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Omaha Magazine

Made to Climb: Ken Hites Challenges Body and Mind

Dec 27, 2020 02:30PM ● By Joel Stevens
Ken Hites leaning against rock-climbing wall

The course catalog called it “PEA 112F Rock Climbing.”

The description read, “This class focuses on the basic knowledge and skills necessary for the sport of rock climbing.”

Ken Hites signed up anyway.

Four years later, that introductory course at the University of Nebraska at Omaha has ignited a passion for climbing in Hites.

Hites was an unconventional student, and he was far from the typical rock-climbing hobbyist.

After decades working in the credit card industry, Hites retired in 2016 and, at age 64, enrolled at UNO, where he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in the late 1970s. He didn’t so much have a plan as a lifelong interest in self-improvement—both mental and physical.

“I figured I’d fool around and take some classes,” he said. 

Rock climbing was one of the courses Hites signed up for among a full schedule that included English Composition II, intermediate algebra, critical reasoning, and French II. He wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the sport. He’d taken his sons to a local climbing wall but he’d never climbed himself, lamenting “I’m too old for that.” He’s still not sure what compelled him to sign up for rock-climbing, which he quickly realized required muscles he hadn’t used in years and was populated by students more than 40 years his junior. The class met at UNO’s Outdoor Venture Center and its towering 30-foot tall, 2,500 square foot climbing wall.

“I guess I took right to it to the degree I could,” Hites said, adding he earned an A in the course. “I probably didn’t take to it the way the 21-year-olds in my class did. I wasn’t one of the best climbers. We were all new to climbing, but I was 64, and these guys were in their 20s. They took to it a lot quicker. I had to work hard. It was hard work.”

Hites was in “relatively” good shape, as he routinely walked and biked. He was decidedly not in rock climbing shape.

“The upper body strength required for climbing is a whole different thing.”

He admits he got a few funny looks in the climbing class but then again as a 60-something grad student, he got a few funny looks in all his classes.

He wasn’t deterred.

"When you climb you can see people are made to climb, it’s why kids have jungle gyms,” he said. “We’re natural climbers. You might stop for five or six decades, but when you go back to climbing again it feels good. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

It’s a feeling that grew once Hites began climbing outdoors. The class had offered climbing “field trips,” but Hites didn’t take the instructor up on the offer. In fact, for the first year after taking that class, he didn’t have much of an interest in climbing outside.

“I told my friends that did climb outside they were crazy,” said Hites, who preferred the safe confines of UNO’s indoor climbing space.

Eventually, some of those same friends talked Hites into joining them for an outside climb.

“It was like a whole other world opened up,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”

His first outdoor climb was at Blue Mounds State Park in Minnesota. It was, Hites guessed, a 35-foot climb via a “top rope” technique that had him attached to a rope that passed up through an anchor at the top and down to a belayer at the foot of the climb taking up the slack as he climbed the sheer wall of jutted rocks and crevices.  

“It was a lot different than climbing on the plastic at the gym,” Hites said. “Way different.”

He loved every minute of it. That trip was the tipping point. He was hooked.

“I was totally wound up when I was done with that day,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, I want to do this as many times as I can.’”

Hites climbs in Blue Mounds four or five times a year now. He also likes climbing in the Black Hills and Palisades State Park in South Dakota. Earlier this year he ventured to Montana, climbing near Bozeman and Whitefish, not far from Glacier National Park.

His passion has evolved into a winter sport. In the last year he’s taken up ice climbing, traveling to Hyalite Canyon in Montana and Winona, Minnesota. The differences between ice climbing and rock climbing are vast. Rock walls, whether plastic or granite, are fixed. And ice, well, isn’t.

“It is what it is and you have to figure out how you’re going to grab it and propel yourself up the face of the wall,” Hites said of rock climbing. 

Although “up” remains the goal in ice climbing, the biggest difference, Hites said, is “there are no holds.”

Ice climbers use crampons (spiked traction boots) and a pair of ice axes to scale walls of ice and snow. The conditions, the wind, and cold, always factor.

“It’s a whole different situation,” Hites said. “There’s a lot of subtlety to it, but you’re not constrained by a specific set of holds, you have a little more leeway. But in a way it’s more physically exhausting that rock climbing.”

Climbing, all of it, is more than simply staying fit and active for Hites. He loves the challenge it affords his efforts, in both body and mind.

“The physical fitness part is nice because it requires you to use every limb in your body, it uses your core a whole lot,” he said. “But it also requires you to use your brain. You have to, especially when you’re outside, figure out how you’re going to climb these things. So you’re solving a puzzle and climbing with pretty much all the muscles in your body. It’s not like going to the gym and working out.”

When not hitting some of the region’s more popular and picturesque climbing destinations, Hites can be found climbing five days a week at Approach Gym in Omaha.

Approach operations manager Mark Powell said climbers Hites’ age aren’t uncommon but few he’s seen can match the 68-year-old’s dedication and endurance.

Everyone climbs for different reasons, Powell acknowledges, and in Hites he sees a climber who has grown by leaps since that first day his chalky hands attempted a crimp or open-hand grip.

“There’s a lot of progression involved with climbing,” Powell said. “The loop of doing new things and overcoming challenges that were previously impossible are addictive.”

Hites likes Approach Gym’s “come as you are” mantra and the fact it caters to all shapes and sizes—and ages—of climber, from kids and first-timers to more experienced and accomplished climbers.

“And then there’s guys who plug away at it like me and show up on their lunch hour who aren’t special, really, at being great climbers, but enjoy the activity so much they do it,” he said. 

Hites recognizes most of the climbers he sees are younger than him.

And he’s still okay with that.

“I don’t get as many funny looks like I did in my first class,” he said. Climbers tend to accept other climbers as one of their own. 

“When you’re out in the Black Hills or somewhere climbing outside, you’ll make an acquaintance with someone where you have no idea who they are but you strike up a conversation, you share each other’s rope, and they might be young or they might be old and it just doesn’t matter because you’re both out there climbing. It kind of draws people together.”

Hites hopes to continue to climb as long as his body—and mind—will allow.

“I still enjoy it,” he said. “I especially enjoy being able to go outside and do it. And you can’t go outside and do it unless you practice inside. 

“If something happened to me and I couldn’t do it anymore I’d obviously quit,” Hites continued. “But that hasn’t happened to me. So I’ll keep trying.” 

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the January/February 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.