The wind beat into my jacket, and the first snowflakes fell on the back of my gloves. High on Kings Peak, Utah’s tallest mountain, I realised I might be in trouble. It had taken me longer to scale the steep, rock-strewn slope from the valley below, and the weather had caught me. The temperature had dropped by 15°C in the last couple of hours and was below freezing.
Looking up at the steep slope and the bare, stony ridge, there was no clue of the location of Anderson Pass, somewhere tantalisingly close, yet I couldn’t see it.
Autumn in the Uintas Mountains in 2019 brought me to the Highline Trail, an iconic, high-altitude, Grande Randonnée hike in North America. After a 28-day solo trek down California’s John Muir Trail in 2019 and with my 70th birthday only a year away, I knew this would be my last chance. The door was closing. Now, as the cloud started to roll up the peak behind me I considered if I could bivouac for the night among the rocks, but then felt two new sensations: fear and panic. After years of backcountry exploring and remote area snow skiing, these were emotions that I couldn’t indulge.
With my back to the wind, I leaned again over the map, kneeling on it so the wind would not tear it from my grasp. I consulted the compass again, urging the needle to swing and settle. The mountain itself was probably interfering. The map told me I should be right on the pass, but a broad saddle above me stretching to the right seemed to be the obvious passage off this side of the mountain. But the map said that wasn’t where the pass should be.
“You don’t have to do this anymore,” a voice said above the howling wind. I turned around, stunned that someone else was up there on that wild afternoon deep in the mountains. But there was nobody. The long slope I had climbed fell away behind me into the dense, rising bank of cloud below.
A sudden image of my two grandsons appeared before me, and I realised the most important thing in the world was not striving for new goals and adventures but preserving life as long as I could to spend time with them.
“There isn’t anything left to prove. You’ll be 70 next year and time is short. You don’t want to make it even shorter by climbing Kings Peak in the autumn alone.” The voice, clear as a bell, spoke to me again, but no one was there. I turned back to the map. With years of navigational experience behind me, I was confused. It is easy navigating across the flat, endless terrain of inland Australia. The jagged peaks of the Uintas Mountains are a much tougher challenge. Altitude is unforgiving. Thankfully, I had a storm-tossed epiphany.
“The pass is above you, straight up, not in front of you,” the voice said.
I had to back years of experience and fight the rising tide of panic, trusting that all my calculations were correct, that the map was accurate and that 500 feet above me, over the steep, screed slope, was Anderson Pass. I knew there was a killing drop straight down the cliffs on the reverse slope. I had to get it right. I couldn’t stay where I was.
Slinging on my pack, I started climbing – straight up. Sure enough, half an hour later, I emerged on the ridgeline, where a narrow slot between the rocks beckoned. This was Anderson Pass. It looked nothing like I had expected, nothing like the broad saddles I had crossed daily for the last week. There was an outpouring of relief as I knew I would survive, and I headed straight down the mountain into safety. The storm beat and howled against the eastern slope of Kings Peak.
Like all men who retire, I wondered how to fill up the last third of life. How do you replace the easily quantifiable results of running your own business when you no longer own that business? How do you set goals? How do you measure if your goalsetting is successful, as often they will be non-monetary goals? More prosaically, what makes a man get out of bed every day if they don’t have to go to work?
After returning, exhausted from the Kings Peak hike, I wrote some suggestions for men my age who are retired or about to be.
Retirement from work is not retirement from life. You may live for several more decades, and it has to be a productive and fulfilling time.
Set realistic goals. My post-retirement bucket list goals of solo hikes along the John Muir Trail and the Highline Trail are achievable for someone under 60. For someone in their late 60s, it is arguable – they were not realistic. Don’t ever set goals that may kill you.
Attempt to set goals and have a plan before you retire, not when it has already happened.
Be flexible and adjust gracefully to the limitations advancing age places on your body. I could once carry a 35kg backpack with ease. Now, about 22kg is the limit. This is not a matter of shame. I can no longer swim confidently at Manly through a big surf. I just don’t have the aerobic capability, so I swim on calm days. After being buried in an avalanche in Colorado several years ago, I have given up heli-skiing and back-country skiing, but I now snow ski every year, aiming to perfect my technique.
Realise that priorities will change as you get older. This is especially the case with grandchildren, a new and rewarding experience that is often unplanned for by men.
Nurture interpersonal relationships. Men do not have the broad and deep social networks of women of the same age. Many Australian males have activity-based relationships rather than emotionally based relationships, and these, of necessity, dimmish through time. Never let your social circle shrink if you can avoid it.
Know the difference between your acquaintances and friends, whom you can trust with what parts of your life and whom you can’t. Women are better at this than men.
Before finishing work, attempt to develop interests that you are passionate about and can be undertaken with the greater time available on retirement. When I retired, I applied for and was accepted into the Australian Film and Television School to study cinematography. While challenging for me, for no other reason than being 30 years older than the other students, it was a challenging but rewarding experience.
Realise that the things you find enjoyable and challenging may seem strange to your friends and companions. They may travel to Europe in the summer and drink red wine in quaint villages on the Cinque Terre. You may wish to go cross-country skiing in Finland in winter. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something and it’s enjoyable.
Remember, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make and that life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.
(Veteran stockbroker and investment manager, Kieran Kelly retired in 2017 after 38 years in the securities industry. He has also been a journalist, a long distance swimmer, adventurer and climber who has written several books about his adventures. He is a regular guest on ABC radio’s “Australia All Over”)