guide—that’s me—feeling that I won’t take unnecessary risks and will understand the physical obstacles and mental challenges that they face as a beginning climber.
Start at an Indoor Climbing Gym
The best way to start climbing, however, is to visit your local indoor climbing gym. Go with a friend or your spouse, which will make it more fun as you learn how to climb and as you grow as climbers. Take a few classes. Learn how to belay. Meet some like-minded new climbers. In the gym, work at learning about movement, about using your body in new and different ways. Concentrate on economizing your strength and moving efficiently. Focus on using your feet better and keeping your weight centered over your feet. Don’t worry about getting strong or climbing hard routes. That will come later. Just learn how to climb and move over the vertical terrain.
Hire a Guide to Build Skills
After you’ve been climbing in the gym, then hiring a competent guide to take you climbing is a great idea. When I guide someone interested in climbing, I ask them, “Do you want a carnival ride? Or do you want to learn how to become a climber?” It’s okay if you just want to climb and enjoy the climbing movements. Nothing wrong with that because climbing makes you feel good. But if you want to learn how to become a climber, then that is a whole different type of class where I teach the skills necessary to be a climber, including belaying, rappelling, and how to keep safe and look after yourself on the rock. These are not skills that are learned in a single session but over a period of months.
Take It Easy and Don’t Get Injured
As you learn to climb, take it easy and slow. Be the tortoise, not the hare. Younger climbers have a couple big advantages over older ones—they are less likely to get injured because they’re stronger and more flexible and they recover much more quickly from injuries like muscle pulls and strains. Always remember to thoroughly stretch your muscles and to warm up before climbing. Put together a short stretching routine, then do some light jogging, followed by climbing a bunch of easy routes to wake up your arms and fingers. When you start out climbing, plan on being sore since you will be using lots of muscles, especially in your arms, which you don’t use in everyday life. Remember to rest between climbing sessions. It’s okay to take a few days off to recover so that you don’t develop nagging climbing injuries.
Get Better By Climbing a Lot
The best way to improve at climbing is to go climbing. The more time you spend in the gym and on the rock, the more quickly you will learn climbing movements, techniques, and balance. You will also get stronger by just going climbing. Older climbers usually lack the power and strength of younger climbers, but they make up for less power by having more endurance. When you go climbing as a novice, try to do a lot of easy pitches. Get into the rhythm of climbing and moving over stone.
You're Not Too Old! Get Climbing!
If you have any doubt about learning to climb if you’re in your fifties or sixties, then get out and try it. A climbing adventure is as near as your closest indoor gym. Climbing is great fun and a lifelong sport. The effort you put into climbing as a senior pays off by making you more fit, helps you lose weight, and puts you in touch with the brave parts of yourself that you’ve probably repressed since you were a kid climbing trees. You will also make lots of new friends of all ages when you go climbing. Okay, what are you waiting for? Get going. Get climbing!