“You can’t help getting older, but you don't have to get old.” ~ George Burns
Who inspires you most in rock climbing? This is a question I’ve been asked many times throughout my nearing two decades as a rock climber. For me, the top answer has always tended toward the obscure, the unobvious, and not the famous climber in the magazine. The reason for this is simple—because the most inspiring moments in rock climbing for me, beyond my own personal breakthroughs and accomplishments, come from witnessing the victories and attitudes of other people in person.
Which brings me to Ken.
Ken is almost 70. He didn’t start rock climbing until he was into his 60s. He decided to check it out because of his son’s growing passion for the lifestyle (I still can’t bring myself to write “sport,” how strange…I had to delete it). A lifelong athlete (tennis, golf, running, cross-country skiing, and many others I can’t recall), Ken took to rock climbing relatively easily. Within a few years, he had redpointed 5.12.
Despite not climbing year-round, Ken has continued to maintain an impressive level of fitness for rock climbing, which he demonstrates every time he shows up at a new crag. On Kalymnos two years ago, he redpointed Feta (5.11c), among other sends. At his local crag in BC, Lakit, he runs laps on 5.11s. In Ten Sleep this summer, he climbed 5.11, even though this area is “not his style,” meaning ultra-crimpy and technical (Ken is an endurance machine). In the Red, he impressed a whole crag full of people with his onsight of a 5.11a on his first day of climbing there.
This made it all that much heartbreaking when, four days into his trip to the Red River Gorge, he broke a hold in the process of onsighting another 5.11a. Because he’d been training finger strength, he managed to hang on with the other hand, but, unfortunately, his bicep couldn’t take the strain, and he tore the muscle. At home, he explained to the doctor that yes, he wanted to be able to climb again, so please do the reattachment surgery to make this possible. He’s currently in the process of rehabbing the muscle.
All of the above is impressive in and of itself, but it’s not all or even the main reason why I find Ken such an inspiration. Yes, it’s amazing that a nearly 70-year man, who looks more like he’s 50, and who started rock climbing in his 60s, can regularly show up at pretty much any crag and throw down 5.11. But what’s really cool about Ken is how much he appreciates and engages everyone at any and every crag he shows up at. He’s about the friendliest person you’ll ever meet, but not in a pushy or annoying way. He’ll pop into the conversation with his British accent (retained after more than 40 years living in Canada) to tell you that, “That’s rubbish,” or “Bloody amazing.”
Even better, Ken is always genuinely and sincerely impressed with pretty much anything anybody does or even fails to do at the crag. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to redpoint a 5.15c or flailing on toprope at the bottom of a 5.10b. Ken will recognize your efforts and tell you that you’re doing an amazing job, totally in earnest. He’ll pick out whatever is best about your performance, even if you’re failing miserably, and he’ll let you know that he saw it and thought it was remarkable. He’s just delighted by what other climbers can do, always. And by being this way, he brings a smile to pretty much everyone’s face he encounters at the crag.
It probably won’t surprise you, then, to find out that when Ken struggles on a climb or can’t do it, he’s the first person to laugh at himself and to tell you all about his epic difficulty with a move, and then how some girl came along and sailed right on through it like it was nothing, and how extraordinary she is, and what a great climber she is and how cool it was to see this. He doesn’t begrudge other climbers their superior ability, just as he never flaunts his own accomplishments when he crushes a route that someone half, or even a third, of his age is attempting with less success. He will only offer helpful suggestions, if they want them, in order to help them succeed.
People love being around Ken because of all of this, and he tends to draw folks together at the crags, even if he doesn’t realize it. I’m expecting that his bicep will heal up soon enough and that he’ll be back in action by next season. Hopefully, you’ll get to meet Ken, or someone like him, at some point in your climbing, too. Not only does Ken put the “age excuse” to shame, which is truly inspirational standing alone, but also, his authentic and heartfelt enthusiasm and pleasure for the successes of other climbers make him a role model for everyone. And I’m guessing he doesn’t even realize it.