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Climbing Into Old Age: 7 Senior Climbers Share Their Experience and Advice

"There are kids who are way stronger than me but climbing at the same grades because I have patience. I have strategy." —Lee Sheftel, 71

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Unlike many sports, climbing has a vibrant community of participants in their 60s and 70s. The Ironworks gym in Berkeley, California, calls these veteran climbers the Geriatric Crew. Others refer to them as “old guns” (like young guns). On the ground, they may walk gingerly to avoid tweaking a sore knee or a bad back, but once they tie in, they leave behind their timid gait for smooth and efficient movement on the wall. Some, like Chuck Odette and Lee Sheftel, are elite climbers. In 2017 at age 61, Odette became the oldest person to claim a 5.14 first ascent with Utah’s Bulletproof Monk. Others are happy just sending 5.11s on toprope in the gym.

“Normally what keeps older athletes out of sports are weight-bearing compressive loads,” says climber and physical therapist Dr. Jared Vagy. “Climbing doesn’t have large compressive forces. It’s a technique-based sport that doesn’t have to involve fast-twitch muscle. As we get older, we need to find things that challenge us physically and mentally. It’s hard to find sports that are low risk for injury, but high in those mental and physical demands. Climbing is one of those perfect balances where you can challenge your physicality in a slow and controlled way.”

I talked to seven senior climbers—between ages 62 and 75—to understand their climbing experience as they age, how to continuing rocking it on the wall for the duration of one’s climbing career, and what younger climbers should be doing now if they want to climb for the a few more decades. Take note: Their advice could be what keeps you on the rock into 2048 and beyond.

How climbing changes as you age:

Chuck Odette, 62

Completed a 5.14a first ascent at 61
Started climbing in 1979, at age 23

Chuck Odette eyes the lower crux after the 5.13b horizontal roof start on his first ascent, Bulletproof Monk (5.14a).Photo: Heidi Baxter, courtesy Chuck Odette

“I’m more mindful of my limitations now. When I was younger, I didn’t think about getting injured or how long it was going to take to recover because it usually didn’t take long. But now I know that if I get injured, I’m looking at months to recover. I’m definitely more mindful of that and more strategic if I’m contemplating a big move to a hold I’m not sure about. I’ll think about it before I do it. I’ll even haul up a stick clip to toprope the move to make it a bit safer instead of just going for it.

“I’m forced to find different means to get through really hard cruxes of climbs. For instance, I’ve become really proficient at kneebaring and kneescumming. Better foot placement and core development is another big thing. I’ve learned to use my entire core for climbing, not just my upper body to pull my way through.

“Because it takes me longer to do things—like redpoint a route—I have to be more strategic and rest more. Instead of doing a hard 5.13 in two weeks, it can take me several weeks or even a month. My sessions on the rock are longer, as it takes more time to find the movements. Where it used to only take me 10 or 20 minutes to muscle my way through a section, I now have to find precise moves. I have to be patient, which can be difficult to do when there are other climbers around who want to get on a particular route. It can put pressure on you to work more quickly. I have had to learned to ignore that and do my own thing.”

Dierdre Wolownick, 66

Jugged El Cap with her son Alex Honnold, climbs 5.10a
Started climbing in 2009, at age 55

Dierdre Wolownick Lover’s Leap South Lake Tahoe Rock Climbing Alex Honnold Mom
Dierdre Wolownick jugs a line at Lover’s Leap in South Lake Tahoe, California.Jonathan Boyton

“I climb the best when I climb with Alex [Honnold, Wolownick’s son], because Alex assumes everyone can do everything. I like climbing with someone who challenges me. But the worry comes from knowing that I can’t do certain things. I could reach a hold but I can’t pull myself up because I can’t do a pullup, or I can’t hold on with one hand if the other slips.

“Alex knows that he can do anything physically, so he just goes for it. I know I might fail, and that changes how you approach climbing. You can’t go for it if you can’t do a pullup, or if your toes don’t bend. Something is going to snap. I know that I’m safe with him so it’s not fear, but you learn to mitigate your body limitations. I know that I’m going to get weaker and less capable as I get older, so it’s a different approach. Knowing your limitations and knowing how to work around them gets more and more important as you get older.”

Mark Johnson, 63,

Climbs 5.12 in Bishop, California
Started climbing in 1987, at age 33

“You figure out how to do things with trickery and with less strength. It’s not even a conscious decision to use less strength, but it evolves that way as your technique improves. You learn to stand on things you never thought you could stand on. You find the holds that you ignored in the past. It’s about feet and body position—that’s the bottom line.”

John Hoffman, 74

Climbs 5.12c in Bishop, California
Started climbing in 1971, at age 27

John Hoffman still climbs hard routes into his seventh decade.Courtesy John Hoffman

“I have been watching women climb, and they’re incredible. They are so clever—how they move their bodies in different ways that I never thought of because I would just pull hard. Instead, they will scoot around [a move] or line up their center of mass so they can balance. That’s probably one of the most fascinating things for me in the past few years. It’s helped me immensely.”

Learning to adapt:

Chuck Odette, 62

“As a senior, I’m not able to climb at the level I used to. I don’t have that power or strength, but I can come pretty close by learning new techniques. But no matter what level, it’s still challenging. I think that’s the allure. Everyday I get up and I’m still passionate to climb. Everyday I’m excited about getting out there and testing myself.”

Mark Johnson, 63

“When we’re in our prime, we train hard several days each week, breaking down muscle tissue so it will grow back stronger. As we age, it takes longer for the tissue to grow back, for the micro-trauma in the muscle tissue to heal. I found that if I continued to train as I did when I was younger, it made me weaker, not stronger. So after about 50, I didn’t allow myself to train more than two days per week. And when I adopted that schedule, I found that I could climb harder on those two days.”

Jeffrey Schaffer, 75

Climbs 5.10c in Northern California
Started climbing in 1960, at age 17

Jeffrey Schaffer Whoops Summit Rock Climbing Senior
Jeffrey Schaffer (left) poses for a summit photo in July 2012.Courtesy Jeffrey Schaffer

“You can’t compete with how you were in your 20s. You shouldn’t be obsessed with it, and you should learn to let those things go.”

John Hoffman, 74

“A lot of climbers get depressed if they aren’t climbing well. That’s not healthy if you want to climb for the next 30 years. When I was younger, my identity was very wrapped up in what I could send and what I couldn’t, but not so much anymore. It’s more just the enjoyment of climbing.”

Advice for younger climbers:

Chuck Odette, 62

“The big mistake younger climbers make is they tend to over-climb or over-train. That’s understandable, that they get sucked in because they are passionate. The truth is you need to find the precise balance of training, climbing, and resting. You need to allow your muscles to recover, and that’s how you get stronger more quickly.”

Lee Sheftel, 71

Climbs 5.13 in Colorado
Started climbing in 1980, at age 33

Lee Sheftel Maple Canyon Utah Sport Climbing Rock Senior
Lee Sheftel pulling cobbles at the Pipe Dream cave, Maple Canyon, Utah.Courtesy Lee Sheftel

“Younger climbers have a lot of strength they built up in the gym, but there are two things they are really missing: One is technique on the rock. They overuse their strength and underuse technique. They’ve only got gym technique. They are jumping for shit, dynoing for shit. Most of the the time it is inefficient. There are kids who are way stronger than me but climbing at the same grades because I have patience. I have strategy. After they muscle their way up a climb, I’ll ask them: ‘Do you know how to do the moves so that when you get tired and pumped you can still do them?’”

John Hoffman, 74

“You think you heal when you are 25, 35, 45… but when you are 75, all those old injuries come back to haunt you. They don’t go away; they just lie in wait. I watch these kids jumping off boulder problems and jarring [their bodies], and I think, in 50 years they are all going to be cripples. That jarring is stored and comes back to haunt you in your 70s.”

Sallie Lopes, 63

Climbs 5.11 in the gym
Started climbing in 2002, at age 47

Sallie Lopes has learned to climb smarter and not push herself to injury.Courtesy Sallie Lopes

“Looking back, I wouldn’t have tried so many hard [routes] and taxed myself so much that I got a minor shoulder injury because I just wanted to get it. Now I know that I was never going to get it, because I didn’t have the expertise. I would have been smarter and not have muscled through just so I could [flash] those routes.”

John Hoffman, 74

“If your goal is to keep yourself from sagging, I can’t imagine a healthier game than climbing.”

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