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The obsessiveness with which climbers pursue climbing is often justified by results: We get stronger, we learn new skills, we get to try bigger and more distant mountains, we send harder routes, we visit cool new places, and so on. But as you get older, those payoffs require more work and come less frequently. It’s easier to get injured than it is to get stronger. It can be hard to find the time to hit the gym, much less devote six-weeks to your project in Hueco or the Karakoram. Perhaps this is why age is a source of angst for many climbers, even young ones.
But does it need to be?
Well, the honest answer is both “Yes” and “No.”
Part I. What do the numbers say?
By Chris Ring
Economist Chris Ring dives into the data, asking questions about the relationship between aging and climbing. His findings? That improving your climbing does, as suspected, get harder as you age, but that individuals nonetheless tend to progress as they move toward through their 30s, 40s, and 50s—making gains proportionate to the base they established in their teens and 20s.
By Neil Gresham
U.K.-based crusher, Neil Gresham, who recently did the first ascent of Lexicon (E11 7a) at age 50, runs through the different strengths and weaknesses that climbers are exposed to as they age. For instance, climbers between the age of seven and 12 acquire technique extremely quickly but risk endangering their growth plates if they train power with the intensity available to adults. Similarly, climbers between the ages of 40 and 60 risk injury with high-intensity power-training for the opposite reason—joint degeneration—but can still make real gains when it comes to endurance.
This article is a great resource for climbers of any age looking to see how their bodies will change to over the course of a life-long climbing career.
Part II. The Climbing Life
By Matt Samet
This isn’t a how-to article in the traditional sense of the word, nor is it a data-driven deep dive into how the body changes as it ages. Instead, it’s a meditation on what it means for Matt Samet, who’s been climbing for 35 years, to be turning 50. Samet, a longtime editor at Climbing, has been going nonstop on the rock since the 1980s; he’s climbed 5.14 sport, bouldered double digits, and done more free soloing and hard, dangerous trad than even he really wants to think about. Of course, at 50, he’s full of aches and pains—but he’s also still getting stronger, still getting better, still redpointing routes that he doesn’t think he’d have been able to when he was 25 or 30. If you’re looking for a specific training plan, look elsewhere. But if you want to see what a lifelong climbing practice looks like, and how a climbing career progresses, read this.
By Neil Gresham
Why is it that the world’s best skiers, climbers, and surfers all started as children? Well, the first reason is that children build coordination faster than adults—and retain it well into adulthood. But the second reason is that they have time to practice. Just as 2030’s NBA MVP probably spent the pandemic shooting baskets and doing ball tricks in their driveway, 2030’s best climbers are spending seven evenings a week at the climbing gym, swinging around, building life-long hand strength, and trying to figure out how to move over rock-like structures. That’s less of an option for 25-year-olds, trying to balance climbing against their first jobs, and it’s even less of an option for 45-year-olds trying to get their own climbing done while also supporting their families, engaging with partners, and enabling the hobbies of their children. Neil Gresham (yep, him again) has some advice about how you can slip those workouts into a busy schedule—and take advantage of the rare visit to your project when it presents itself.
by Dick Dorworth
This article is about acceptance, about letting go when it’s time to let go and about loving what is left to you. Here Dick Dorworth, a hall-of-fame skier and life-long climber, writes about his slow downward march through the grades as he moved through his sixties and seventies, culminating in his decision to stop lead climbing, a month before his 78th birthday. He still climbs, of course, and he’s “filled with toprope courage and gratitude to still be able to do something I love, so satisfying to body, mind and soul.”
Part III. Training Well and Safely
By Neil Gresham
Another one by Gresham, this time he’s talking specifically about how older climbers can train for and excel on steep sport routes. Gresham, who did his first 5.14c at age 46, digs deep into strength training, neuromuscular recruitment, nutrition, injury prevention, and recovery, while also laying out a set of ground rules that allow older climbers to safely push their bodies.
By Neil Gresham
Yet another one by the British master. This article, though originally published in 2012, is full of evergreen advice about how to understand, manage, and take advantage of your body as it gets older. The article culminates in a “Training for Vets” plan, which covers everything from warmups to nutrition to sample descriptions of specific bouldering sessions.
By Randall Gann
One fact about aging? Injuries are easier to get and harder to shake. Another fact? It’s increasingly likely that you’ll be forced to take time off from climbing to simply deal with the exigencies of life. In this article, Gann recounts his journey back into climbing, at age 48, after a three-year hiatus, while also exploring the advice of various medical and training professionals. He then offers a thorough and well-researched training plan that climbers between the ages of 30 and 70 can use to safely ramp back up into peak fitness.
Part IV. Keeping Your Body from Falling Apart
By Zoe Gates
Climbing puts a set of uneven demands upon our bodies. Our anterior forearms are taxed more than our posterior forearms. Our biceps build up more than our triceps. Certain parts of our shoulder girdles contract and strengthen while others stretch and atrophy. If you want to climb for two years and then move onto something else, skip this article, but if you’re trying to build a lifelong climbing practice, you’ll need to work opposition exercise into your schedule.
By Dr. Julian Saunders
Yep… The truth is ugly. Luckily, however, there are a few things you can do to prevent arthritis before it’s too much of a problem and palliate those joints once the degeneration has begun. Dr. Saunders recommends a variety of solutions, from fish oil to stretches to quitting climbing forever. (Think we’re kidding?)