The Last Lead: Aging Out of Climbing

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Dick Dorworth Rock Climbing Old Climber Retire

Author Dick Dorworth, ~10 years ago, topping out the Mountaineer’s Route on the Elephant’s Perch in Idaho's Sawtooth Range for the last time. Photo by Dave Hart

It had to happen. The signs leading up to the last lead had been clear and chronic for several years, but with a mind fueled by denial that was stronger than an aging body trapped in reality, I had been able to ignore one of life’s more stubborn realities so poetically expressed by Robert Frost: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” 

Though I was nearly 30 before I started to climb, climbing immediately became and then remained integral to my life for the next 40-plus years—vital as personal endeavor, as a profession, as inspiration for my writing, and vital because it let me be part of a culture in which I was comfortable, at home, and a member of the tribe. Every climber with a decade or three of significant time spent moving up and down rock and ice and snow features—20 to 29,000 feet high—will recognize the attraction (addiction?) of this lifestyle, known to be sometimes fatal.

Though never—in morning or afternoon—able to climb at the technical standard of, say, my old climbing partner Hermann Goellner (who always took the harder leads), I climbed as well as I ever could into my 50s before signs of "afternoon" began to appear. The first sign was major back surgery for a disease physically unrelated to climbing (though it’s possible that disease was picked up in Tibet or China or elsewhere during a climbing trip). The second sign, shortly afterwards, was when my shoulders ached and wouldn’t work properly, an irritation solved by a horse liniment called DMSO, illegal for human use at the time but readily available, like so many illegal substances, to those who need them.

Then, on Memorial Day, when I was 60, I tore my Achilles tendon without completely severing it. I avoided surgery, just barely, but was on crutches with a removable Velcro cast for several weeks. I hired a physical therapist and followed her regimen to the letter, pumped iron, and worked out in a gym nearly every day, all summer long. The somewhat ironic result was that by Labor Day when I returned to the stone, my aging body was in the best climbing shape it had enjoyed in several years, and my climbing improved. Another consequence of the injury and long rehab was that I was unable to work at my long-time summer job as a climbing guide for Exum Mountain Guides in the Teton mountains, a significant financial hit somewhat softened by working as a newspaper reporter.

There’s nothing like recovering from an injury to make one better appreciate the delights of physical activity, and that autumn’s rock climbing, the next winter’s ice climbing and the "afternoon" knowledge of now being in my 60s convinced me that whatever time remained would be better spent pursuing the personal satisfactions of climbing for myself rather than the illusory security and real satisfaction of being paid to take other people climbing. As a Buddhist, I tried to find the middle way and just work as a guide part-time, but only full-time guides can live on Guides’ Hill in the Tetons. And that meant either spending most of my part-time guiding wages for rent in the ridiculously inflated Jackson Hole rental market or embracing a dirtbag, car-dwelling lifestyle that I knew all too well from earlier climbing days. Dirtbagging for climbing had been both acceptable and enjoyable for me, but for guiding it was neither. My guiding days were over.

For the next ten years, into my early 70s, I climbed hard and made some of the most enjoyable climbs of my life, both on the crags and in the mountains. During those years my hands gradually began to look and feel even older than the rest of my body as the signature curlicues and protuberances and aches and pains of Dupuytren’s contracture arrived. Its contributing factors include Dutch ancestry, drinking alcohol, and simple aging, each of which describes me even though I’ve not had a drink or other recreational drug in 30 years. But before that it was a different story. As it became gradually impossible to straighten my fingers or place a hand flat against a smooth surface, I adapted.

The old hands continued to climb a bit less than as well as ever...until one day when I was 72 and leading a route I’d done many times—Kevin Pogue’s typically well-bolted (some say over-bolted), beautiful 5.10b Mantle Dynamics at Idaho’s Castle Rocks. The strangest thing happened. As I was mantling the crux move and inspiration for the route’s name, with my body and brain filled as usual with the bliss molecule anandamide (the human hormone equivalent of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC (see “The Alchemy of Action” by Doug Robinson) and completely enjoying the present moment of the climb, both hands suddenly quit functioning, and feeling in my right hand completely vanished. In that instant both my hands changed from tools of controlled precision to claws of insensitive clumsiness. I managed to make the move and, after a rest and vigorous shake out, finish the climb. At the top I was unable to make a fist, but, as so often happens in life, habit obscured clear evaluation of a new reality and I began the rappel down.

Fortunately, only another old habit and practice of NEVER rappelling without a Prusik saved me (and my climbing partner) from a potentially ugly incident. As I started to rappel, my right and lower hand could no longer grip the rope with sufficient strength to exert enough friction on the ATC to ensure a safe landing, and I began to move faster than was comfortable. Adrenaline quickly flooded what was left of my anandamide oasis and I immediately cinched the Prusik above me with my left hand and stopped. When my heart slowed down and both anandamide and adrenaline went home for naps, my mind cleared a bit and I wrapped the rope around my leg a couple of times, creating enough friction that my clumsy claw was able to grip strongly enough to get me to the ground in one piece. I was grateful to end up with both feet on the earth in the upright position.

For the last couple days of that trip my hands hurt too much to consider climbing and I didn’t trust my grip enough to belay with an ATC, so I took morning hikes around the beautiful City of Rocks while my friends climbed, pondered with "afternoon" wisdom my new reality, and soaked in Durfee’s Hot Springs in nearby Almo each evening. Upon returning home, I consulted the local hand specialist physician—an interesting encounter with the frustrations of reality. After many questions, much prodding and manipulating of the hands and the mandatory X-rays she asked me, “When did you break your right hand?” “I never broke my hand,” I replied. “Oh, yes you did,” she said, showing me the X-ray proof of her assertion that at some point my hand had been broken and my denial-fueled mind had carried on as if reality was of secondary concern. I doubt I am the only climber who ever treated reality in such a cavalier way, but these thoughts offer neither comfort nor justification. She also recommended against surgery, politely and with circumspection hinting that at my age surgery could create more problems than it might cure and that I should consider a life without climbing.

Naturally, I sought a second opinion with a hand surgeon in a different state who, for an exorbitant fee, told me he completely agreed with the first physician’s conclusion. Since my overall physical health and capabilities are better than many my age, he had little empathy with my desire to continue climbing and told me, “I suggest you take an Aleve a day and get on with life without climbing.”

I don’t like what Aleve does to my system and I continued with the climbing life by dropping the grade standard a couple of notches, pushing the standard a bit on days when my hands felt good and backing off when they didn’t, and learning to belay with a Grigri. That worked well enough and climbing continued to be a satisfying adventure, though climbing partners were harder to find. My former partners (most of them 15 to 30 years younger) only became available when they were desperate for a belay slave or when their good will towards an elder, the pleasures of companionship, or basic kindness overcame their personal climbing ambitions for a day or a pitch. At the age of 74, in the company of the kind and patient Scott Smith, I made what is surely my last ascent of one of my favorite pieces of rock, Idaho’s Elephant’s Perch, by the standard Mountaineer’s Route. When we finished the route I felt a deep gratitude for a long life in beautiful mountains, none more beautiful than the Perch. I continue to be called upon to belay my partner, Jeannie Wall, who climbs 5.12 on good days and who climbed Fitz Roy in Patagonia nearly 50 years after I did, but I often can’t get off the ground on the routes she picks.

And then last September, a month before my 78 birthday, I was climbing for the first time in Bear Canyon near Bozeman, Montana, with my friend Jason Thompson, the fine photographer. I was leading what the guidebook rated a well-protected 5.8, presumably within my comfort zone (I had put out of mind the reality that Montana is well known among cognoscenti as the sandbag capital of American climbing). I don’t remember ever falling before without some warning that the fall was coming, but this time I was unexpectedly and suddenly in the air. About 20 feet later I stopped with a rope-stretch bounce, completely surprised, more stunned than scared, and not at all injured. “Holy shit,” Jason said, “what happened?” I didn’t know, but I climbed back up to the point of the fall and discovered that I was unable to complete the lead. It was simply too hard. I retreated and let Jason finish. Then I did it with a toprope and barely made the crux moves even with that toprope. We climbed a couple more routes before calling it a day. And I spent the next several days contemplating that fall from the perspective of the late afternoon of a long, good life, lived as well as I have been able, and came to a decision that I consider better than some others I have made: leading was immediately off my list of options as a climber.

It was the last lead.

I continue to climb, filled with toprope courage and gratitude to still be able to do something I love, so satisfying to body, mind and soul. Yes, there is noticeably less anandamide (and adrenaline) coursing through my system, but I’ve recently discovered that CBD hemp oil helps my hands, and every day I better appreciate Robert Frost’s wisdom.   

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