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Older, Stronger and Harder: Sending After Mid-Life

There are many climbers who have retained their motivation regardless of their age, and continue to push difficulty standards throughout the world

Photo by: Mike Doyle

A few years back, 59-year-old Mike Sheehan and his partner met a couple of strong young climbers from their gym at a local crag. The younger climber was about to get on a fairly tricky mid-eleven. Sheehan and his partner moved on to another climb, and about two hours later the youngster still hadn’t sent and asked if Sheehan might get the rope up past the crux for him. Sheehan obliged, while skipping a few clips after the crux as a character-building exercise. The route required finesse, not muscle.

Life has its milestones; drinking legally at 19, renting a car at 25, being over the hill at 40, or retiring at 65. With age, we gain more responsibility, more social privileges, more benefits, but motivation can dwindle as responsibilities take over. But there are many climbers who have retained their motivation regardless of their age, and continue to push difficulty standards throughout the world. It’s time to change our thinking and realize that high grades are for anyone who cares to keep trying hard.

Steve Haston and Maurizio Manolo Zanolla, both in their 50s, have done first of ascents of 5.14 routes in the past year. They are part of a growing niche of climbers in their 40s and 50s who continue climbing at a level which few climbers ever achieve. Many lesser-known climbers continue pushing difficulty between working day jobs and having families. The proliferation of difficult grades and the explosion of training methods support longer hard climbing careers, and these climbers have learned to make climbing be a priority in their lives while fulfilling other responsibilities. The characteristic unique to many of these climbers, however, is that they are not only sustaining their climbing ability, but improving their performance with age.

Steve Haston in U.K. Photo Steve Haston Collection
Steve Haston in U.K. Photo Steve Haston Collection

Sean Cassidy, 41, continues to redpoint 5.12 and is enjoying climbing as much as ever. Cassidy, a prolific Nova Scotia route developer of the 90s, established Nova Scotia’s first 5.13 sport route, which remains one of only three 5.13s in the province. Although strength decreases, he finds himself working more on refining his endurance, body positioning and mental fortitude.

Cassidy recalls when he began climbing in the 80s, when 5.13 was the hardest grade. “Now 5.13 is considered easy,” he says, “largely because of the training benefits of plastic and the popularity of bouldering. What blows my mind is the speed with which people climb difficult routes, especially long, committing ones. It’s very humbling. At the same time, it really inspires me to make my own goals and aspire to them.”

British Columbia’s Lindsay Eltis is surprised that standards have not progressed more. Eltis, 48, believes that climbing hard at an older age requires the same motivation it does at any age, combined with fortunate genetics and a cautious approach.

“Avoiding injury involves training in the proper manner and on tissues that can take the stress,” Eltis said. “We can control the former, but the latter is the luck of the draw.” For Eltis, it does not seem to be a case of 50 being the new 30, but more of 5.12 becoming the new 5.10.

“With stickier rubber, better training opportunities and a bigger climbing community, it is easier to climb harder than it used to be,” he said. Eltis did not begin climbing 5.13 until gaining access to a climbing gym in 1999, after which he proceeded to climb all of his hardest routes in his 40s.

Today, it is possible for all climbers to be exposed to routes at a level of difficulty that was not so long ago very uncommon. The advancements in climbing and training technology have made it easier to stay motivated and enjoy training. Realistic indoor facilities give climbers an enjoyable alternative in the off-season, and offer better-than-ever options for improving strength and fitness.

In the opinion of Ontario-based climber Daniel Martian, the proliferation of hard climbing has had a significant effect on the breakdown of the aura previously associated with difficult routes. “The mental barrier of climbing routes that were considered hard 10 to 15 years ago was broken, so lots of climbers of all ages do harder routes these days. These keep more climbers inspired and motivated. Climbing hard became more popular.”

Lindsay Eltis on Globetrotters 5.13c. Photo Mike Doyle
Lindsay Eltis on Globetrotters 5.13c. Photo Mike Doyle

Martian is responsible for significant first ascents at Ontario’s Lion’s Head including his hardest to date, Lion’s Head Express 5.14a, in 2007. Many climbers in their forties and fifties have utilized modern training facilities to climb harder than ever. “There are exceptional young athletes in every sport, so we shouldn’t be surprised that 13- and 14-year-olds are climbing at a very high level,” says Sheehan.

Sheehan however, finds it difficult to relate to the younger climbers. “Their accomplishments are remarkable, but, I’m more inspired by the 60 year-old who climbs 5.14. It motivates me to believe I can enjoy climbing for many more years. Frankly, I am more impressed by Sonnie Trotter freeing Cobra Crack and Alex Honnold’s soloing than by the gymnastic antics in Spanish caves. Somehow, those achievements seem to have pushed the envelope of human endeavour further.”

Martian, like Cassidy, Eltis, and Sheehan has made the necessary adjustments to training in order to keep climbing at a level of high difficulty. Working hard at being flexible can make you a more nimble and efficient climber. On some routes, flexibility can be a substitute for lost power, as you may have more options when climbing through a difficult sequence. While the benefits of good flexibility are underrated by many climbers, it’s hard to deny the most important climbing tool is your brain.

Thinking more about sequences and searching for body positions, makes powerful sequences easier and can save energy when strength and power begin to decrease. There are so many aspects of climbing that can always be improved that a loss in power is not detrimental. Sheehan has modified his approach to projecting difficult routes by focusing on taking fewer tries, with longer rests in between.

“You don’t recover as quickly between attempts, so you can’t make as many attempts in the same period of time. Trying to do so will be frustrating and inevitably lead to over-use injuries.” Using experience and becoming more analytical in approaching a climb can lead to success with fewer attempts and less physical effort.

Danial Martian. Photo Peter Hoang Photography (Follow on Instagram here)
Danial Martian. Photo by Peter Hoang

Eltis began cross-training after finding that his body cannot handle the same stresses as it used to be able to. Even after a ten-hour work day, however, he is excited to have a good workout because it restores balance in his life and re-energizes him. Cassidy maintains that people who love being outside will continue to do so, regardless of age. Making climbing a priority in life becomes perhaps the most important aspect of sustaining climbing performance.

Many older climbers find that there is only so much free time to climb after family and work commitments. Raising kids and holding down jobs can quickly knock people out of their active routine. Even if you manage to climb frequently and maintain a good level of overall fitness while avoiding serious injuries, your power, endurance and recovery time at fifty or sixty will not be what it was at twenty-five. Without a passion and a love of climbing for its own sake, it will be difficult to stay motivated, but those who really love climbing, running, skiing, etc., will continue to do it no matter what. It is part of who they are.

Whether 50 is the new 30 or 5.12 is the new 5.10, it’s clear there has been a major paradigm shift in climbing over the past few years. Manolo and Hastings are pushing extreme difficulty through their 50s. Climbers like Alex Honnold are redefining what is possible without a rope, and Sonnie Trotter has shown us what can be climbed with traditional protection. Less famous local climbers, however, are showing us that climbing hard is not something you can only do in your 20s and 30s.

With the right training it is possible to keep improving through middle age and keep climbing hard for a long time. Climbing is all about redefining the possible. Each time a more difficult grade is established, whether it’s 5.14d, 5.15a, or 5.15b, what we thought was the hardest thing possible, no longer is.

So, as we gasp in awe at these climbers who are climbing hard routes, we should ask ourselves what it is about it that impresses us so much. Is it that the route was hard? Or was it that we thought someone their age shouldn’t be able to climb that hard? We have access to modern training facilities, sticky rubber transforms our feet into pocket-seeking talons, allowing us to climb on angles which once felt impossible.

Ultralight and strong gear keeps us safe and does not weigh us down, giving us a never-before felt sense of freedom while climbing. As long as we can stave off injury, we have the inspiration and the means to keep enjoying climbing for a long time. This article was written by Aidas Odonelis for a 2010 issue of Gripped magazine. 

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Lead photo: Mike Doyle