by Lynnette Wood, Ph.d. Orcas Island, Washington

A member of the author’s rock climbing group scales a climbing wall.

“I feel alive again” were the first words said by 64-year old Karen as she left Climb San Juan, a climbing gym in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington State. Four climbers, including two first-time climbers, enjoyed this Sunday outing sponsored by the Orcas Senior Center, located on neighboring Orcas Island.

You may wonder, why is a senior center sponsoring outings to a climbing gym? Emerging from the COVID pandemic lockdowns, the Orcas Senior Center found itself in an interesting demographic quandary.

Previous to 2020, the demographic trend on Orcas Island was marked by a significant “hump” of baby boomers. In fact, the fastest growing demographic sub-group was that of the 75-years-and-older crowd. This group is on track to more than double in size between 2020 and 2040. In responding to their needs, the Orcas Senior Center established programs like Home Maintenance & Repair, to help people stay safely in their homes as they age, and Hearts & Hands, to provide companionship and help with light housekeeping tasks.

The San Juan Islands are located in northwestern Washington.

Then COVID came along and an interesting thing happened. Many people from Seattle and other nearby urban areas decided to retire early, or to work from home, and moved to these rural islands as a perceived safe location. Property values leaped as homes were snapped up on the ferry-serviced islands, then leaped again as people began buying properties on the outer (non-ferry serviced) islands.

This second demographic hump of young seniors wants a completely different set of services from the Orcas Senior Center. So the center is now experimenting with a range of new activities and programs to meet this new set of demands. One of them is rock climbing.

My own rock climbing saga started in 2022 at the age of 70. While on a guided tour of Joshua Tree National Park, the tour guide—a professional rock climber—decided to demonstrate how to climb a rock. Randomly, I thought to myself, “I could do that.” So I put down my water bottle and proceeded up the rock. I think the guide was surprised at first, but then inspired.

“You’re a natural,” he said.

I thought about this comment for three months before deciding to go back to Joshua Tree for the sole purpose of trying my hand at rock climbing. I started with a “tourist climb” and was immediately hooked. I signed up for formal lessons the very next day. Since then, I have climbed in Moab, Utah, and, of all places, Sarajevo, Bosnia. I’ve gotten the same reaction from climbing instructors everywhere: Surprise and maybe a little skepticism, followed by inspiration.

Overhearing me talking about these experiences in the hallway of the center and wondering out loud where I could go to climb in Washington State, someone said, “You know there is a climbing gym in Friday Harbor, right?” Actually, I did not know that. Being on a neighboring island allows me to walk onto the inter-island ferry, which is more convenient and less expensive than having to drive a car there via a ferry to the mainland.

After a couple of months of lessons and gym practice, I wondered if maybe there weren’t other seniors who might like to try climbing. So I put out a flyer, just to see what would happen.

Next thing I knew, four women had signed up! All but one were seniors, and two of them had never climbed before. With instruction from the gym’s owner, all of the women quickly acquired skills that allowed them to overcome any fear or trepidation they may have had; all successfully reached the top of at least one climbing route. All four vowed to go again.

Another member of the rock climbing group moves sideways to find a better route up the wall.

Now another flyer is out, and word is getting around. Already, eight seniors —all women— have signed up for the next gym outing. So far, I remain the oldest of the group.

Someday, I may need the help of Home Maintenance & Repair or Hearts & Hands, but for now I am thrilled to be able to share this new passion with others and maybe inspire them to try a “real” rock. I recently learned that there is a climbing rock on Lopez Island, also a convenient walk-on ferry ride away. Lopez Island, here we come!

Lynnette Wood spent her professional career as a scientist helping developing countries assess their resources and their needs in order to plan effectively for the future. Now retired, Lynnette serves on the board of directors of the Orcas Senior Center on Orcas Island where she lives. The community is part of the San Juan Islands in Washington’s Puget Sound, about 90 miles from Seattle.