Something Higher at 60

By Shae Hadden

It’s my pleasure to begin this series of portraits with the story of a
man who has inspired me to persevere with my commitment to exercise
regularly since I met him two years ago. When I decided to begin this
column, I immediately thought of Richard Gauntlett as the epitome of a
person who is redefining the culture of aging through his actions.

don’t have to a specialist or a particularly great athlete to
accomplish your goals. All you need is to be clear about what you’re
setting out to do, commit to keep going through the difficulties, and
give yourself the freedom to take as much time as you need.”

has always led an active life. Growing up in Zimbabwe, he explored the
bush near his home, played rugby and cricket, raced the steeplechase,
ran the mile and participated in high jumping. When he first came to
North America, he spent 16 years living in Labrador on Canada’s east
coast, exploring the challenges of that remote wilderness at every
opportunity. Since he moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1988, he’s
spent much of his spare time hiking, climbing, snowshoeing and
cross-county skiing in the local mountains. With trails only minutes
away from where he lives, Richard hikes or climbs at least two times a
week, in addition to his regular indoor workouts at the recreation
centre he manages.

When a childhood sports injury interfered
with his passion for running twenty years ago, Richard chose to accept
the change in his abilities and began investigating other options that
could be as mentally and physically rewarding. He tried cross-country
ski lessons, swimming in the pool and cycling the hills of his
community. Although they all provided a good cardio workout, they
didn’t give him anywhere near the kinesthetic ‘kick’ and mental
relaxation that hiking did. After participating in a six-day
mountaineering seminar, he was hooked. To prepare for the significant
workout that extensive hikes required, he began training
indoors—something this outdoorsman had never thought of as a
possibility, let alone a necessity.

In 2006, as his 60th
birthday approached, Richard began looking for something challenging …
something higher … to climb. He chose to take on Mt. Kilimanjaro,
Africa’s highest peak and the tallest free-standing mountain rise in
the world. Why choose such a difficult challenge? “I work with people
who are younger than my children, and I’m often asked when I’m going to
retire. I wanted to mark this rite of passage into my 60s in a way that
would prove that I can still hold my own, that I have something of
value to contribute, and that I can inspire others to test themselves
to see what they can accomplish.”

Richard ramped up his fitness
program to include more cardio and upper body work. He also started
carrying weights on hikes to increase his endurance, and tackled Mt.
Baker, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Shasta and Mt. St. Helens with his
climbing friends. Word spread throughout the community about what he
was intending to do, and people began coming up to him while he was
training on the treadmill or climbing mountains to acknowledge that he
was inspiring them.

Although he originally intended to climb
“Kili” on his own, Richard’s story attracted and motivated two other
men in their 50s to join him for the expedition. In February 2006, all
three undertook a gradual 40-kilometre ascent to the top of
Kilimanjaro’s 19,341 height with a guide and porters. Richard admits,
“You can train yourself physically for this type of experience, but you
can’t train for the mental fatigue or the lack of oxygen that you
encounter as you begin the last push to the summit. You have to dig
into your inner reserves, be committed to persevering, and trust that
the endurance training you’ve done will help get you to the top.” The
determination and commitment on his face give way to a look of relaxed
awe. “Looking out at Africa from the rim of Kilimanjaro at 6 in the
morning, with the first rays of light appearing on the horizon, was
indescribable magic. The effort and discomfort involved in getting
there was worth it: that moment inspires me every day to keep
contributing to my family, my team at work and my community.”

continues to inspire people, not only with his African climbing
adventure, but also with his commitment to the people in the city where
he lives and works. He is actively involved in creating and promoting
innovative community-based programs to help at-risk youth, isolated
seniors and low-income families. He has sat on the boards of his local
library and the Autism Society, and plans to do more volunteer work in
the future.

When people ask if he’s retired yet, Richard
laughingly responds. “I love what I’m doing…and I’ll continue to do
what I love as long as possible. In the meantime, I’m looking at
climbing Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the Americas,
next. Want to join me?” When he mentions his intention to climb the
local ‘training mountain’ 100 times this year, I sheepishly respond
that I’ll need to ramp up my exercise program considerably to keep up
with him.

Silently, I wonder what Richard will be doing to mark his 70th birthday…

often just need an extra little push to break through that mental
barrier that stops us when we’re just short of reaching our goals. We
can’t see that the hardest part is already behind us and we often
underestimate the resources we have… that’s where having a friend or a
coach we trust can make all the difference.”