Still Cranking After All These Years

We asked five of Colorado’s climbing legends—those still in the game after some 50 years—to share their routines for keeping fit.

The die-hard climbers who’ve spent a lifetime on the walls and mountains know that keeping your edge, especially as you creep into your 60s, 70s, and even 80s, requires diligence and hard work. After all, gracefully tiptoeing across slabs, jamming splitters and cranking out overhangs takes enormous strength and flexibility.

Climbing legends Robert Kelman (86), Jim Donini (73), Jimmie Dunn (68), Jim Erickson (68), and Sibylle Hechtel (“around 60”) continue to visit the crags every chance they get. Here’s how they make it work.

Robert Kelman, 86

Robert Kelman | Photo: Chris Van Leuven

He may be the eldest of the bunch, pushing 90, but this offwidth aficionado still leads trad, which is an impressive feat to witness. And he climbs often, whether it’s taking guided outings in Joshua Tree, California, or with friends in Boulder Canyon and Eldorado Canyon.

Kelman, from Loveland, is the author of Heel and Toe: The Climbs of Greater Vedauwoo, Wyoming (1994) and Rock Climbing at Vedauwoo, Wyoming: Climbs of the Eastern Medicine Bow National Forest (2004).

“Without lifting, I wouldn’t be sturdy enough to climb.”

“I should mention one thing about getting older,” he says. “I notice a decrease in my balance and sense of where my body is. But I still have the strength.” This means he’s slowed down on approaches — he considers anything over a quarter mile in length “alpine”—but Kelman is still solid and smooth on the rock.

He’s been routinely lifting weights since high school. (That’s some 70 years.) Today he trains at his home gym several days a week, with a workout that includes doing pull ups weighed down with 50 pounds of buckshot scooped into an old Forrest Mountaineering pack.

He says about his 2.5-hour strength-building routine: “Without lifting, I wouldn’t be sturdy enough to climb.”

Jim Donini, 73

Jim Donini at Indian Creek 2017 | Photo: Angela Goodacre

“The important thing is keeping up the energy and desire [to climb],” Jim Donini said from his home in Ouray. He’d just returned from a month-long visit to Indian Creek and was about to set out on upcoming trips to Yosemite and the Black Canyon.

Donini is credited with first ascents spanning some 40 years in Patagonia, China, and Alaska, including the first ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia with John Bragg and Jay Wilson in the mid-1970s. In 1978, he, Michael Kennedy, and George and Jeff Lowe nearly completed one of alpine climbing’s greatest objectives: 23,442-foot Latok I in Pakistan. Despite countless attempts by other teams, the route remains unclimbed.

Donini hikes steep, wandering trails near his home.

Donini admits that these days he takes more rest days than he used to, requiring one to two days of down time between long free routes. Other than that, age doesn’t seem to be slowing him down. He continues to take expeditions and climb full time. “I can still climb at a level that surprises me,” he says. “I think the main thing that keeps me going is that I don’t have any joint issues.”

To keep his endurance and cardio up, Donini hikes steep, wandering trails near his home, often enchaining peaks either alone or with his wife. “I don’t train in a gym because I don’t like indoor climbing. But I’m always active,” he says.

Jimmie Dunn, 68

Jimmie Dunn | Photo: Chris Van Leuven

A resident of Colorado Springs (but a native of New Hampshire), Jimmie Dunn was one of the top free climbers in the U.S. during the late 60s through the 80s, with several bold first free ascents in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison up to 5.12. (The Black Canyon has walls up to 2,000 feet tall.) During that era he did it all: huge runouts on delicate face, steep and demanding cracks of all sizes—including offwidths—desert towers, and nailing big walls. Career highlights include new routes on the Diamond (Dunn/Westbay in 1971), El Cap (Cosmos, first solo ascent of an El Cap route, in 1972), and new routing throughout Colorado, Utah, and New Hampshire.

He traverses and hangs by hand jams in his crack machine, a roof crack constructed out of wood.

Today he visits the very same crags he’s been frequenting since back in the day: Turkey Rocks in South Platte. At the crags he jams his old favorite lines with ease, like he’s visiting with old friends, sometimes running laps to further increase his fitness.

He still obsesses over how fast he’s done a certain route, how many times he could do it back to back, and if/when he’ll do it that fast again. It’s part of what motivates him.

To stay fit, he traverses and hangs by hand jams in his crack machine, a roof crack constructed out of wood.

Jim Erickson, 68

Jim Erickson | Photo: Chris Van Leuven

Back in the 1970s, Jim Erickson often partnered with Duncan Ferguson and Steve Wunsch as part of a new wave of athletes “who had never learned direct aid, and to whom free climbing was the only way to climb,” says Climb! The History of Rock Climbing in Colorado. This meant big runouts—serious R and X rated terrain—on cutting edge free routes. One of Erickson’s greatest achievements during that era was the first free ascent of the Naked Edge (5.11b, 460’) in Eldorado Canyon in 1971, then considered the hardest climb in the U.S., if not the world.

He goes to the track once or twice a week and does all-out 50 and 100-meter sprints.

Submitted by MP user Ed Wright

Erickson’s name is in Colorado climbing history books both for his daring feats on rock and also for his perfection of style. His onsight free solo first ascent of Blind Faith (5.10a, 200’) in Eldorado Canyon, in 1972, is a testament to that. He walked up to the climb, put his shoes on (he doesn’t use chalk so there was no need for a chalkbag) and started up.

Today Erickson, a longtime resident of Boulder, frequents his local climbing gyms several days a week where he pulls plastic in his distinctive style: cotton t-shirt, manpris, climbing shoes with socks, and no chalk. He can also be spotted at various crags in Colorado’s Front Range, where he ticks off two to three sport routes before calling it a day.

To keep his fitness up, Erickson goes to the track once or twice a week and does all-out 50 and 100-meter sprints. He runs because it’s something he’s always loved, just like climbing. Erickson says, “Ten-second to one-and-a-half-minute workouts transfer over to rock climbing because you’re waiting below a crux and then you climb for 45 seconds to a minute until you get to [another] shake out or rest.”

Sibylle Hechtel, 60ish

Sibylle Hechtel on the Stovelegs, Nose (pitch 9 or 10) | Photo: Steven Curtis, courtesy of Hechtel

Sibylle Hechtel (who refuses to divulge her exact age) lives in South Boulder beneath the towering Flatirons and got her first taste of Yosemite’s crisp granite at age 10 (an age she does confirm). Her father, J. Richard Hechtel, was part of the Valley’s elite climbing group of the day, and over the years she often roped up with his friends including the likes of Jim Bridwell, the late Galen Rowell, and George Lowe.

She later teamed up with the late Beverly Johnson to complete the first all-female team ascent of El Capitan, in 1973, with an ascent of Triple Direct. The two women would go on to climb El Cap two more times together, completing the Salathé Wall in 1975 and The Nose in 1977 (this was during the pre-cam era). Later, she completed first ascent of ice climbs on the North Face of Mount Andromeda in the Canadian Rockies, and took expeditions to Kyrgyzstan’s Ak-Su Mountains, Shishapangma, and Everest.

“Climb as much as possible when you’re young and forget this work bullshit.”

Hechtel’s historically significant piece about climbing El Cap with Johnson, “Walls Without Balls: Memories of a California Climber During the ‘70s,” is a must-read for those interested in that important era in American rock climbing and can be found in Ordeal by Piton: Writings from the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing, edited by Steve Roper.

Sibylle Hechtel and Beverly Johnson on top of El Cap | Photo: Dan Asay, courtesy of Hechtel

“Once you’re over 40 or 50 your joints go down the tubes,” she told Mountain Project over tea at her home. As we talked, she brought up a recent knee injury that she got from overdoing it while running down back-to-back Colorado 14ers.

The recent injury aside—a minor setback—she repeatedly stressed her love for climbing and desire to get out on the rock again soon. “There is nothing in the world I like as much as climbing. I absolutely love it.”

Up until several years ago, Hechtel’s main climbing partner was her son Tristan and together they’d climb all over the world. Like her parents before her, she started him young and took Tristan to Yosemite when he was only four years old.

During the winter months, Hechtel can be found out on the slopes three to four days a week, where she works as a ski instructor. She also skis cross-country. Unlike Erickson, she doesn’t frequent the climbing gym to stay fit, instead preferring to spend days running and skiing in the mountains and climbing whenever possible.

Her advice for the next generation of climbers: “My dad climbed until he was 80. I was great all through my 50s. Climb as much as possible when you’re young and forget this work bullshit.”

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