Sending it Into Middle Age: Falling in Love with Climbing at 50

“Um…I don’t know if I can get up there.” I run my hands over the smooth, granite expanse in front of me for what feels like the tenth time, scanning for something—anything—to hold onto. “No choice but to go up!” my partner calls down to me cheerfully. “All right then,” I mutter to myself and do what I’ve done countless times since I began rock climbing in Utah a little over three years ago: take a deep breath and figure out a way to move up the wall. When I eventually get to the top of the pitch, I am treated to a high-five, breathtaking birds-eye views of Utah’s West Desert and a giddy sense of accomplishment.

My first attempt at Yogini, a route within the remote West Desert’s climbing and bouldering area known as Ibex, is probably pretty unextraordinary to many seasoned rock climbers. This intermediate route would hardly qualify as a warm-up for a climbing superstar like Emily Harrington or Nathaniel Coleman, the Utah native who took silver at the Summer Olympics’ first climbing competition in 2021. But unlike those two and other sinewy 20- and 30-somethings I encounter in the climbing gym and out in the mountains, I have not been climbing since my teens. In fact, I picked up the sport just over three years ago just before I turned 50. And while rock climbing has certainly required much more commitment than other outdoor activities of mine do, the rewards are leaps and bounds ahead of the satisfaction I’ve ever gotten from skiing or riding my bike.

I previously considered rock climbing a fringe sport for the young, super fit and freakishly brave. But when my kids were in grade school, my daughter was invited by a friend to join a week-long summer day camp at the then-new Momentum Climbing Gym in Millcreek. My daughter loved climbing immediately and asked if I’d learn to belay so she could continue climbing after the day camp ended. I did and thought to myself, ‘If I’m going to stand here and belay, I’m going to climb, too.’

Climbing Utah
The author and others participating in a 2018 Salt Lake Climbing Festival clinic at the Salt Lake Slips, Big Cottonwood Canyon. 
Photo by Louis Arvelo/SLCA

My first few gym-climbing sessions were, admittedly, terrifying. Until then, my at-height experience was limited to the ski resort chair lift. Moving up a vertical wall for the first time felt much different. Though I was attached to a secure top rope (a rope attached to an anchor at the top of the climb), and my belayer—most often my husband—was using an assisted-braking belay device, it felt like every cell in my body was screaming at me to stop and go down. But with each route I completed, the fear became a little bit more manageable. The more time I spent at the gym, the more that I noticed that my husband and I were far from the only middle-aged beginners there. Seeing climbers who looked like us, scaling walls, made it easier to let go of my age-based self-consciousness and focus on the unique delight of reaching the top of a route on the first try (a la “sending”) and how strong it makes me feel to use what seems like every muscle in my body to get myself to the top of a route. 

Eric Bollow, a 54-year-old loan officer from Cottonwood Heights (and dad to a friend my daughter made through climbing), grew up in Utah but had climbed just a few times in high school. But, like me, it wasn’t until the sport gained traction with his daughter that he began climbing in earnest. “I could go on and on about what I love about climbing, but a couple of things include how, as a person who has probably above-normal anxiety, climbing keeps me firmly planted in the moment,” he says. “I also love how much inspiration it’s given me to create new goals and seek out new places to climb.”

After about a year of top-roping in the gym, I decided to take a learn-to-lead class. Sport leading, which involves clipping a rope tied to your harness onto fixed anchors along a route as you ascend a wall, is essential to transitioning from gym to outside climbing. But unlike top-rope climbing, where a fall means descending just a few inches before being caught by your harness, the length of a lead fall is twice the length of the rope between the last clipped bolt and the climber. Leading also requires a skilled and confident lead belayer. Considering all this, lead climbing is often referred to as “getting on the sharp end.” Though learning to lead climb felt a lot like being a newbie all over again, it is also where I’ve realized the biggest rewards of rock climbing. It has increased my trust in myself as well as in others; expanded my grit, both physically and mentally; and helped me better cope with stress in other areas of my life. It’s also introduced me to a community of amazing people I would have probably not met if not for climbing.

Climbing Utah
The author (right) and Christine Mikel celebrate reaching the summit of Wyoming’s Grand Teton on August 28, 2022. 
Photo courtesy of Melissa Fields

Stefani Day is a 60-year-old family practice physician living in Salt Lake City and a member of my new-found climbing posse. Stefani also found climbing later in life. “I was in my late 30s when I came to Utah to do my residency,” she says. “On one of our rare days off, one of the other residents I worked with took me and another colleague climbing at the mouth of Parleys Canyon. I absolutely fell in love with it. I love the problem-solving nature of it, figuring out how to get from one hold to the next. I also love the community around climbing. There are not many other activities where you get to spend upwards of six hours or even a whole weekend outside with other people.”

Now, almost four years on from my first gym session and, while I still have lots to learn, I feel like I am making the transition from someone who climbs to being a rock climber. Thanks to the help of a few generous and much more experienced friends, I’ve climbed both close by and farther afield at places I’d never visited as a non-climber, including Maple Canyon, Indian Creek, the Tetons, and the City of Rocks. I certainly have days where I imagine how good I would be now if I had started climbing in my teens, 20s, or even 30s. But I also know that I still have decades of climbing ahead of me. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was still climbing well after I give up skiing and mountain biking. Rock climbing has illustrated the transformative power of finding and pursuing a new passion, embracing rather than shying away from challenge, and ignoring societal expectations, perceived and otherwise. The rewards I’ve reaped from confronting my fear and pushing my boundaries include gaining an incredible sense of achievement, being welcomed into a super-fun community, and realizing firsthand that age is just a number.  

Climbing Utah
The author lead climbing “Don’t Tell Jonny,” rated 5.10c, near Moosehorn Lake in the Uinta Mountains. Photo courtesy of Chris Brown/The Mountain Guides

Tips for Hitting the Crag, At Any Age

Age aside, the learning curve for rock climbing is much steeper and longer than other outdoor activities (another reason why it’s so rewarding). Following are a few steps I took along my journey from climbing newbie to neophyte.

Find a mentor: My first outdoor climbing session was with Julia Geisler, executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance. Since then, we’ve climbed together likely dozens if not hundreds of times, building both our friendship and my climbing skills along the way. While a pro like Julia is certainly not a requirement of mentorship, someone with patience, solid technique, and high safety standards is. The only prerequisite of being a mentee is having impeccable belay skills so you can give your teacher a catch while they are sending their project. That and always bringing good crag snacks.  

Take a class or hire a guide: The Learn-to-Lead class I took at my climbing gym was one of several formal instruction opportunities I’ve taken advantage of since I started climbing. Others include clinics offered through the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance Climbing Festival (held annually in August) and hiring a guide. A few well-established local guides include Utah Mountain Adventures, Backcountry Pros, Inspired Summit Adventures, Red River Adventures and White Pine Touring.

Melissa Fields
Melissa Fields
Melissa (O' Brien) Fields is a contributing editor to Utah Bride & Groom magazine and a contributing writer for Salt Lake magazine. She is an accomplished freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience.

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