Not Dead Yet

It’s become a common occurrence for me to wonder when my “real” chronological age may begin to manifest. I muse as to whether it will happen overnight. Perhaps I’ll just wake up one morning and no longer be able to climb out of bed due to extreme rapid aging, like the subject in a movie who discovers the fountain of youth, becomes young again, then finds out that it’s only a trick. In the end, the character ages rapidly and dies in a matter of minutes. It seems somehow odd that I seldom feel the effects of being 61 years old. Granted, I chronically feel the effect of age related arthritis pre-morning-coffee, notice a little more graying of the hair and witness the ever growing population of crinkles on my epidural facial covering. Well-worn leather comes to mind. But for the most part, my aging body responds well to the youthful demands my mind requires of it, and the previously mentioned signs of aging are positive reminders that I’m not dead…at least…not yet.

I’ve always been a proponent of a systematic approach toward success in life. This is evident in my personal approach to climbing hard sport routes. Over the past year my structured formula for success was tested heavily. I had set a completely esoteric goal of redpointing a 5.14a post age 60. The struggle to achieve this daunting task would put my methodology to the test and at that same time, remind me of the importance of letting go of the outcome while enjoying the process.

My first 5.14a redpoint occurred 18 years ago when I was a much younger athletic 43 year old. I spent months working and training specifically for this single climbing accomplishment. Since I lived and worked in Logan, Utah, I chose the China Cave in Logan Canyon to be my source of inspiration. This steep cave essentially became my outdoor gym, with routes rated from easy 5.12 to middle 5.14… a veritable lifetime’s worth of projects. I began by building a pyramid of successfully redpointed routes starting with several harder 5.12s and easier 5.13s. I progressed to redpoints of a moderate number of mid-range 5.13 routes and finishing with a couple of routes rated 5.13+. Eventually, over a multi-year process, this lead to success. The patient pyramid system worked!

It would be years before I would repeat this grade. My life, as often life does, became more complex shortly after. I struggled with injuries. I was working for a civil engineering firm in Logan as a land survey crew chief, and demands from this employer were rapidly increasing. I became a single father challenged with the mission of raising my young daughter during this same period in my life. It was a rewarding challenge being the father of a truly incredible young woman. In retrospect, I’m glad I eased off climbing in favor of her wellbeing. She’s now happily married and a mother of two beautiful children of her own (my grand kiddos!). I did manage to train and climb randomly during this era, and with concerted effort, I redpointed a couple of long, athletic 13+/14- routes in the Pipedream (Maple Canyon, Utah).

At 51, with my daughter now in her teens, I persisted through a two year process of redpointing my fourth 5.14a route. I truly felt like it would be my last achievement of this grade. The effort to succeed was overwhelmingly difficult and made me question if it was worth the sacrifices necessary. It’s an understatement to say that it would be challenging to give up climbing hard routes considering that I was not mentally equipped for moderation. Possessing a type-A personality typically means constantly pushing limits while seeking knowingly unattainable perfection. I would have to consider new vistas where I could continue feeding the type-A “beast” entrenched deep within. Cognizant that my passion for climbing was the perfect, and most likely only, happy medium by which I could continually test limits of the physical, mental and emotional self, I endeavored to persevere.

As luck would have it, I eventually crossed paths with my current wife, Maggie. As is often the case when one enters into a new and dynamic relationship, opportunities to share and learn from each other enrich the lives of both. Soon after Maggie’s arrival, we began developing a massively overhanging cliff called the Coliseum near Twin Falls, Idaho. Now 56 and working for Petzl America as their Event and Athlete Coordinator, I was convinced, due to my age and still committing work demands, I could only endure my way up 5.13 routes and maybe an occasional easy 5.14, as long

Photo Nov 27, 2 11 09 PM
On the approach to the steep overhang of the Coliseum. : Michael Portanda

as it wasn’t a short, powerful test piece. As luck would have it, the climbing at the Coliseum was enduringly long, requiring full body core strength, mega amounts of stamina and extreme stubbornness. Some of the lines were 160’ tall and required 24 bolts to equip. They averaged a wonderful 45-degrees of overhanging terrain. Through the course of a couple of years, both Maggie and I managed to sustain our way through a several hard routes. Unfortunately this area was abruptly taken from us when a change of property ownership occurred. With this tragic loss of access, I once again assumed my potential to continue climbing at that level vanished with it.

The following season, with the crag near Twin Falls no longer available and Maple Canyon’s Pipedream more crowded then Time Square on New Year’s Eve, we chose to test ourselves on a short, powerful overhanging cliff called Quality Cave, located in the upper reaches of Logan Canyon. We were desperate to climb somewhere void of crowds, where we could work projects on our own terms, without impediments. First, we needed to rebuild the long steep approach trail due to the lack of use over the past decade. Next we had to scare off a few rattlesnakes, clean cobwebs from holds and dial in the 3-bolt long 5.11 warm-up before we could start throwing ourselves at the harder lines. In the distant past, I had redpointed Art of Rationality (13c), a classic route on the right side of the cave. At the time, I felt like the extremely powerful moves were at my power limit even though I was only 43 years young. Now 57, I set about working the V8 start to a couple of the other 45’ long cave routes allowing me to work another 5.13c and a classic 13d. I expected to spend the summer trying to do both, but managed to finish them within the first month. I attribute my quick success to pure power training at the Ogden Front during the previous winter. Maggie redpointed a classic 5.13a and needed a little more time to complete a reach-laden and powerful project called The Good (13b). I decided to try working the powerful V10 left-hand start to the hardest route which splits the center of Quality Cave. I was not expecting to achieve much success, but miracles evidently do exist. After a month of near tendon-tweaking effort, combined with continued mid-week power training in the gym, I was able to do the moves on the V10 start. Shortly after, I redpointed the hardest route of my life, Beyond the Box (14a/b).

My success with the power-loaded routes in Quality Cave made me realize that powerful movement was not yet out of the question. As Nietzsche aptly wrote, “Argue for your limitations and they become yours.” I stopped arguing and set about proving, to myself, and hopefully other aging athletes seeking a similar path, that it is possible to promote power development post AARP enrollment age (which is 50 years old and well worth the cheap membership price, btw).

Retiring from Petzl in June of 2015 gave us the opportunity to travel and pursue our passion to climb permanently. I turned 60 in December of that year and as type-A folks often do when they reach a milestone year, I set my big goal. I knew it would require pushing my limits physically, mentally and emotionally to succeed with the lofty endeavor of climbing at a 5.14 level at 60 years of age. I felt like my best chance would be on an endurance line, which lead us to the Pipedream in Maple Canyon. We arrived strong from a winter of bouldering followed by a couple of months pursuing power endurance routes in the Hurricave in southern Utah. Early in the season, success seemed inevitable, but then “life” threw a curve ball via the passing of my father. When I returned from my home state of Michigan after several days away from climbing and training, I felt like I was starting from scratch. I erroneously tried to expedite a return to fitness and as a result achieved the opposite. My best efforts led me to merely repeat a couple of routes I’d done a decade prior: Ego Boost and Mexican Rodeo (both 13d).

Both Maggie and I decided a break from projecting was needed. She’d been incredibly successful in Maple, but had also taxed herself physically and mentally after several months of pushing limits. We kept it fun in the Red River Gorge that fall and spent time working on our recently acquired property. We wintered in southern Utah and made an incredible journey to Kalymnos, Greece in February and March. We returned to the Red River Gorge where we climbed through early May with no big objectives in mind.

We wound up in Logan Canyon for the current summer season. I had a protracted 5.14a project that I’d left undone. It was a previously ignored itch in need of scratching. I felt confident that if I trained specifically and gave it enough time, I could potentially be successful. Plus, Logan had been my home crag for several years, so I was comfortable with it and it seemed like the perfect place to pursue my quest of 5.14 at over age 60 (now age 61).

To prepare for the steep power of Logan’s China Cave, we spent six weeks bouldering in the Priest Draw of Northern Arizona. The pocketed limestone roofs involved similar movement on a condensed scale. I trained hard on our portable tripod back in camp each night after bouldering by doing pull ups, curl ups, and gymnastic ring pushups, combined with intense core workouts. On rest days, we pursued active recovery through yoga and, of course, ample actual rest. We focused extra closely on our nutritional intake, and added a small dose of supplemental creatine to our daily regimen to help make up for the lack of red meat in our diet. We pulled out all the stops.

IMG_6731When we arrived in Logan, we were both fit for the task. I adhered to my systematic approach and began building my pyramid by repeating a handful of routes from 12+ to 13+, culminating with a repeat redpoint of The Golden Child (14a). This portion of the process took nearly two months. Soon after, I set about working the 5.14a project. I first worked the finish from the Coast-to-Coast (12c) traverse. Just doing this finish from the traverse clocks in at around V7/8 (13b) with added sustained section of incredibly gymnastically aesthetic movement. Adding this finale to the route Shaolin (13d) would push the efforts of my aging athleticism. The few marginal rests along the way would require additional time training in order for them to provide any possible recovery. It took three full climbing days of effort to successfully do the finish via the traverse and it took three more climbing days and perfect conditions to complete the entire package. The method worked and Bulletproof Monk (14a) became my first post-61, non-repeat route of the grade…whew!

77961267-5E06-4044-B87D-AD6CEE5B16A9Shortly after my success in early August, Maggie proudly crushed The Big Brawl (13c) and White Flag (13c) the week after my redpoint. Both are incredibly powerful and technical test pieces in China Cave. My suspicion is that both were first female ascents. She’s now working on a first ascent of The Big Brawl into the Bulletproof Monk finish, likely a hard 13d. Post redpoint of Bulletproof Monk, I’ve managed to link Blank Out into the Bulletproof Monk finish for and FA of Kung Fu Panda (13c) and, soon after, linked the Vulcan Roof into the Bulletproof Monk finish for another FA, now known as Orient Express (13d).

We’re not completely certain of our short-term plans, since so many options are available to us. So much rock with plenty of time makes for too many choices. Sometimes it’s best to just spin an empty bottle of Crusher wine on a semi flat surface of rock for direction. It’s tough to leave here since we are currently loving our camp in the upper reaches of Logan Canyon at 8200 feet. The view is excellent, the air is clear and crisp and we’re surrounded by trembling aspens mixed with towering firs. The cool high-altitude wind whispers down-canyon near the end of the day while savvy little western red squirrels taunt Lola endlessly. She chases unsuccessfully, returning to stand watch at my feet. Living in the moment has never been more fulfilling. We are exactly where we are meant to be, no matter where the wine bottle points us.

When the type-A beast returns, my hope is to do a couple confirmed 14a routes not of my making. I’m certain it will require dealing with crowded conditions, which sometimes make it tough for a slow climbing geezer. Perhaps even tougher for those poor youngsters that have to wait for me to finish so they can have their go at it. I apologize in advance for my youthful lacking. Both Maggie and I have a couple of routes in mind. Any limit-pushing endeavor would provide an incredibly rewarding journey regardless of the outcome. We’re potentially contemplating a combined effort toward something in the realm of 14b… someday… perhaps. I believe that Maggie is young enough, smart enough and certainly talented enough to pursue this level now. As for me, I might have to wait until I’m 70 to methodically acquire the skills necessary for success and, of course, providing I’m not yet on the wrong side of being dead. As Larry McMurtry so aptly put it in his epic novel Lonesome Dove, “The grave is our destination in life. Folks who are in a hurry tend to get their more quickly.”


Featured photo at top and all photos below courtesy of Heidi Baxter (IG: @baxter_images)

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