At 73, Helen Menz thought she had scaled her last mountain.
After all, she'd climbed the 46 highest peaks of the Adirondacks. She decided a climb up 4,159-foot Phelps Mountain last summer would be her farewell to high-peaks hiking. Age had finally caught up with her, she thought.Then a weekend hike on Wright Mountain proved her wrong. After letting her son and grandchildren hike up the trail ahead of her, she hit upon her own pace by walking then resting, walking and resting.
"First thing I knew, I was on top," said Menz, who lives in the Albany suburb of Loudonville. "I finally owned up to the fact that you have to go at your own pace."
Menz is not unique. Older climbers are common in the Adirondacks all the way up to the high peaks. Dozens past their supposed prime are proving that regularly scrambling up rocky crags and thwacking through prickly brush is not exclusively for the young.
"You can do it until you're fairly old," Menz said. "If you sit down and say I'm finished, well then you are finished."
Menz said she likes to hike with all three generations of her family at least twice a year. The only other nod to age is a walking stick she carries to absorb some of the shock her knees no longer can.
"Age is no limiting factor," said Ed Hixson, a surgeon from Saranac Lake. "It's an extremely good thing for older people."
Hixson, who has done a bit of climbing himself from the Adirondacks to the peak of Mount Everest, said hiking is a healthy alternative for people who can no longer handle jogging or team sports.
He warns though that prospective hikers should get a complete check-up before putting the extra stress on the cardiovascular system.
Hixson, by the way, said most people "would be amazed" by the number of older people climbing the Adirondacks.
Older hikers run into the least trouble on the trails because they generally bring a lifetime of experience with them. "Most older people who hike have hiked all their lives," he said.
At 66, Chuck Bennett has been hiking in the mountains only six years, but he has packed in a lifetime of climbing, making about 300 ascents.
Bennett, a retired General Electric worker, figures he goes high-peak hiking two or three times a week. Thursdays are given over to the "Crooked Caners," a loosely knit group of hikers who regularly hit the trails of the Adirondacks and nearby areas. The only membership rule is that there are no rules.
Named after the crooked cane each member is presented with, "Caners" are mostly in their 60s. They've been hiking weekly the past six years - rain or shine or even snow.
"No matter what the weather is, we go out," said Priscilla Hayes, who at age 46 is the youngest of the group.
A recent hike to the Hudson Gorge brought out 15 of the 50 or so Caners. An off-and-on drizzle made the trail mucky, and clouds of flies clustered around the hikers heads. Hikers broke their brisk pace only to spy a deer that crossed the path or check spores on the back of fern fronds.
"It's nice to have a space where you can revive your spirit," said Pat Collier, 61, who has been climbing the range almost all her life and seems to know the mountains personally.
Six of her seven children have followed her footsteps - literally - and made it to the top of each Adirondack peak.
"I never knew why I climbed. There's something alluring about the peaks. There's something spiritual," said Grace Hudowalski, who at 84 has stopped climbing but remains the Grand Old Lady of Adirondack hikers and the first woman to scale all 46 of the highest peaks.
Hudowalski said she writes more than 500 letters a year congratulating and advising hikers and climbers of all ages.
"When you talk about mountains, you get very personal with people," she said.