The Wright Stuff: Old Cranks in the Gym

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The Wright Stuff Toprope Rock Climbing

Top-ropers just waiting for an old crank to smoke them. Photo: Courtesy Mesa Rim Climbing & Fitness Center

Typically I don’t look to gym climbers for inspiration. In fact, in the past I may or may not have lamented that gyms are destroying dirtbag culture, disconnecting climbers from nature, and contributing to a lack of mentoring in our sport. I might have even hinted that gyms are synthetically manufacturing sport climbers and boulderers, monotonously turning out homogenized chalked-up robots from their urban polyurethane conveyor belts who couldn’t climb a 5.8 hand crack to save their lives, who have zero connection to the history of climbing, who conquer instead of interact with the rock, and whose souls are as plastic as the plastic they pull on! Well, picture me dismounting my high horse. Now. Because, goddammit, I LOVE climbing in the gym!

I enjoy the gymnastic movement, appreciate the art of good route setting, and relish having an endless supply of new routes and problems to test myself on. What climber wouldn’t love that?

During my travels, I’ve often joked that the best crag back home in Boulder is “Valmont Canyon,” otherwise known as Movement Climbing + Fitness on the corner of Valmont and 28th Street. The gym keeps me fit through the winter, and I enjoy the social aspects as well. In fact, since I moved to Boulder six years ago, my climbing has actually improved, thanks largely to the fact that I hit the gym at least once a week. So there you go, I admit it: Climbing gyms are awesome. I still refuse to be impressed by a 10-year-old (or anyone for that matter) who cranks the purple V11, though. Let’s see you climb a 5.10 offwidth at Vedauwoo. Then I’ll be impressed, you little rug rat!

But, there is one contingent of gym climbers that I can’t help but be motivated by. I call them the “Old Folks Who Crank,” a group of gym rats over the age of 50 who all climb harder than me. It is prevalent in this climber town, but I’m sure your gym has at least one senior citizen who climbs harder than most of the youngsters. In Boulder, one of the largest climbing cities in the U.S., there are a whole lot of senior senders, some of whom now climb almost exclusively indoors. It’s equal parts annoying and inspiring.

Take Dr. Steve Hong, who in the 1980s put up all the best 5.12 and 5.13 climbs in Indian Creek. Now he can be found in his 60s in the gym sending 5.14, usually with a hot young girlfriend belaying him! Then on the weekends he’s putting up 5.14 first ascents in Rifle. Some guys have all the luck, I guess. Lynn Hill is another example. You might know her for her little first free ascent of the Nose of El Cap. Impressive, I suppose. But watching her onsight all my projects in the gym in her 50s is truly humbling. It still goes, boys! She’s often found climbing with Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, who also onsights all my projects. What the heck?!

One of the most heroic old ladies I see regularly in the gym is Jaime Logan, who in a former life was Jim Logan who did the first ascent of the Emperor Face on Mount Robson and the Crack of Fear at Lumpy Ridge, the hardest 10d I have ever done in my life, an offwidth that clocks in at least 11d by modern standards. The fact that in her late 60s, Jaime had the courage to embrace her true female self is as brave as it gets. Caitlyn Jenner is light-duty compared to Jaime, trust me. But what I find truly inspiring about her is that she is still crushing 5.12+ in the gym at nearly 70!

If I listed every older person I have been impressed by in the climbing gyms around Boulder, I’d be writing a small novel. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention perhaps my biggest hero of all from this contingent: Jim Erickson. Jim was one of the original pioneers of free climbing here in Boulder in the 1960s and ’70s, especially Eldorado Canyon, where among other things he established several first ascents as hard as 5.11—onsight free solo. And Jim did the first free ascent of The Naked Edge, the best route in all of Colorado. Oh, and he invented this little thing called the quickdraw. He was influential to say the least.

Now in his late 60s, Jim is a bona fide gym rat. Even when he’s taking a rest day he can often be found just hanging out and watching people climb; that’s how much he loves it. But he’s also getting beta, because what makes Jim classic and so special among gym climbers is that he applies his old-school ethic to indoor climbing. No hangdogging! No chalk! If Jim falls, he immediately lowers to the ground. I don’t know if you’ve tried to grab a greasy gym sloper with no chalk, but it definitely makes his 5.12 onsights that much more impressive. I don’t think most people in Valmont Canyon realize there is such a legend and awesome connection to the rich history of climbing in their midst. While most rock climbers are learning on plastic and perhaps dreaming of climbing outside, these old folks who crank are going the opposite direction. Not gym to crag, but crag to gym.

It gives me hope for my own climbing as I get older. It shows me that climbing is one of those wonderful sports that if you stay consistent and healthy, it can be something that you do at a high level well into your AARP years. I’ve always thought of myself as a Lifer, someone who will climb in some form until I am physically unable to—and that seems so much further away when I see people pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible in their 50s, 60s, and beyond.

But, as I saddle up again, I still think people should get out of the gym to learn to place gear and climb the old-school routes. Being among the best climbers in the gym back in your youth isn’t a great campfire story. Would a runner be content only trotting on a treadmill? Get out of the gym. Learn to hand jam, chimney, and knee lock; leave some blood and sweat on the stone. At least go sport climbing and bouldering on some real rock for God’s sake! There’s a world of adventure and beauty out there waiting for you—GO NOW! There’ll be plenty of time to crank in the gym when you’re old. 

Cedar Wright is a contributing editor for Climbing. He’s a professional climber, filmmaker, and world-class goofball who resides in Boulder, Colorado.