What is that one colossal goal that is so important to you, that failure is just not an option? A goal so massive that just by committing to it, your behavior and habits change to meet the challenge? Is it an athletic event like an Ironman, or Spartan race? Completing your first 5k? Having the energy and mobility to play with your grandchildren? Maybe it’s a negative motivation in the form of an unexpected medical diagnosis? However you define your personal Everest, there is much to learn from Arthur Muir. His search for coaches with the right expertise, his dedication to staying consistent with the training programs, and the need to find his community of support – could be a template for anyone, of any age, pursuing any challenge.
For Arthur Muir – a retired lawyer from Chicago – his Everest was the actual Mount Everest, intimidatingly majestic at 29,032 ft above sea level. This past May, at the age of 75, he became the oldest American to reach its summit.
Arthur Muir is now a global phenom. His story has literally been shared in almost every major country and in every major language. From the major networks, to online news sites and podcasts, he has been interviewed countless times, including the Today show and this excellent article by a young reporter from his alma-mater – the University of Pennsylvania.
I messaged Arthur hoping to connect for just a few minutes, ask just a few quick questions. I honestly did not expect a reply, and at best, maybe he would give me 5-10 minutes so I could post a single page compelling article, showing that Age Is No Barrier, even at the top of the world. What I found was a man who had only recently returned from his greatest physical challenge – but has maybe found a new mission: changing minds about what the human body is capable of – at any age.
Art was incredibly generous with his time and the details of this record-breaking expedition. He has more to share than I could possibly capture in one article. For now – I am thrilled to give you a glimpse into this “Regular Joe”, this “ordinary person who’s been allowed to do some extraordinary things”, and what it all means today – both for Art, and for anyone with the mistaken mindset that age is a limiting factor to enjoying life at its utmost.
What Art is not: a professional athlete, or professional adventurer. Not even an ultra-endurance athlete.
What Art is: a retired lawyer from Chicago, father to three and grandfather to six. They even named one of his grandsons Everest – born just after his first attempt in 2019.
What Art has become: an inspiration.
“I’m amazed at how many people – young and old are inspired by this story. No idea who or why this story will inspire, but it’s interesting being seen as a role model. I hope it serves as an example to older people – hope it demonstrates the importance of dreams, of getting in over your head. You never know where these dreams will take you, or how you’ll grow from them”.
Have you always been athletic and active?
I grew up in Denver area, surrounded by a very athletic, active community. Attended a very small school where if you wanted to play a sport – you automatically made the team. A school small enough that during the football season, you played both sides of the ball – both offense and defense. In college, I regret that I did not participate in organized sports. I wanted to, and should have rowed, fenced, etc. But alas, that was not the case. I was always active, and I was a very good all-around athlete – but never the superstar.
In my middle years, I wasn’t a couch potato, but I did not really engage in a regular fitness routine. I used to go into a nearby gym where I did some unsophisticated machine work and rowed on a Concept 2 rower, but I knew nothing about free-weights, so I avoided those. A big mistake in hindsight.
At what age did you decide to become a mountaineer?
I didn’t seriously start climbing until I was 68. Since then, I’ve climbed Aconcagua, and climbed Denali with my son Charlie. In 2019, I joined an Everest expedition, but failed. I was not properly prepared, injured my ankle and had to be taken off the mountain.
Your ankle injury in 2019 – was that one of the ladders used to cross the crevasses of the Khumbu icefall area?
Yes, actually fell into one of the crevasses.
Anyone can feel inspired, but not everyone can find the day-to-day drive to stay dedicated to a multi-year training program. How did you maintain focus?
Successfully summitting Everest was the only motivation I needed to stay consistent. In 2019, I was not physically prepared, and that failed attempt taught me the seriousness of what I was attempting – what was needed physically and mentally to succeed in 2021. Plus – I had already paid to be a part of the expedition.
Details of the expedition will be broken down into two parts: Training the Body and On the Mountain
Training the Body
Art needed a coach. Actually, two coaches: a strength & conditioning coach and a climbing coach. For his first attempt in 2019, he originally started working with a former strength & conditioning coach of the Baltimore Ravens. It did not take Art long to realize this was not the ideal type of training for an Everest expedition – he needed to focus on endurance for long slow efforts. Asking around, Art was introduced to a couple of extremely accomplished Coloradan’s: Scott Johnston and Steve House of the Uphill Athlete, a company devoted to training the world’s top Alpinists, with very impressive results. Surprisingly, most of their clients are just regular people – and the ages are going up.
“All training is exercise, but not all exercise is training.The Uphill Athlete
Art initially started training with Scott and Steve in 2018, getting ready for his 2019 attempt. When that attempt failed – Art fully committed to a 3-year training program to fine tune his fitness level and ability to recover from extremely hard efforts.
Now he needed a strength & conditioning coach. After more research – involving a great deal of reading and youtube videos, Art discovered Jonathon Sullivan, the owner and coach at Greysteel, a MN based facility focused on strength training for older adults. As you can surmise by the name, Greysteel is nothing similar to the chair-based exercise class of silver sneakers or similar. Jonathon calls the barbell “exercise medicine to fight the effects of aging”.
Both coaches in place, the recently retired lawyer and pickleball enthusiast found he had a new full-time job: training. Soon, his friends would just stop asking “how are you”? They already knew the answer. Their determined and focused friend was getting fitter, stronger and was more than happy to share every detail of his Everest training program.
Were you ever concerned about pushing your body this hard at this age?
Not at all. The coaches at the Uphill Athlete teach that every training plan needs to be individualized to the athlete and progress gradually. As long as I followed the program, I felt my body responding and was never injured. Our bodies are truly miraculous.
Any favorite exercise?
Deadlifts – love them. We never focused on machine training. In life, you need proprioception, so we trained mainly with free-weights – barbells. Today, I have a difficult time training in a typical neighborhood gym. I have learned so much about strength training that I have to bite my tongue watching most people train.
The combination of the Uphill Athlete and Greysteel seems like the perfect combination for your goals. How did you find these groups?
The Uphill Athlete is fairly well known in the mountaineer circles, and once I had that piece in place, they left it up to me to find proper programming for strength training. I was introduced to Mark Rippetoe through his videos and his well known book “Starting Strength”. For senior strength training, Mark recommended Greysteel. It was also suggested I reduce the training volume, but keep up the intensity – better for recovery.
When someone is training for an event as colossal as summitting Everest, could they do this on their own?
You can learn to do this on your own, but it’s risky. I would always recommend finding a good coach / trainer. The older you get, the more sensitive you become to any tweak, strains. A good trainer keeps you honest, holds you accountable.
Did you track your progress?
Yes, very important to track your progress. I’ve been using TrainingPeaks, recommended by the team at the Uphill Athlete. I also keep a written log. I find it very motivating to look back at what you’ve achieved!
On the mountain
Each spring, more than 500 hopeful climbers attempt to summit Everest. In recent years, two-thirds of those climbers can expect to stand on top of the world, while around 1% will never leave the mountain. Just this season, five climbers have died in the attempt.
Just a glimpse of the difficulty of this challenge: base camp sits at 18,400 ft, Camp 2 at 21,000 ft, Camp 3 at 23,950, Camp 4 at 26,000. Climbers spend a total of 10 days above Camp 2 – or above 21,000ft.
In spite of nearly being buried by a blizzard while at Camp 3, fortune and preparation smiled on Art and his team this Spring. Of all the assembled groups, they had the most successful expedition on the mountain. All of the climbers in their expedition but 1 who reached Camp 4 at the South Col summited. Ten started the summit attempt from Camp 4 and 9 summited. They did lose some climbers (all men) earlier in the trip to various non-Covid related issues. All guides and sherpas summited.
GOOD NEWS for readers of this blog: the average age of the climbers attempting to summit Everest is getting older. Art’s team had a significant number of climbers in their 50’s – and they all summited.
How long is the trek to base camp?
There are no roads for the last 40 miles, you hike in the entire way over nine days, acclimatizing along the way. It’s a long hike. Even when coming off the mountain, it still takes 3 days to walk out!
How did you quiet any fear / doubt in your mind during the climb?
On this expedition – on each and every step, I repeated to myself “no mistakes”. Keeping your focus on the task, prevents your mind from wandering into “what if” territory.
But even base camp can be dangerous. There were several occasions when I was nervous, became anxious – all the way up to “Ok, I’m actually scared. Can I do this? People die up here!” Then I would focus on my training. I knew I was prepared. I had the skills and conditioning to complete the climb, I was confident in my skillset. And it’s very comforting to know there is a whole group of people who are there to support our team. And back home – I knew the whole community was thinking about me, praying for me.
Were any team members completely at ease, no fear at all?
Different people view risks, and danger differently. But anyone on that mountain, if they say they were not afraid…they’re either lying or not very smart. The question is: how do you respond in that moment? To actually overcome the fear and keep progressing – is very empowering. If you face up to those fears, is there anything you cannot achieve?
Climbing Everest is obviously an incredibly dangerous challenge, but was there any specific moment that stands out?
Camp 3. If I never think about it again, that’ll be good. We had to spend an extra night there during a blizzard. It is perched precariously on a very steep slope. I thought we were going to be buried alive in the tent during the storm, assuming we were lucky and it did not break free and send us tumbling 5,000′ down the Lhotse face. I would just as soon never spend another night in that place!
Morbid question: did you say final goodbyes when you left for Nepal?
No. I did make sure my estate planning was in place. Wanted that peace of mind before leaving, but I had no intention of dying. Maybe one of the reasons I was so particularly careful and precise with every step.
Describe a typical meal during the expedition?
Lots of protein….and coffee. At the higher altitudes, you tend to lose your appetite, just not as motivated to eat. But your body requires good fuel, so at the higher camps, dehydrated food was our go-to. Cheese and potato soup was my preferred.
At lower altitudes, we had a great supply of real food: eggs, pancakes and Canadian bacon for breakfast, more variety for lunch and dinner – always starting with soup – was usually Nepalese style food, which tends to be very spicy.
Interestingly – the two strongest people on our expedition were women – and both are vegetarian. I would not consider myself a vegetarian, but on this expedition, I learned from them that you really can get all your protein requirements from plant-based proteins.
Safe to say your conditioning worked?
I’m still amazed. I remember the march back down to base camp. Yeah, I was tired. But physically? I was always functional. Yes, the training programs worked.
I’m guessing strong bonds were formed over the expedition?
Yes. Especially Kevin Walsh, from Nova Scotia. Keven was my “tent buddy” on the mountain and we were each other’s immediate support. I remember at Camp 2 – mentally thinking of the danger. Kevin would help calm me, remind me of the preparation that had gone into this moment.
What shape were you in when you finally hiked off the mountain?
Above 25,000 ft, you’re in the death zone, where your body starts to consume the muscle. So when you come off the mountain, you are both skinny & fat.
After summiting a peak this high, how long until you could resume your training?
I only recently started training again – gently – about 6 weeks after we returned from the expedition.
How will you continue to train now that you’ve returned from the top of the world?
Not sure. The programming gets tailored to the event, and I’m not yet sure what the next event will be.
How has this expedition changed you?
The experience didn’t really change me, who I am. I knew who I was before I started this challenge. No question the expedition stretched me, but I knew it was within my capability. These experiences are so powerful, so vivid. Emotional.
But – the expedition did make me aware of how covid has devastated Nepal. The climbing expeditions and the 40,000 annual trekkers bring a great deal of money to the area, and covid halted all traffic. The disease killed many Sherpas, sometimes their entire families – and the survivors have been financially crippled by the lack of tourists. I am currently writing letters, asking our government to intervene.
If any of your readers would consider helping these families – I would recommend the Juniper Fund. Founded by Melissa Arnot Reid and Dave Morton, this fund helps widows of Sherpas who die during climbing expeditions. I can recommend it as a worthy organization without hesitation or reservation.
Thoughts on overall health, fitness and community
If you read other interviews with Art, you will most likely see this quote: “When I spend 60 days with people on the mountain, I don’t know what I look like because I don’t have a mirror. I feel like I’m 55 because I can’t see myself. Then, finally, I look in the mirror and “Yes, you are 75 years old,” he said. But I forget when I’m with people doing this. “
I love this quote, and since this interview, I have started asking others: “when you close your eyes, how old are you”? Fit, athletic individuals always see themselves as much younger than their linear age, but beyond what we tell ourselves, are we really any healthier than our peers?
These stats are commonly quoted: by 2030, an estimated 20 percent of Americans—more than 70 million people—will have passed their 65th birthday. On average, this is not a healthy demographic. According to Mary Tinetti – a Yale Medical Doctor, these are 13 of the most common health problems while in your 70’s:
- High cholesterol
- Uncontrolled blood sugar
- Hearing loss
- Memory loss
- Sleep issues
- Chronic lung disease
As of today, at 75 – are you currently dealing with any of the above? Taking any prescriptions to manage any chronic issues?
No and no. The body is miraculous – the fact that the body will still respond to training. Every day, I experience wonder and awe that at this age, my muscles can still improve. The rewards for being physically fit are great. Eventually, I think they’ll prove what exercise does for the brain, not just for the body.
You achieved a very high level of fitness for this expedition. What’s next?
I am already planning other adventures, so will have to keep myself physically in the shape necessary to enjoy these adventures. I would like to ski off the top of Mt Blanc. Or to climb Kilimanjaro with my son. I’m looking at a back country ski route from France to Italy. Maybe Antarctica? Whatever we decide, the coach will adapt the program accordingly.
How long do you think you can maintain this level of fitness?
No idea how long we can keep this going, but we’ll find out! At 75, I am stronger, leaner, and have increased my aerobic capacity. The body can still do an enormous amount of work and recovery. Training is kind of a “fountain of youth”.
I’m convinced my story will not be unique in the future. I strongly believe we are going to see a lot of age-related records fall. This generation or next, those records will not be just in the realm of youth and speed.
Even at this age, stimulating my body with the right training program produces results that amazed me.
Two questions regarding the 50+ population…
1) Advice for the 50+ individual who is already active and planning a big event?
Find someone who knows what they’re doing and get engaged. Follow the program. And do not neglect strength training. Aerobic exercise is wonderful and necessary, but don’t forget our bodies were made to lift heavy objects and move them. At any age, you can expect improved ligaments, tendons, bones. And be sure to be a part of a community – people want to be with other people. Nothing worse than being alone.
2) Advice for the average, every-day 50+ individual that equates age with inevitable weight gain and declining health?
The message is not that I’m 75, the message really is that age is no barrier. Yes, I climbed Everest, but I’m still just an ordinary Joe, not a superstar athlete. Even at this age, stimulating my body with the right training program produces results that amazed me. My advice for older people: Your body is still capable. It will still respond to training – and you can still do so many unbelievable cool things! There’s too many adventures out there! Are you going to look forward or look backward?
Who do you hope your story will inspire most? Retirees? The sedentary population?
I’m stunned by the range & number of people interested in this story. I’ve been giving a lot of lectures / presentations to a wide variety of audiences – not just seniors. I did not climb Everest with the intention of inspiring others, but if anyone is attracted to this story – I hope they choose to live life with more awareness, vibrance, vivacity, continued excitement. It’s not about “not dying”, it’s about getting the most out of living.
A sincere thank you to Art for these conversations. His personal experiences should be incredibly encouraging to anyone over the age of 50 who are curious if they are still physically capable of planning and completing great physical challenges. Knowing that an “average Joe” can summit Everest at the age of 75 should remove any mental block from planning and summiting your personal Everest challenge. I’ll end with one final quote from the top of the world:
“Life is about accumulating experiences, not stuff. So go ahead, challenge yourself, and step into the deep water”.
Questions for Arthur?
Include any questions in the comment section below and I’ll forward their replies.