Americans are living — and working, and playing, and battling illness — longer. In the first part of our special series on aging, we meet an avid hiker who has hiked all of New York’s highest peaks, not just once but more than 20 times. Now 74, he is still climbing mountains. WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley, who is better at leisurely walks, met Adirondack 46er Phil Corell this fall at a low elevation hiking trail to talk with him about his experiences and why he’s still hiking in his seventh decade.
It’s a pleasant September day when I meet Phil Corell at the High Point Trail of the Champlain Area Trail system on Willsboro Point. It’s near his summer home and is an easy walk in the forest. We chose it not because he isn’t game to climb an Adirondack summit but because I don’t want to be panting my way through the interview. It might, after all, be a bit of a challenge to keep up with someone who has climbed all of the highest Adirondack peaks more than 20 times. Corell has conquered the High Peaks in both summer and winter and at 74 years old is still climbing and hiking the Adirondack Mountains. “The Adirondacks have been my home since I graduated from college in '68. And I had a 50-year relationship with Pok-O-MacCready Camp starting at age 10 in '56 and spending the next 50 summers as a camper, counselor, headmaster, Assistant Director, tripping director, boating director. So that's what got me to the Adirondacks where I met my wife and we have two sons and they've been hikers and involved with the Adirondacks also. And I've been a licensed guide for about 30 years and taught wilderness recreation at Plattsburgh State as an adjunct professor, involved with Boy Scouts in the North Country, and all of this has an outdoor interest or component to it which I've stayed with as I've gotten older here. And, you know, I think the healthier you stay, you've got to work at it, the older you get. So that's what I try to do.”
As we start our walk along the trail, Corell talks about why he keeps hiking, especially in the Adirondacks. "For me it started as being a camper at Pok-O-MacCready. But you get to be goal oriented and all of a sudden you realize there's 46 mountains. And so I started ticking them off and finished my first round at the age of 16 back in 1962. It gets into your blood. You climb the summer peaks and next thing you know you want to become a winter 46er and then a four season 46er. My wife and two sons, we hiked as a family. They finished it, ages 9 and 11 their first rounds, and one of them became a winter 46er also and he is now with his two sons out in Calgary, Alberta climbing out in the Rockies every chance he gets. So if you can pass that love of the mountains and being outside and being in the woods and the challenge, getting to the top, it gets a little bit harder with each year but it just means you've got to work at it a little more consistently. Just a very rewarding experience and it's good for you."
Pat Bradley: "Well, you mentioned that you did your first 46 basically when you were a teenager."
Corell: "Right, right."
Bradley: "So why did you decide to keep doing them over and over again?"
Phil Corell: "I'm a social climber, I'm not an individual climber. So you develop a group of friends with similar interests. And the next thing you know year after year after year the numbers tend to build and eventually at some point you look, look at the chart, and some they're not all beautiful. Some of them are pretty ugly climbs at times. But you knock them off and next thing you know. You know I've been up Marcy 60-some times. I've been up Colden a number of times. Giant. Some of the beautiful ones you do over and over because they're so challenging and the views are so great or the cables on Gothics. You venture out to some of the challenging slide climbs. You look for new routes. You look for places you've never been before. And it just it becomes a way of life I guess."
Bradley: "You said some of the climbs or hikes are not the best. What did you mean by that?"
Corell: "Well, I would say not the best but they're very challenging. Allen Mountain you've got about an eight mile walk into the base before you ever start to climb or the views are not the best on top. You work hard to get to the top of Couchsachraga and you're not greeted with the same reward as being on top of Colden or Gothics or Haystack or some of the other more popular views."
Corell says his most memorable climbs are those accomplished with family and friends and the challenges he overcame with new experiences. But he admits climbing is becoming harder as he gets older. “When you're sleeping in a tent at 35, 30 below zero in winter and getting up and trying to cook your food and making sure you sleep with some of your damp clothing so it doesn't freeze and you know, it's a challenge. It's something that I don't think I want to do now (laughs) but at the time you know it was sort of that man against nature sort of experience. But snowshoeing sometimes in winter or trail can already be broken and someone just has micro-spikes or crampons on. Another time you might be breaking trail through three feet of fresh powder. And so it's a completely, every trip is different, every experience is different.”
Bradley: “What are some of your adventures in the Adirondacks?”
Phil Corell: “We got into, with my group, different routes. And one of the fellows Sharp Swan got into logging and lumbering and went in to look at old lumbering camps. My first rounds, we there were no herd trails. We, we might spend all day trying to get one mountain. Climbing over blow down, after the 1950 hurricane, where you were walking four to six feet off the ground balancing on logs with new growth coming up in between. And some of them are just plain beautiful. There's nothing like, you know, I think about Skylight and how hard you've got to hike to get back there and the chance you might see hundreds of people on Marcy next door and you might be sitting all alone on top of a rock on top of Skylight soaking it all in and, you know saying this is a pretty nice experience. So a lot of the winter trips and the trail breaking are probably the most memorable. Again doing things with your kids a great experience.”
Pat Bradley: “You mentioned when we started out that you're 74 years old. Do you feel that you're stronger at hiking now? Or are you slowing down?”
Corell laughs: “Definitely slowing down. Definitely slowing down. We joke in winter as you get older you become a vulture. You're not doing the trail breaking. You're not setting the steps or whatever. You're finding out what trail has broken or you've got a strong group of hikers with you who are doing the dirty work and you're following along behind. But you, you have to limit what you're doing. I mean now the next thing is physical issues. I've had both Achilles repaired and a meniscus cleaned out and a few other things. And so the body is talking back to me a little bit with each advancing year. But you want to continue to do what you enjoy within the limits that your body sets for you.”
Bradley: “Well, how do you perceive age?”
Phil Corell: “Age is it's in your head. Age is what you make of it. For me it's doing something cardio five or six times a week because if I don't do that everything stiffens up. You start to put on some weight. You start to not have the ability to go long distances. Some of these climbs are 18 miles, 20 miles. One of the people I've hiked with has done the winter-46 in one winter season at the age of 73, which is just phenomenal. I have a couple other people I hike with in their 60s and 70s who have done a number of rounds. I've got 37 peaks of the 46 done over the age of 70. But last year we were moving. This year I had some back issues and things. So I'm sort of stalled with nine to go and they're three long, long trips. So the question is going to be can I get myself in the shape that I can go an 18 mile day or maybe that's not going to happen and you know we'll move on to lesser peaks. But the key is exercise. The key is you use it or lose it. If you don't work at it then you're not going to be able to do anything. So you know it's rewarding in the long term to keep at it.”
Corell, who has climbed New York’s highest peak numerous times, the 5,344-foot Mount Marcy, chuckled when we encountered a sign post noting the high point of our ramble. “Ha! 4,154 inches. 300 and something. So this is the high point.”
As we neared the end of the trail a quick question about how the Adirondacks have changed in the more than 50 years he has been hiking brings out a key concern of this seasoned hiker – and it’s not over his health. “We're walking today on a beautiful level dry trail and no one else is around us. If we were to go to Adirondack Loj, if you looked at the trailhead register there would be hundreds of people signed in all over the High Peaks. When it's a wet muddy season their boots just chew things up. The 46ers, I was number 224. We are now up to around 13,000 46ers. We've been having around 500 a year finish for the last couple years. And it's caught on, which in one breath is wonderful, but in the other breath can the trail sustain that kind of heavy use.”
Corell will continue hiking and believes everyone at any age should remain active. “You have to stay within your limitations. But the key thing is it's like New Year's resolutions is sticking with it, making it a part of your daily routine. You have to make that commitment on a daily basis. Whether it's a nice stroll out around your neighborhood or something you know more physical. Just something that might get the heart rate up a little bit and work off some calories and that's just what you need to do.”