Fitness propels 77-year-old to new heights

Tom Paulu / Longview Daily News /

For every hour he spends snowshoeing through the woods or slogging up Mount St. Helens, Jerry Calbaum, of Kelso, Wash., puts in a lot more time lifting weights at the YMCA.

“I wouldn’t be doing all this without working out at the Y,” Calbaum said.

Those hours of exercise paid off last month, when Calbaum climbed the volcano a few days after his 77th birthday (he delayed the climb to hit the best weather).

It’s the third year in a row that Calbaum has celebrated his birthday by climbing the peak.

On Feb. 15, Calbaum and three other hikers left the Marble Mountain Sno-park at 6 a.m., wearing snowshoes. “It was absolutely perfect” weather, he said. “It was just a little breezy up on top.”

When they returned to the parking lot at 3:30 p.m., three other members of the Mount St. Helens Club were there with chili. “They even had a candle for the cake,” Calbaum said. “That was very nice. I’m very thankful.”

Winter climbs can be more challenging than summer ascents because deep snow can be slow to traverse and the lower snow level means climbers can’t get as close in their vehicles. But there are advantages. “One reason we started climbing in winter time — you don’t have to pay” for a climbing permit, Calbaum said. ”It’s just pretty in winter time,” too.

Calbaum has been hiking and climbing for decades.

He’s lived several places in the Pacific Northwest, though mostly in the Longview-Kelso area. In 2005, Calbaum retired as vice president for fiber supply at Longview Fibre. “I was 69 when I retired,” he noted. “I’d done my thing. It was a great job while I had it.”

In his younger years, Calbaum was an avid rock climber, particularly in the North Cascades. “I did a lot of offbeat routes. We never saw another party on the mountain.”

He used to do a lot of mountain biking, favoring the Capitol State Forest west of Olympia. “I had to have my shoulder replaced so I’ve been warned not to fall,” he said, which means staying away from singletrack riding.

He’s plenty familiar with Mount St. Helens.

“I climbed just about every route before it erupted,” he said. Once, “I spent the night out on the top of the mountain.

“I’ve hiked around the mountain in a day twice,” he added. The third time, he was turned back by bad weather. “I don’t know if I’ll try it again,” he said. “But it’s a fascinating area to have access to in your backyard.”

Elsewhere in the Cascades, “I’ve probably climbed Mount Hood 25 times,” he said. “I’ve been up Rainier a few times.” Glacier Peak and Mount Shasta are the only major peaks in the Cascades he didn’t bag.

Several years ago, he and old climbing buddy Dick Anderson did the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, which gains a cumulative 22,000 feet in its 93-mile length.

Calbaum has also explored the wilderness of other lands. He and his first wife, Elizabeth, once spent a month hiking in Austria.

Elizabeth died in 2005, and in 2009 Calbaum married Jan Marie Fortier-Calbaum. “When we got married, we went to Italy on a bike trip,” he said. Fortier-Calbaum retired as library administrator at Mount Hood Community College but is back there filling the position temporarily.

He and Jan Marie hiked to Machu Picchu in the Andes a few years ago. “It’s the best hike I’ve been on,” he said, despite having to traverse a pass that’s 15,300 feet high, about 1,000 feet higher than the top of Mount Rainier.

Fortier-Calbaum got her husband into road biking, he said. “I had never done that before I met my wife.”

Calbaum joined the Mount St. Helens club, a group of mostly senior hikers, three years ago. Everyone on the St. Helens ascent with him was over 60. “We need some young blood in it, for sure,” Calbaum said.

Calbaum said the morning after a big hike or climb, “my legs are tired but not sore. But by noon I’m starting to recuperate.”

“I’ve been a Y member some place for 50 years,” he said. In recent years, he’s cut back to only three or four workouts a week. “I’m getting old enough so I need a day off in between,” he said.

“I hate hiking when I’m not in shape,” he said. “It’s a matter of staying in shape, and you don’t get that without working out.”

He’s a trim 148 pounds on a 5 foot 7 frame, down two-and-a-half inches from earlier years.

Calbaum’s routine at the Y here includes mostly free weights. For instance, he steps up and down and up and down a platform with a 90-pound barbell balanced on his shoulders.

“For his age, he’s one of the strongest guys in here and definitely the most regular,” said Dylan Harkey, who works in the Y weight room.

Even though he’s able to scale big peaks in midwinter, Calbaum’s doctors have cautioned against doing certain kinds of mundane home chores because of several crushed discs: “They don’t like me to rake leaves or shovel show,” he said.

Next month, Calbaum and Jan Marie are heading to Costa Rica for some kayaking and birding, and he has some hikes planned for this summer in Glacier National Park.

And, of course, he’ll head back up St. Helens a year from now to mark his 78th birthday.

“I want to do it until I’m 80,” he said. “I’ve got three more years.”