Some call turning 50 getting “over the hill.” For Neal Kirby, who spent over two decades as a school principal in Centralia, turning 70 means getting over the volcano — five times.
After his birthday in April, the mountain climbing aficionado decided to set a big goal: climb all five of Washington’s volcanoes — Mount St. Helens, Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Glacier Peak — before turning 71. Adding to the loftiness of his goal, the climbing season is far shorter than a full year. Plus, the long winter brought extra challenges for conditions.
Between working around a climbing group’s schedules and planning for good weather, Kirby has had to reschedule several climbs this year.
Nevertheless, he only has Mount Adams and Glacier Peak left to summit.
“A lot of people, they celebrate getting ‘em all five done over their lifetime,” Kirby said. “I think a lot of older people don't realize what they're capable of doing because they check themselves out before they give it a go. For whatever reason, I’ve had really good health. I’ve been blessed with staying in really good shape at this age.”
But Kirby wasn’t always so fit. He said that years ago, he was about 50 to 60 pounds heavier. As someone who has been sober for nearly four decades, he got his interest in mountaineering through a program called One Step at a Time (OSAT), which teaches people in recovery and their families to climb mountains. Or, as Kirby likes to say, shows them “other ways to get high.”
After significant training, OSAT students summit Mount Baker. If successful, they are offered a chance to summit Rainier next.
He said OSAT doesn’t care where you are in your path of recovery, anyone can join.
“They don’t care your age either. My age just doesn’t bother them at all. ‘Can ya climb?’ That’s all they care about,” Kirby said.
As a teacher in the program, he has climbed Mount Rainier half a dozen times since qualifying for social security.
“I’m probably in better shape at this age than I have been for most of my last 50 years,” he said.
On his workout days, Kirby has 4-hour routines that consist of swimming, yoga and often weight-lifting. His yoga training focuses on core strength, while through swimming he can strengthen his legs without high-impact. After a knee injury years ago, Kirby wasn’t sure he’d be able to run again, let alone climb mountains. Through these low-impact exercises, he was able to rebuild his knee muscles enough to get back in the saddle.
Kirby also credits his career in education for his fitness in the later stages of his life. In his time as principal at Edison Elementary and Centralia Middle School, he did not have to strain his body to the point of injury.
Asked for his advice to anyone trying to get into mountaineering at any age, Kirby recommended joining a class. That way, students make friends with other climbers and can trust that those friends have the skills to summit.
He also recommended starting with short, flat walks and moving progressively up the scale of technicality with hiking, while adding more and more weight to carry.
“There's all kinds of climbing clubs and any one of them will teach you that it's possible,” he said, adding later, “I think most people, unless they have some kind of injury, ought to be able to progressively increase the miles they go with the elevation gain they get.”