As a video of a 99 year-old woman trying out climbing for the first time goes viral and some walls begin to offer free climbing for over 70s, we take a look at climbing into the twilight years...
99-year-old Greta Plowman recently became a social media and television star after a video of her climbing indoors for the first time went viral. Inspired by her 69-year-old daughter Judith, who had recently discovered climbing, Greta decided to have a go herself. Encouraged by Judith and grandson Tim - a keen climber - Greta tied in and made her way up to the top of the wall.
'She'd heard that I had got into climbing, but had never seen me do it,' Judith explained. 'When I mentioned I was going to the centre, she wanted to come and watch. After a while, she asked if she could have a go...'
Born in 1919, Greta is a great-grandmother of 8, a grandmother of 7 and a mother of 4. She recently moved to a care home at the age of 98. Her climbing debut is just another experience to add to a list of incredible adventures that Greta has undertaken throughout her long life, including joining a travelling theatre during the Second World War and making multiple sailings across the Channel in an open dinghy in the 70s and 80s.
'Even though I knew she was safe, I was a bit nervous,' Greta's grandson Tim Dobson commented on her initiation. 'The oldest person I'd introduced to climbing was my mum. At 99, I wasn't sure Greta would even get off the ground!'
'Most people would be apprehensive before their first rock climb, but the only person who didn't seem scared was Greta. She got onto the wall and slowly but steadily, she made her way up the climb. There was one point near the top where she said to me, "I don't think I can go on!" and I said "You're nearly there." To her credit, she pushed through and got right to the top!'
But what did Greta make of her climb?
'It was marvellous! Really exciting!' Greta enthused. 'My fingers ached a bit, but I learnt to push more with my feet and that made all the difference. It was such a thrilling experience to get to the top. I'm very thankful to Judith and Tim for supporting me and making this wonderful experience happen.'
Always open to new challenges, Greta showed no fear. 'I wasn't frightened, but I did doubt my own fingers!' she commented.
Asked what's next on her to-do list, Greta replied: 'I would like to jump out of an airplane with a parachute.'
'I've been given a body and I like using it!' - Greta
Although some might consider climbing to be a young person's pursuit, in recent years more and more people appear not only to be continuing to climb beyond their 60s and 70s, but some are even starting out at an older age, too. Newcomers at 99, late-starters in their 80s and 7a at 70 - the growing appeal of indoor climbing is likely making the sport more visible, accessible and appealing to all ages, not only to young people. Being 'over the hill', so to speak, doesn't seem to stop some pensioners from climbing up the walls.
Further adventurous inspiration for seniors was recently provided by Sheila Hancock, veteran star of stage and screen, who swapped treading the boards for the well-trodden path up Suilven (731m) in Sutherland, for a role in the critically-acclaimed feature film Edie (UKC article). The film follows Sheila as 83-year-old Edie, a widow who vows to fulfil a long-held dream to climb Suilven following the death of her controlling husband. 'It's never too late', reads the film's tag line.
To accommodate for and encourage this new band of more mature climbers, director of the indoor chain The Climbing Academy, Paul Twomey, decided this year to allow free entry for climbers over 70. 'Over the years at TCA, there have been a number of older climbers who come in for very short but regular visits,' says Paul. 'I've always felt bad about charging when they can often only have short sessions, and occasionally we've put regular users of this type on a free membership anyway.' Paul wanted to promote climbing to older people as a way of staying physically and mentally active. 'We are all well aware that climbing is an activity that can be pursued well into later life and creating that opportunity to help older climbers stay motivated seemed like the right thing to do,' he adds.
Although bouldering requires less equipment and is therefore arguably more accessible than top-roping or leading, Paul explains that roped climbing seems to be the preferred discipline due to the lower impact it has on joints. Men outnumber women in the over-70 age group at TCA, something which Paul would like to improve upon. 'Over-70s make up a very small percentage of our users at the moment, but we see it growing over time, especially with the roped climbing,' he explains. 'Currently we only have two female regulars over 70 and this does seem like it needs addressing in some way.'
Of course, introducing an elderly person with a frail physique to climbing for the first time must be carefully considered. If you're thinking of bringing an elderly friend or relative to the wall, take current fitness levels and any existing health issues into consideration - consult with a doctor if you're unsure. One study* explored the use of climbing to improve independence, mobility and gait balance in elderly people, while the cognitive and emotional benefits of bouldering in particular are well-documented (UKC article). In my discussions with climbing wall staff around the UK on the topic of older climbers, low-level traversing sessions as a form of physical and mental exercise have frequently surfaced as a potentially suitable and beneficial activity for senior newcomers.
Currently, all of TCA's over-70s are long-term climbers who have aged in the sport. 'We haven't really thought about targeting over-70s who are new climbers as yet,' Paul says. Older and wiser, this age group tends to approach climbing differently, Paul has noticed. 'I think most climbers of a more mature disposition know their limitations and are generally more aware of how their body and mind respond during exercise. Having the freedom to do shorter sessions more often, and without financial barriers, will hopefully encourage them and inspire others to do the same.'
Derek Carter, a TCA regular at 75, supports Paul's view. 'As a pensioner with minimal disposable income, free entry is a very welcome move and is much appreciated. I aim to climb as long as my ageing body will let me.'
Paul believes that that there are clear social advantages to encouraging older people to climb, aside from the obvious physical benefits. 'The sense of community and the friendships it fosters are big factors in keeping us healthy for longer,' he comments. 'The climbing community is quite unique in this respect. Even as a stranger we can turn up at a wall or crag and be engaged in activity with like-minded people in minutes. Research suggests that a strong sense of being part of something promotes a more youthful outlook on life.'
73-year-old climber Robin Harper enjoys the mental stimulation of climbing. 'It's like solving a vertical crossword puzzle and it gives a great sense of achievement,' he explains. 'Climbing frees the mind from other problems. Any move to help older people to stay active physically and mentally is a good one.'
Routesetter Alan Jones, 70, enjoys the universality of climbing. 'I like the fact that at age 70 I get the same challenge from working the moves on a 6a that Adam Ondra gets on a 9c.' Alan plans to keep climbing until he 'can no longer get off the ground.'
My 87-year-old grandmother, Celia Muraski, tried climbing for the first time last year in Liverpool. She's since been to the wall a few more times with me and has 'pottered around', enjoyed coffee and cake and posed for photos to scare the rest of the family. In her UKC Humans of Climbing piece, she wrote:
'I didn't 'top-out', as you say, but I got off the ground! I said I would come back for the coffee after my first visit, and I did. My granddaughter is a climber. Am I a climber? No, I don't think so! But maybe I'll get the shoes and give it a proper try one day.'
A few months later, she was up the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix and top-roping outdoors at Les Gaillands in Chamonix. There's no stopping her, it seems.
To the senior citizens reading this article who want to give climbing a go, take Greta's advice: 'If an opportunity arises, just grab it!' It's never too late, as these 'old-climbers' have proved, to challenge your own expectations and those of others.
- Find your nearest climbing wall on the British Mountaineering Council website.
*Fleissner H, Sternat D, Seiwald S, Kapp G, Kauder B, Rauter R, Kleindienst R, Hörmann J. Therapeutic climbing improves independence, mobility and balance in geriatric patients. Euro J Ger. 2010;12(1):12–16.
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