Over 70 and still ripping up the miles

By Jan Alicia Nettler

For the Gazette

Published: 12-11-2018 11:19 AM

The frost was still on the ground when an unlikely group of 17 senior citizens, most in their 70’s, some in their late 60’s, gathered in a circle at the Notch Visitor’s Center in Amherst. After a short briefing on safety, introductions and a few photos, including one with Park Supervisor Kurt Richards, the 11 women and 6 men headed up the trail to Bare Mountain. Our goal: hike the Seven Sisters across the Holyoke Range. The Seven Sisters hike is a demanding and rugged 6 mile hike that traverses the Holyoke Range State Park between Rt. 116 in Amherst and Rt. 47 in Hadley. It’s difficult for anyone including most younger people. Could this group of elders complete the hike? We certainly expected to do that when we started.

This was a challenge for me. I had hiked only a little in my adult life until I retired 11 years ago when a friend introduced me to the Tuesday Hikers. This group is part of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which is the oldest conservation group in the U.S. It offered me a chance to do hikes all over western Mass of varying difficulties. I was hooked.

After a couple of years, I was trained as a outings leader with the AMC and started leading all kinds of hikes, some fairly difficult. Then I was stricken with Lymphoma. The cure was quick, but I had lung damage from chemotherapy. I was still able to hike, but my abilities declined, and I got out of breath easily. I was discouraged.

Many of us, as we get older, get frustrated when we can’t do things that we could do in the past. This year, at age 73, I decided to see if I could get back some of what I had lost. So I hiked more and more to build strength. With the help of a little medicine, I started to do hikes I thought I would never do again. I tested myself in early in October by hiking Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

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The Seven Sisters was another hike I had given up on. But with some training on my own, I started to feel confident that I could do it again. Then I got the idea that there are lots of older folks who are strong hikers. Maybe I could gather a bunch of them and do this hike together. I posted the Over 70 Hike Challenge on the AMC website. Now, here we were, 17 old folks ready for the challenge.

Pat Stevenson, 71, was first person who signed up. I got a good laugh when she wrote: Since I qualify for this geezer hike, put me on the list. She added that she summited Mt. Kilimanjaro on her 60th birthday. And while she may be a bit slower these days, she was still going strong.

The hike up to Bare Mountain is steep, and the trail has lots of uneven rocks. At the top, we were awarded with fantastic views of the valley to the north, west and south. It’s the first of many spectacular views we would have on this hike. Everyone was still feeling optimistic. Smiles were everywhere. We didn’t stay long because we had far to go. It’s called the Seven Sisters, but I jokingly say there are also several step sisters, a few sisters in law, and a couple of half sisters. There seems to be an uncountable number of ups and downs over ridge line knobs. Only a few are named: Bare Mountain, Mount Hitchcock, Taylor Notch, and Mount Holyoke with its famous Summit House.

When I asked the participants how they got interested in hiking, I got all sorts of answers. Some started young—in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Paul Glazebrook, 71, started when he was stationed in the Rockies while serving in the Canadian Army. Ed Watson, who is 76, started when he turned 65. He decided he needed the exercise, and he hated gyms. In the past 11 years, he estimates that he has hiked over 1000 miles. He has hiked the Northeast 111 which are the highest peaks in NH, Maine, Vermont, Adirondacks, and the Catskills. He has done the 48 New Hampshire 4000 foot peaks in the winter too. He added that he now hikes “slower, not as often,” but he’s still hiking. Others told me that they really started hiking when they retired and had the time to do that. Eileen Wood, 70, wondered why she rarely sees younger people hiking and worries about the future of the trails. And John Sinton, our oldest at 79, has hiked a lot, but not so much lately as he’s been busy finishing his book on the history of the Mill River, Devil’s Den to Lickingwater. He has more time now. He’s great. He did the hike with no trouble at all!

Bob Jabaily, one of the “youngsters” at 68, started hiking in his 50’s after his brother died in a tragic accident. He was biking in a triathlon when a car accidentally drove across the path and killed him. Bob and one of his nieces started hiking to cope with the grief.

After passing Mount Hitchcock, we came across another amazing view of the valley to the north. At some of the view points, we could see Mount Monadnock and Mount Greylock in the distance. Everyone was still feeling strong and optimistic. We kept on going. There were a few places on the trail where we had to literally climb up or down rocky sections by pulling ourselves up hand over hand. Occasionally, some of us had to help others over difficult sections. We finally came to a spot to eat lunch. It was a great place to continue conversations as we got to know each other better. But we couldn’t stay too long as there was still a long way to go.

Eventually we crossed the auto road up to the Summit House. This was a good place to drop out the of hike if you couldn’t do it all. Sara Satterwaithe, 69, considered it as her calf muscle was hurting on the uphills. There was one big uphill left–up to Mount Holyoke, but then most of the rest was downhill to the end where we had left some cars. She decided to stay with us.

The Seven Sisters hike is part of the New England National Scenic Trail (NET). It is also part of a trail system called the Metacomet Monadnock Trail. The NET is one of the trails in National Trails system which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. This trail now goes from the Long Island Sound to New Hampshire.

Six hours after we started, we all finished the hike. We were tired, but everyone was still in high spirits and so happy to have done the hike together. We made new friends, and we showed the world that many of us older people still can do more than people expect us to do.

After the hike, Lewis Popper, 71, told me that his pleasure from the accomplishment of completing this challenge was almost as great as doing the hike itself. Helaine Selin, 72, jokingly quipped that it was lovely to survive. Pat Stevenson told me that today was a real test for her and her body, and she felt like she passed with flying colors. And Grace Ferrante, 70, who co-led the hike with me, said: “I’m so pleased about the 70+ hike. It went so well! We stayed together and we all finished! And it was hard!”

Jan Alicia Nettler is the Past Chair of the Berkshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). She is a professor of mathematics and a dancer who lives in Florence.