(2 of 3)
That metaphysical note may ring true for some; for others, climbing is just an excuse to visit far-flung travel spots--from Kilimanjaro's icy heights to the pockmarked limestone of Sardinia. Even novices can access these kinds of locales with the help of adventure-travel companies, many of which organize, train and lead climbing excursions. The views can be breathtaking. "There you are at 10 at night, some thousand feet up on the wall on a beautiful ledge, and it looks like a Peter Pan world down below you. There's tiny lights in the valley; the rock is gorgeous, shining--it's a rare place to be," says Dick Duane, 64, a Berkeley, Calif., lawyer.
Mountain and rock climbing might appear to be better suited for young and agile bodies, but some contend that climbers improve with age. It's true that joints stiffen as we get older and strength often declines, but a keen sense of limitations may give older climbers a leg up--especially in a sport that is as much mental as it is physical. A certain amount of self-awareness helps aging climbers stay safe--they know when to call it quits. Take Jim Wickwire, 63, who as a young man took dangerous risks, becoming one of the first two Americans to summit K2 in the process. But this spring, when he was climbing Everest, a sinus infection and breathing trouble gave him pause; after several frustrating days of waiting to acclimatize, Wickwire turned back. "When you're young, there's this feeling of invulnerability. As you get older, one begins to see the finite side of life much more acutely, and one is less willing to take those risks," he says. Bass, accompanying Wickwire, also retreated when his back flared up.
This sort of balance between bravura and caution is mandatory, says Yuichiro Miura, 70, who on May 22 beat out Bass to become the oldest person to summit Everest. "For any adventure, the most important thing is an attitude of 'willing to risk your life' and, at the same time, of taking all possible cautions and seeing absolute possibility to return alive," he says.
While intelligence helps seniors climb, climbing may also help seniors' intelligence. Mental-acuity favorites such as crossword puzzles and chess seem like dull tools compared with selecting toeholds to help spider your body upward. "What it does for you mentally is absolutely wonderful--it's the biggest problem-solving sport there is," says Ed Wignall, 61, a substance-abuse counselor from Lake Havasu City, Ariz. Climbing also increases confidence: Keith McDowell, 59, an Arlington, Texas, scientist, no longer frets about board meetings and lectures. "I've already tested myself against Mother Nature--what are these folks gonna do to me?" he says.