Each summer, I leave the comfort zone of sea level and ascend to roughly 9,000 feet for a few days. Sometimes to write. Sometimes to teach. But always to walk and ride on dirt. Crested Butte, Colorado is my favorite Rocky Mountain town just north of Gunnison, Colorado and thirteen miles south of Aspen‚ “as the crow flies.” In reality, it would take three hours to drive around the mountains to get to Aspen from here, or seven hours to hike across West Maroon Pass. To locals, this kind of endeavor is a familiar ritual, culminating in The Grand Traverse race for those hearty souls crazy enough to ski the same route. I have yet to do any of these feats, but marvel at the vigor of women at least twice my age who hike that stretch like it’s a Zumba class.
Meet the Butte Beauties, Phila Weatherly’s brainchild group that formed in 1986. Today, the group boasts more than 100 women, all over the age of 50, who ski together in the winter and bike, hike and camp in the summer. My best friend’s mother, Maureen Hall, has been a member for the last 17 years, and at the age of 67, completes seven hour hikes in a day, then returns to make dinner for her husband and houseguest (me) before she finishes a gazillion volunteer duties on the computer and confirms more guests at her son’s upcoming wedding. In other words, a hike this long is a normal day in the life of the average Butte Beauty.
“The only rules are that we have no rules,” Maureen write in an email. “No by-laws, etc. Everyone in the group has had a past life that involved lots of work, raising kids, doing charity work, etc. and now it’s just time to play.”
I’m particularly awed upon arrival when Maureen returns from her latest hike with a small group of Butte Beauties: summiting Teocalli Mountain in the Elk Mountain Range, which at 13,208 feet elevation, is by no means a casual stroll down a dirt path. Four of the eight women were over 70, and one with a replaced knee and reconstructed shoulder.
Seriously. This is the kind of phenomena I anticipate when I visit Crested Butte. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I keep returning. A dear friend, battling a rare form of lymphoma, not only managed to ride with me on the 401 trail, one of the most beautiful and epic single track mountain biking trails in the country, but was kind enough to wait for me on the uphill and the descent. I always beg my Crested Butte friends to wear 20 lbs ankle weights when we head outdoors. It’s my only insurance that we’ll all finish together.
The women who comprise the Butte Beauties humble and inspire me. They broke the rules about 15 years ago and invited me to join them on a ‘normal’ hike—to a series of lakes just above Scofield Pass. We set out on a lovely day, eating lunch overlooking the lakes when storm clouds blew in out of nowhere. We packed up as fast as we could, leaving the crusts of our sandwiches for the picas and high-tailed it across a scree field when lightning split the sky. Being that I have a foot-long titanium plate and ten metal screws in my femur, I concluded that I was a lightning rod and ran for my life to the car—what I did not account for in courage, I made up for in youth and speed, hoping that if something happened to anyone, I’d at least be able to do something to help. Turns out, the Butte Beauties didn’t bat an eye. Of course, they were concerned, but they literally took it all in stride, even though they don’t make a habit of venturing out in foul weather.
I hike a lot at home. A few times per week. Hour loops, nothing technical, except on longer weekend adventures. I thought carrying my three-year-old daughter on my shoulders to the West Point Inn on the top of Mt. Tamalpais, a mere 2,300 foot mountain near my house in Marin County, was a healthy effort but it’s not even close to what the these women do—for daily fun and vacation. Two years ago, Maureen and six other Beauties, all over 65, hiked the Tour of Mont Blanc in France. Treading dirt at high altitude, navigating boulder and scree fields is second nature to these women and make me realize there’s a whole series of adventures waiting for me and my own friends when our hair is silver and white, as long as we stay vital. May we all remember that ‘age’ is truly a state of mind and live by Placido Domingo’s wisdom, “When I rest, I rust.”