Old?! She’s still reaching her peak
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
It was 4 a.m. and a 14,267-foot peak awaited.
Dorothy Snearly was eager for the day. She ate her usual pre-fourteener breakfast – a hearty bowl of oatmeal.
She’d checked the weather, packed her lunch – a peanut butter sandwich, fruit, energy bars and water.
If all things went well, later in the day, Torreys Peak would be Dorothy’s 23rd fourteener.
This was going to be a tough one. Dorothy was recovering from four broken discs in her back. Before that she had rebounded from a broken arm, and before that a broken pelvis.
She was in a back brace for four months, so she had a very difficult recovery – physical therapy, weight training, lots of hiking. But at 86 years old, the body doesn’t bounce back like it once did.
But Torreys Peak was waiting.
She tugged her boot laces tight, and plopped on her floppy hat – a hat that’s been with her for every climb – and she was off.
At 10 minutes till 7 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2009, the old woman of the mountain was back on the mountain. It’s a term she uses proudly. She even has a photo of her posing next to a yellow daisy-looking alpine flower called “The Old Man of the Mountain.”
“See, I’m the old woman of the mountain,” she says pointing, “and the flower is the old man.”
She says it with a proud grin.
At first glance or even a close look, there’s no way that one would guess Dorothy’s age. And for anyone who knows her, there was never a doubt that Torreys was going to be toast by the end of the day.
An hour or so into the hike, the sun was creeping over the eastern peaks of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a moment that Dorothy loves. Then, the sun popped over, showering the mountainside with sunshine and warmth.
“That’s always one of the highlights,” she says.
A long but exhilarating 10 hours later, Dorothy and her two companions were back at the trailhead. Torreys – another notch on Dorothy’s fourteener belt.
She places a rock on the table with “Mt. Torreys” scrawled on it with a black marker. “I always bring back a little rock from the mountain.”
She puts the Mt. Elbert rock on the table. “I like this one because it looks a lot like the mountain.”
For David Snearly and Thea Jue, nothing surprises them about their mom. When Mom says she’s going to do something, you can count on it.
“She’s relentless. In the way she takes care of herself and the way she lives her life,” David says. “I hope I have her genes.”
David, 58, does have some of those lively genes. The longtime Glenwood Springs probation officer has always been an outdoor enthusiast, and has competed in the Tri-Glenwood Triathlon for a number of years.
“There’s such a huge amount of pride,” David says. “I have conversations with young people bragging about the fourteeners they’ve done, and I can say, my mom is doing the same.”
Thea, who teaches elementary and junior high students in California, says her mom loves being on the mountain.
“It’s never been about just climbing. She knows every flower on the mountain and can name every one,” she says.
David and Thea laugh as they share stories about their energetic, determined mom. “We call her our mountain goat,” Thea says with a laugh.
Thea even jokes about when her two children were teenagers and they dreaded going hiking with grandma.
“They would always say, ‘Grandma, can you slow down?’ They couldn’t keep up with grandma.”
When David and Thea heard Dorothy was going to take on Torreys after her injuries and at 86, they had no doubt that she would get the job done.
“Nothing surprises me about her. We tell her to slow down, and she doesn’t listen to us,” Thea says.
Back when Dorothy was just 83, Thea and David tagged along for a trek up Mount Sopris.
“When I was out of breath, she just kept going,” Thea says.
David laughs. He’s done one fourteener when he was much younger, but even on this day on Sopris, he admits that he asked his mom to slow down so they could keep up.
Everybody on the mountain took notice of the 83-year-old woman trucking up the mountain.
“She was like a celebrity,” Thea says.
Seeing an 83-year-old woman on a high mountain is definitely a rarity.
Dorothy smiles when she talks about it. Torreys was a very satisfying accomplishment. She was a little nervous. But deep down, she knew Torreys would be tamed.
“I call it my Olympic moment,” Dorothy says beaming with pride. “I came back from all my injuries, and I made it.”
Dorothy broke her back during a trip to the Utah desert in 2008. Doing something she admits “was foolish.” She broke her arm while riding her bike in Glenwood Canyon.
Dorothy is very active.
Dorothy doesn’t like to slow down.
Dorothy is what we call a “doer.” The sidelines are not for Dorothy.
She has a shirt with all the fourteeners on the back and she’s colored in the box beside each on she’s climbed.
“I don’t like to wear it because I don’t want to ruin it,” she says with a smile.
Mount Belford was the toughest, Mount Massive took the longest, Handies Peak is her favorite because of the abundance of wildflowers; she climbed Lincoln, Democrat and Bross all in the same day. The qualification is that you have to descend at least 600 feet before heading back up the next mountain. She’s even hiked the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Then she thinks about “her Olympic moment.”
“Yes, this was the most satisfying. I really felt good when I got back. It was a great day,” she says.
People 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years younger can’t relate to what she’s accomplished. An 86-year-old women returns from injuries and bags another fourteener. No, the young men and women of the mountain don’t have a clue.
Dorothy says her bucket list is complete. And that list doesn’t just include climbing mountains.
When she arrived in Colorado, the Wyoming native never thought about those daunting fourteeners.
But challenges and the Colorado outdoors were as powerful as the views from atop a fourteen-thousand foot peak.
“I always thought they were too tough for someone like me,” she says.
Then, she and her husband Dale decided to take on little ol’ Mount Sopris back 20 years ago.
On their way down the 12,965-foot peak outside Carbondale, they chatted with an avid woman hiker.
“She said Sopris is tougher than most fourteeners,” Dorothy remembers. “So I thought I’d give it a try.”
She was 65 when she stood atop her first Colorado fourteener. An old man was her inspiration for taking on Mount Sherman as her first fourteener.
“That was the name of my grandfather, so I said I’m going to do it,” she says.
At the top of the fourteeners, Dorothy says she usually thrusts her arms in the air and sings a patriotic song – either “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful.”
Dorothy says there’s great satisfaction when she gets to the top, but she never forgets to stop and smell the roses – or the Old Man of the Mountain.
“Some people just go up and come back down. I want to absorb it, savor the satisfaction,” she says.
Looking down on the valley is very special. It’s a view she greatly cherishes.
“I’ve been so blessed to see all these amazing trails and mountains,” she says with an assertive nod. “Isn’t it a wonderful thing to have these mountains and views? Looking down on God’s creation is amazing.”
As she and her hiking companions were methodically trudging up Torreys, people started to notice. There’s an old woman on the mountain. Dorothy was once again a celebrity.
Dorothy smiles, thinking of that special day. “There was this snowbank that we had to cross, and I asked these four gentlemen if I could come up before they came down, just in case I needed a little help getting up there. It was pretty slippery,” she says, then leans in closer. “When I got to the top of that snowbank, there were four hands reaching out to help me.”
On the way up a hiker named Jennifer had her young son Jameson in a backpack.
“When I told her my age, she said she had to have her picture taken with me,” Dorothy says.
News of the old woman of the mountain quickly spread. That was Dorothy’s first of many appearances in front of the lens that day. “I honestly lost track of how many people asked to take my picture.”
On Nov. 27, Dorothy will turn 87. Her bucket list is already overflowing, but Dorothy Snearly still despises the sidelines.
Mount Princeton is in her sights now. She knows there are some fourteeners that are too difficult, and she’s always known that. But fourteeners aren’t about the accomplishment, It’s more about the journey on the mountain.
It’s Dorothy’s philosophy about respect that make her quest and accomplishments special. She doesn’t take on fourteeners to conquer them. Mountains are to be enjoyed. The outdoors and Mother Nature are to be respected.
Respect is her compass. “Respect yourself, respect others and respect the environment,” she says sternly.
It’s not a motto or slogan. Dorothy lives it. If gusto is the fabric of her life, then respect is what colors that fabric.
Just like those four gentlemen who offered a helping hand, most men and women on the mountain respect one another.
Respect is also the reason why Dorothy has turned around before making to the summit a couple of times.
Snow and rain storms have turned her around, not making it to the summit by noon has led to a shorter day. Dorothy never wants be a search and rescue statistic.
Getting to the summit is super important to Dorothy. “You have to give yourself enough time to get back down,” she says.
She’s never had trouble with the altitude, but she lets her body get adjusted once she passes the 11,000-foot level.
“You have to have great respect for nature,” she says. “You have to take your time, and learn to breathe deeply.”
That respect means when she spots a piece of trash left by a hiker who doesn’t respect the environment, she picks it up and takes it back down the mountain. Not only that, Dorothy packs out her own waste. She wants to leave the mountain just like she found it.
Dorothy and Dale have five children, 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandkids. Dorothy calls Dale her great supporter. After some heart trouble, Dale strayed away from the mountain trails and focused on the golf course, where he recently shot better than his age – 86.
“When Mom takes off from the trailhead, Dad usually heads to the golf course,” David says.
“I would have never done some of these things without his support and encouragement,” Dorothy says.
After 62 years of marriage, they’ve been the support system for each other.
“They make a great team,” Thea says.
Community involvement has always been high on the priority list for Dorothy and Dale. They’ve both been former presidents of the Lion’s Club.
Dorothy is steadfast in her life priorities.
“One is family, two is faith and three is community.”
Dorothy loves talking about her experiences on the mountain and the memories she’s packed home with her.
Her modesty is stark and again based in respect.
Dorothy is proud of her accomplishment. Twenty-three fourteeners – all after the age of 65. Impressive. But Dorothy isn’t concerned about numbers or accolades.
She knows how special it is being on the mountain. The flowers, the crisp air of the Rockies, a good workout getting to the top.
And, of course, a good song and breathtaking views from atop a fourteen-thousand foot mountain.
Dorothy Snearly hates the sidelines. Her life is about getting off the sidelines and holding tight to a little thing called respect.
Respect for herself, respect for others and respect for the environment.
And mostly, respect for life and that means a life full of adventure.
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