87-year-old Devils Tower climber is no ‘freak,’ but a window into healthy aging

March 14, 2018
Robert Kelman, 87, reaches the top of Devils Tower.
Robert Kelman, 87, reaches the top of Devils Tower on September 11, 2017 after five hours of climbing the 900-foot-tall Wyoming monolith. (Courtesy Taylor Lais).

There are two ways Robert Kelman’s fellow seniors might consider his September 2017 climb of Devils Tower in Wyoming. One would be to dismiss an 87-year-old man capable of spending five hours hauling himself up a nearly 900-foot monolith – the last bit in 90-plus-degree heat – as a total freak of nature.

The other would be to see if there aren’t some clues into healthy aging one might glean from him. His UCHealth doctors, and Kelman himself, say that this is the way to go.

Kelman is indeed capable of the extraordinary. In his 425-square-foot home gym in Loveland, he does squats with 110 pounds of weight on his shoulders and chin-ups with 30 extra pounds dangling from a shoulder harness. The next day, he’ll go for a two- to five-mile hike in Devil’s Backbone, Horsetooth Mountain Park and elsewhere in the foothills with wife Mary (she lifts weights, too). Then he’ll take a day off and repeat.

That’s when he’s not climbing. When he’s climbing, you might find him, fingers and palms taped, on The Bastille in Eldorado State Park, Elephant Buttress or Castle Rock in Boulder Canyon, or in Vedauwoo, Wyoming, the last about which Kelman wrote a book.

Not all roses

But he has had his share of physical and emotional setbacks, as most octogenarians have.

“The 80s is a decade when things tend to happen: joint replacement, illness, injury,” said Mark Simmons, MD, Kelman’s primary care physician who practices at UCHealth Internal Medicine and Pediatric Care Clinic – Snow Mesa.

Kelman’s left knee is bone-on-bone, the meniscus gone from a procedure done before the days of arthroscopic surgery. The same knee’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) snapped in a tumble while bouldering in the 1970s and remains so. A 2007 fall crushed four vertebrae and cost him two inches of height. He has lost four climbing partners to cancer and one of a heart attack. He’s had his own cardiac problems, too, having been born with two heart defects.

One hasn’t been serious: a mild case of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW), an electrical issue. A murmur and some conducting irregularities had shown up in an exam when he was working on his PhD in the 1950s. But the visualization techniques to pick out WPW didn’t exist, Kelman said. That’s because, he said, “until 1965, there wasn’t the mathematics there to do that. Only after the fast Fourier transform was developed was the ultrasound converted into a visual picture.” Kelman would know: that PhD was in mathematics.

A photo of Devils Tower.
Climbing this is not a prerequisite to healthy aging. (NPS/Avery Locklear)

The other cardiac problem was serious, a bicuspid aortic valve with just two leaflets instead of three. He had it replaced in 1997. And then, in May 2015, it was replaced again, in an open procedure.

The man who could hoist himself plus 30 pounds “couldn’t lift a heavy pot” when he got home, he said. His UCHealth cardiologist, Tristan Dow, MD, suggested a formal cardiac rehabilitation program. Kelman said he’d rather be outside walking, and that he’d been lifting weights since he was in high school in the 1940s. They went with Kelman’s approach. He aimed to do much more than walk, though.

He set his sights on Devils Tower. The aim wasn’t just to set the age record: “Practically anything I climb these days, I’m the oldest person who’s climbed it,” he said. Though setting a new mark on a high-profile climb wouldn’t be a bad thing, either. It was a goal to drive the training he had to do to work his way back. Having climbed Devils Tower in the 1990s, when he was merely in his sixties, he knew what he was getting himself into.

He went back a year after the surgery, in spring 2016. His brain knew what to do, but his body demurred. For more than a year, he lifted weights, hiked, and climbed. In September, with guidance from South Dakota climber and Sylvan Rocks guide Taylor Lais, he climbed Devils Tower’s Durrance route with a Bailey Direct finish (for you climbers, Durrance is a 5.7).

No freak

What insights into healthy aging can we learn from this feat? Kelman says the stories in local media, Outside Magazine, Climbing and elsewhere have brought questions about what supplements he takes, as if perhaps some magical elixir were behind his exploits. The answer: just vitamin D. As far as diet, he says he goes Neolithic: which is to say, everything’s on the table, but with minimal added sugar and salt.

The big thing is the exercise. He has never stopped – not after his days as a 5’9”, 157-pound linebacker for Wesleyan College in Connecticut, not ever. He took to climbing at age 41 in 1971 because his son got into it and it offered more of a competitive challenge than hiking and lifting weights. “A lot of it is being lucky at a genetic roll of the dice that occurred some evening many years ago,” Kelman said. If he doesn’t exercise for a day or two, he said, he just doesn’t feel good.

“Working out isn’t a chore for me. I enjoy it. What can I say to people? Eat moderately, get some sleep and get some exercise.”

An image of a facebook post from the National Park Service featuring Robert Kelman at the top of Devils Tower.
The National Park Service is unlikely to laud you for lifting weights, hiking, biking, jogging, swimming or other routine exercise, but the health benefits should be reward enough. (Facebook).

Exercise is fundamental to healthy aging, Simmons said. Kelman has found a good balance on his own, he added, between weight training and cardiovascular exercise. Weight training is great for strength and balance, but can boost hypertension risk without mixing in some cardiovascular work, which might include walking, running, swimming – or, better yet, combinations of them. He recommends a 50-50 cardio-strength split. Simmons stressed that it’s never too late to start, either, even if you’ve been inactive into your 70s.

Dow, the cardiologist, said Kelman is probably able to do so much because he does so much.

“I think that his physical activity, while a lot of people would consider it extreme, has really contributed to his longevity, his health status and his well-being,” Dow said.

Kelman’s example is especially important for those who have undergone heart procedures, Dow added. Heart patients much younger than Kelman can have hang-ups about getting outside on skis or a bike, and that’s a shame. “A healthy lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle regardless of whether you’ve had an event,” he said. Getting back out there is often the point of the procedures, he added. “I think in a lot of cases people inappropriately limit themselves in terms of their activities.”

Kelman may be exceptional in terms of healthy aging, but he’s no freak of nature. He has worked extraordinarily hard for the extraordinary life he enjoys, and he has persevered despite daunting roadblocks. He should be an inspiration to others, Dow said.

“You don’t need to go climb Devils Tower,” Dow said. “Just get out there and enjoy life and being outside and take advantage of the stuff we have in Colorado. Because it really is good for the heart, it’s good for the mind, it’s good for the whole system.”

Kelman continues to do just that. He expects to spend two weeks climbing in Joshua Tree National Park in California this month and, he said, he’s got Devils Tower in his sights again for this September.

“I climb a lot of things, but none has the panache that Devils Tower has,” Kelman said. “There’s no other way to get up there.”

About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.