“You’re Too Old to Hike with US”: Prejudice and Ageism in the Colorado Hiking Community
There’s no question about it. Colorado is an awesome place to play. Somehow, the secret is out-which means that people have realized that we here in the Rocky Mountain state don’t contend with tons of snow (well, sometimes a big dump in spring but what a boon for skiers), our year-round sunshine is awesome, and the scenery, well, come on man.
Since I moved to Denver in the early seventies, nearly fifty years ago, more than five millions souls have landed here in search of the Holy Grail of fabulous playgrounds, nice sunshine, and now, lots of good jobs.
Okay, okay, so the cost of living has skyrocketed. That, too. But still.
However, with all the goodies that come with this State, not everyone is included. For a long time, Denver has been a city with the largest percentage of folks between the ages of 25–45, which is why, even in a land-locked, mountainous state, we have boasted the largest percentage of scuba divers per capita.
Not a beach in sight. But there you are. We like to play outside, and we take our sports seriously.
I also scuba dive. In Africa, even.
However that demographic is highly instructive, as I found out a few years back.
As I prepare to leave for Africa in just a few weeks to climb Mt. Kenya, five years to the day since I summitted Kilimanjaro, I was reminded recently of an experience that I had in 2013 when I first began my intense training program to hike that mountain. I keep getting notices from an organization that really, really, wants me back.
No, really. We do.
Um, no you don’t, folks.
Sixty at the time and already in pretty good shape as a bodybuilder and stair runner, I thought it might be useful to join the Colorado Mountain Club to get some training and experience hiking our local speed bumps. This was an adjunct to what at the time was a brutally challenging training program of swimming, running, cycling, body building, and running at least 2400 stairs four times a week. Nearly four hours a day, five days a week.
Well, that was the plan. I dutifully joined. Read the happy-dappy promise of all the friends I’d meet and all the activities I’d enjoy. All those trips and all that training and all those classes. Sounded good to me.
I was all in and ready to rumble.
What I wanted from the CMC was high altitude hiking experience. Time at altitude. Endurance training on the mountain with weight on my back. That was part of what the CMC promised. Make lots of new friends.
Here’s what really happened: Shortly after I joined, I followed the instructions to get in touch with trip leaders who had local excursions planned. Didn’t matter to me, I just wanted my boots on the ground. I’d pick a trip, leave a message for a trip leader.
The mistake I made was telling them my age.
Nobody ever called back. Not once, not ever.
After weeks of trying to get someone to return my call, I called CMC headquarters. Again, I made the mistake of telling them my age. The nice women I spoke with repeatedly gave me people who were my age bracket (not what I wanted) and pushed me towards groups that were in their sixties and older who did easier climbs. Most of those I called had ceased operating.
They were far too old (age wasn’t the issue, they had given up exercising which had made them old) their hikes far too easy even if I did join them. Even if they were still operating.
When I finally reached one woman in Colorado Springs, she was an ancient who hadn’t been on the mountain in years. Most of these folks hardly even got outside any more.
It was a ridiculous waste of my time, and a slap in the face as well. I repeatedly told the folks at CMC what I was doing, training for, and the shape I was in.
Like pissing into the wind.
The implicit and explicit messages were You can’t keep up.You’re too old. We don’t want you hiking with us. You’ll slow us down.
I kept calling the CMC headquarters for help. They were politely apologetic, because after all, the group leaders were volunteers. Nobody could be made to include you.
Of course not. Any more than you can solve the issue of rank ageism.
Eventually one man called me back and condescendingly lectured me that I couldn’t possibly train for Kilimanjaro by running the stairs at Red Rocks. He wasn’t interested in helping me find a group to hike with, either. Clearly I was WAY too old.
I thought about that breathlessly arrogant man when I stood at the top of Kili under the bright green sign, grinning at my guide.
The hike up had been a relative breeze. It was the 30-year-old who accompanied me who bonked on the ascent. Whose pack our guides had to take for her. Who had to take multiple rests. I’m not being critical. The difference was that I had prepared- thoroughly and patiently and almost to the extreme. She hadn’t.
A great many people a fraction my age assume that their relative youth will get them through. Um, no it doesn’t. It can get them killed.
Yah. I’m just way too old for this sh*t.
Since then I have hiked some pretty epic mountains, in Nepal, in Myanmar, in a range of places. I often leave my (much, much younger) local guides behind. While I have to be a bit mindful of a slightly cranky left knee- and many of us do at any age, not just in our sixties- I am a mountain goat. A steady, powerful climber with exceptional endurance and a sense of humor. I’m competent in the outdoors, know my gear and respect the conditions.
Not only that I never, ever panic in extreme situations. I’ve had my share. Being ex-military, I am mindful of the team’s needs, the weakest link, and am happy to shoulder someone else’s backpack in addition to mine if they are dead tired. I chop wood, help break down camp, help others with their tents, clean up after dinner when others walk away leaving their dirty dishes scattered around the fire. Someone else will do it. I frequently do. . The work still has to get done. It’s just work. And it has to get done, period.
I would bet, although I don’t know since I was never allowed even on a day hike with the CMC, that most if not all of these competencies might be useful on an outing.
Never found out.
After I got back from Africa that year, having summitted Kilimanjaro and had myself one heck of a good time, I contacted the CMC’s then-president and told him of my experience. He of course apologized profusely. Asked me to stay on. I got my membership investment back. One and done.
Since then the CMC has peppered me regularly with emails inviting me to come on down. Their headquarters is just a few miles away in Golden. I drove by their bus just the other day, which was yet another reminder.
Here’s what insults me- and others like me -the most: every time I walk into an REI store, I see plenty of men and women my age. Strong, competent, capable. Legs like pistons. They and I put in umpteen hours getting and staying in shape. We have years of solid experience in the high hills. These are folks you can lean on. Depend on. They know the mountains.
So do I.
CMC is a microcosm of a society that assumes that when you reach a certain age, you not only are decrepit, you’re useless. No fun. Incompetent. Can’t keep up. You’re of no value to anyone. Time to go find a rocking chair, you sure as hell can’t rock with us younger people.
Now let’s be both clear and fair. I respect knowledge and competence no matter what package it comes in. You either have the goods or you don’t. It makes little difference to me if my guide is 25 or 55- if they know their stuff I am happy to follow along, learn, and be very grateful. Anyone can be a mentor, anyone can be a teacher. To assume you can only learn from older folks is just as ridiculous as assuming the young are smarter. Both are deeply insulting to the potential quality and smarts of the individual in front of you.
In mid-November, I will be standing on the top of Mt. Kenya, which is slightly lower than Kili, assuming all goes well. Even the best of high-altitude climbers can’t always make it to their goal given altitude sickness, injury or a host of other reasons. However, we show up prepared. A great many a fraction of our age, don’t. And die trying. (PS, here’s the update, I did indeed make the summit, and the mountain was a right bastard, far harder than Kilimanjaro, thank god for training)
A year ago this month I interviewed Canadian ice climbing royalty Margo Talbot, who was among the first of Canada’s ice climbers years before that sport took off. Like others, she slept in a cold car at the base of a climb, used less-than-perfect gear, and put her time in learning the ice and building her skills. Her superb book All That Glitters is a lesson in determination, personal power and victory over shit circumstances. Highly recommended reading.
She’s now in her fifties, her pretty face framed by greying locks, her body as strong as ever. She still leads ice climbing expeditions. No reason to stop. For her, ice climbing was a way out of drug addiction. To discover who she was, her competence. She found both and vastly more.
Talbot commented, after a few high-profile climbing deaths, about “the hubris of youth.” Her concern, and I share it, is that too many people take on the mountains-and plenty of other epic sports and adventures- without learning the skills, building the strength, and earning the right to take on a task. We lose more every year. Colorado is full of such stories but we’re hardly alone.
Nor is this just in the mountains. It’s across the board.
I am nowhere near the expert Talbot is. I never will be. What I am not, however, is either foolhardy or stupid. I don’t take on adventures I am not trained for or can’t handle. I know my limitations. Interestingly, understanding what I can and cannot do is part of the benefit package of age and experience. Failure is a terrific teacher.
Each time I book a new trip, especially if I’m with group, I run into precisely the same kind of ageist assumptions about both my skills and capacity. The guides take one look at my passport and do their best to put me at the back of the pack. Try to put me on a sleepy old nag to ride when I am accustomed to riding banshees here at my stable. That’s not a good move. Particularly when, as a prize-winning journalist, I will pen a very visible review about a particular adventure that skewers their attitudes and competence.
A perfect example of this is the Perito Moreno Glaciar down in Patagonia. If you’re over 50, you don’t get to climb it. Okay, so let me get this right: I’ve done Kilimanjaro, Macchu Picchu, the Everest Base Camp. I train on stairs, bodybuild, cycle, kayak, run, swim. I have 7% body fat and am cut with muscles head to toe. All after sixty. But I’m too old.
By the same token, Jade Hameister, who skied to the South Pole at 16, would have been too young. Ageism works both ways.
As I stood at the doorway of the hostel in El Calafate watching the Glaciar bus pick up those who were allowed to hike the ice, I was stunned. People waddled by me, folks in horrible, terrible shape, people who had no damned business being on a glacier or hike of any kind. They were puffing just walking from the door to the bus.
Now let’s be very, very clear here: there are plenty, and I mean plenty of plus- sized folks who can leave my skinny old ass in the dust. This has nothing to do with size. This has to do with athletic competence. These were tourists. Not athletes. They were not prepared for any kind of athletic excursion. Including an easy climb on a glacier.
But they were allowed because they were under 50.
In fact, I climbed a different glacier. It was stupid easy. In a crevasse not far from us, people were learning to ice climb. The story I heard at the end of the day at our hostel in El Calafate: a tiny woman in her seventies made damned fools out of the entire group as she spidered her way right up the ice face.
Ageism infects the adventure tourism industry even as the preponderance of adventure travelers are in their 50s-70s. Just ask the Adventure Travel Trade Association, of which I’ve been a media member.
The hubris of youth, to quote Talbot, is an unfortunate fact of life in Western Societies. That got us Mark Zuckerburg and the international scandal that is Facebook, for example. He is one of the faces of the kind of youthful arrogance and inexperience that can spell disaster, HAS spelled disaster, for millions upon millions of people.
Youthful hubris has also spelled disaster for far too many families whose sons and daughters set out for the high country without a modicum of preparation except their iPhones and barely enough clothing for a day hike, much less a full scale blizzard.
Do older folks pull this kind of mindless stunt, too? You betcha. Witness the drunk man who wanted to take on a bison. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3HWBdj_Bmk
The backpacker who waded into a griz river looking for a selfie. https://www.backpacker.com/news-and-events/grizzly-selfie-criminal-charges-katmai-national-park
These were folks who by any measure should have known better.
Stupidity is an equal-opportunity employer.
While age doesn’t automatically convey wisdom, it also doesn’t automatically convey decrepitude. The heart and soul of diversity- diversity of ALL kinds- is to look at the individual. Assess the person, not the age (or race or religion or gender or disability or any other damned thing). The wholesale dismissal of anyone, regardless of what you may think you know, is an insult to their humanity. And to yours, in fact.
Besides. Give it time. It’ll be your turn soon enough.
I am repeatedly, and delightedly, humbled by those aging, plus-sized, and disabled athletes I run into out at Red Rocks who train as hard as or harder than I do. That’s where I’m headed as soon as I publish this, to run 2400 steps in the morning cold. At 6200 feet. Women and men in their sixties and seventies and eighties, people who carry their pounds with pride, folks who hike the steps with one leg and crutches. People who pound out their hearts out, erase their limitations, and at the same time battle the insulting assumptions that because of their age or weight or disabilities, or culture or color or religion or whatever, of course they can’t.
Just watch us.
That’s all right, guys. We’ll wait for you at the top of the mountain.