Skip to main Content
Opinions

This Alaskan climbed to the top of Denali at age 78. He has some life lessons for all of us.

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 22
  • Published May 20

Tom Choate descends Denali at the 12,000-foot level in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Tom Choate)

Tom Choate greeted me with a silly grin and a goofy pun, not what I expected when I set up an interview to learn about his seemingly impossible mountaineering feat.

Choate climbed Denali five years ago, at 78, almost exactly 50 years after the first time he climbed the mountain.

He trudged up the mountain very slowly, but nearing the top, he found he was passing younger climbers who had not acclimatized to the elevation. At the very top, a freak lightning storm sent many climbers fleeing. One was burned by electricity.

Choate bided his time and made it to the top.

No one older than Choate ever climbed the mountain. No one had as long a career on the mountain, climbing it in each of five decades.

Choate is justifiably proud. But he's also full of fun, sincerely humble, and makes himself the butt of his jokes. He said he was skeptical of the whole idea of climbing the mountain as an old man with a bum foot.

We have an extraordinary tradition of older Alaskans who remain active outdoors.

They're in the mountains, swimming, cycling, or crossing the city on the Tour of Anchorage ski race. Twelve racers 70 or older finished that event this year, each going at least 25 kilometers (one went 50). The amazing Reno Deprey finished with a smile at age 87.

Like Choate, these athletes are at it for the love of the sport. They're done proving themselves, done trying to build an image for the world. Something much more affirming keeps them going.

When I asked how he managed his climb, Choate said, "The key to it is not stopping."

I asked an elder mountain runner how he keeps from getting hurt. He said that by now he knows his limits.

I realized not respecting my own limits is how I've always gotten hurt.

Talking to these people, I learned how I want to age. In fact, I learned how I wish I had lived all along. How sweet would life be if, at a young age, you could let go of the powerful twin drives, egoistic competition and self-doubt?

The great sports writer Roger Angell considered this at age 95 in a moving essay published in the New Yorker in 2015.

"A majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness," he wrote. "We've outgrown our ambitions."

But Angell noted that this quality has the perverse effect getting old people ignored, as if contentment means you don't matter. He illustrated the point by recalling an after-dinner conversation with a group of friends who were younger men, still in their 60s.

"There's a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they've just left it. What? Hello? Didn't I just say something? Have I left the room?" he wrote.

"Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty. When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we're invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You've had your turn, Pops; now it's ours," he wrote.

Interesting, isn't it, our tendency to patronize the old as we do the young? It's as if, like children, their joy disqualifies them, indicating they can't understand the true toughness of life. As if they don't know adulthood's difficult struggle for goals and status.

But of course they do. They're just done with it.

That's what I see in elders I pass in our community ski races, cheering me on with a smile. To enjoy the race regardless of where you place is a metaphor for a good life.

Age also provides perspective. Choate may not have been as capable as many climbers on Denali, but I suspect he knew more about the mountain than any of them. That allowed him to manage the challenges to bring the summit within reach of his older body.

He first climbed the mountain in 1963, when very few people had stood on its peak. There was no safety net in those days.

Choate, a retired biology professor, had already been climbing for years. He fell in love with Denali and the national park in 1954. He would have climbed it earlier, but earthquake fissures made the Muldrow Glacier impassable for several years, blocking the old-time approach route.

The team in 1963 started from Wonder Lake, crossed both peaks of the mountain, and descended the Kahiltna Glacier to the bottom, ending on foot in Talkeetna.

Choate said the four climbers on that trip fell in crevasses 75 times. After a few falls, he realized it wasn't a big deal, because he could trust his climbing partners and their ropes.

He went back over fifty years and four more climbs. His main emotion, on his last climb, was affection and nostalgia.

"I fell in love with the mountain so much that I just love the chance of going back to these familiar places," he said.

Bruce Kittredge (left), Steve Gruhn and Tom Choate at the start of their 2013 Denali climb. Choate, 78, became the oldest person ever to reach the summit of Mt. McKinley on June 28, 2013. National Park Service photo.

But the mountain has also changed.

"There's no doubt climate change has been very dramatic on the mountain," Choate said. "Each time I go back, the glacier seems like it has less snow, and there's more crevasses, and further up the mountains there's a little less snow and a little more steep ice."

He explored and researched penguins in Antarctica, climbed in the Himalayas and the Andes, and spent years on mountains in New Zealand and Africa. His resume is complete.

I asked how he has stayed fit into old age.

He said he's not fit.

"Because I'm an unfit old goat doesn't mean I don't have the ambition to try stuff," he said. "You don't have to be an athlete. You have to be determined to go through a little pain."

My interview with Choate airs Thursday on Outdoor Explorer on Alaska Public Media.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments