Best Before

Seems reasonable to me… (Photo by Corey Rich)

“I wish I’d gotten into climbing earlier…”

It’s a pretty common lamentation among climbers of advanced antiquity (e.g. 30+). We quake in fear as climbing gyms spill forth with torrent of fresh, young mutants, all with starry eyes and bulging forearms.

“What was I doing at that age?” we wonder. “Which den of inequity did I frequent most often?” Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Oops… Sorry, folks. I seem to have already floated away on the stream of consciousness, but there is a very fine and quite reasonable question hidden beneath all this nonsense. No, we can’t turn back the clock and have another crack at our youth, and to be fair, I’m not certain that many would even if offered the chance. And so, the more relevant question remains: What is the shelf life of a climber? How long can we reasonably be expected to perform such a physically demanding task?

To answer these questions, we’ll need to take a look at how the body performs over different periods of the human life cycle. We’ll also need to consider what specifically the tasks at hand are going to consist of, and whether or not these will change with time.

For the vast majority of sports, peak performance occurs somewhere between the ages of 20 and 30. After this point, the body goes into a state of physiological decline. There are many reasons for this, but if we had to narrow it down to a couple of main culprits, you’d probably go with oxygen uptake and muscle composition.

The maximal ability of the body to utilise oxygen is known as V02 Max. Essentially, it is a numerical figure that describes how effectively your body can obtain oxygen via the lungs, how effectively this is transferred to your muscles and how effectively your muscles metabolise it. This figure is seen to decline by around 10% in most people for each decade after 30.

Secondly, the number of Type 2 (also known as fast twitch) muscle fibres decline with age. Therefore, we experience a drop in explosive power. The decline in Type 1 fibres (slow twitch) is not as apparent.

With these physiological changes, it’s clear that the body is better equipped for different forms of exercise at different periods. Let’s start with the most basic of athletic examples – running. Peak performance for sprinters occurs between 22 and 24. An obvious outlier to this statistic is Usain Bolt, who we can all safely agree is an alien from Planet Fast. Conversely, marathon runners tend to peak much later, often between 30 and 40.

Now, we can extrapolate that same trend to the world of climbing. We could make direct comparisons between sprinting with bouldering and sport climbing, and marathon running with trad climbing and mountaineering.

So it follows that if you’re looking at making a career based on highball boulders or fiendishly difficult sport routes, your twenties are your best bet. In the 2007 climbing film, King Lines, Chris Sharma comments that he has only a few seasons left before he hits 30. By then, he knows, his peak as a sport climber in the upper echelons of the sport is spent. Since then, we have indeed seen a changing of the guard. The first ascent of La Dura Dura, as made famous by the Reel Rock short, saw the baton pass to Adam Ondra. He and Alexander Megos look set to duke it out all the way to 5.16.

Meanwhile, in the world of alpinism, men two decades older are leading the charge. As well as featuring the projecting of La Dura Dura, Reel Rock 7 documented the first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Meru. Conrad Anker, who led the expedition, was 48 when the route fell after three decades of obsession. More recently, the late Ueli Steck completed the 82 Alps over 4000m in 62 days. He achieved this at the ripe old age of 38, reaching each peak by human power. And that’s not to mention his 28 hour blitz of Annapurna, or his 2015 record breaking ascent of the Eiger Nordwand. These achievements are thoroughly in keeping with the notion of endurance athleticism peaking much later in life.

So what’s the upshot of all this? It’s certainly true that there is something of a curtailed timeframe for certain niches of each sport. But let’s be honest… how many of us are realistically going to send a 5.15? Or even a 5.14?

As non-professional athletes, we weekend warriors can perform at a relatively high level in many disciplines for the majority of our lives. If we stay fit and active, there is no reason we can’t hike, climb and ski into our 50’s and beyond. It behooves one to pick activities and objectives suited to one’s ability, but this fact remains true no matter what age we are. And in some respects, we may find the benefits of experience and knowledge to far outweigh the negative aspects of aging. Take trad climbing or alpinism for example, where the benefits of endurance and experience easily outstrip those of physical prowess and brute force.

I personally know a great number of folks who have maintained a very active lifestyle well into their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and beyond. In my observations and conversations with them, I have identified three key elements that bind their experience.

The first is simple – keep going. The body and the mind shut down if left to waste.

The second can be little trickier – be kind to your body. Take the time to rest and recuperate, as well as fix imbalances, injuries and strains.

And last is probably the most important – enjoy it. No, you’re not going to be a sponsored athlete, and neither will I. That ship has sailed, my friends. Grades are just suggestions and routes are just arbitrary lines of rock, ice and snow. Don’t worry about being the best, but focus on learning, growth and fostering your love of the sport and your joy in the wilderness.

And remember, you’re never too old. Fred Beckey is 93 years old, so what’s your excuse?

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
July 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?