Each has to find something to spend his energy against, to struggle against, to excel in. Some things just catch our fancy, they become us, we become them, we become attached to an endeavor. — Four-time Olympic discus thrower L. Jay Silvester, 1992.
Many years ago Ben Woolsey found something to struggle against, something upon which to spend his energy. It was a mountain. It caught his fancy. He climbed it over and over and over again.
Woolsey climbed it once again on Wednesday morning, and, about the time you were eating breakfast, he stood on top of Mount Timpanogos — for the 1,000th time.
That’s one thousand — three zeroes.
Woolsey is a retired Orem mailman who began climbing Timpanogos five decades ago after work, which consisted of delivering mail on foot all day.
He is 76.
Timpanogos, of course, is the towering, picturesque peak that lords over Utah Valley, 11,749 feet above sea level, 7,000 feet above the valley floor. It’s a popular hike, a steep 14.3-mile round trip, with the added challenge of 4,580 vertical feet. When Woolsey was 24, he was asked to accompany a friend on a hike up the mountain. “It wasn’t a big deal,” he says. He had no idea that he had found his raison d’etre. He completed nine ascents that year. Then he wondered if he could double that total the following year; he did. The year after that he doubled it again — 36 in one season.
And then he lost interest. He climbed the mountain sporadically, then quit completely when an arthritic hip began to bother him in his early 40s. There were five or six years where he didn’t make the hike at all. Eventually, the pain subsided and the mountain called him again so that he reached 200 summits at the age of 50.
“I was going to quit after that, but the next year I decided to keep doing it,” he says.
His return to the mountain was infrequent — one year an early snow prevented his hikes; another year it was a sprained ankle. When he retired from the Postal Service at 62, he attacked the mountain with a vengeance — 50 summits that year to reach 300 total, then 63 the next. A year later, a knee injury kept him off the mountain and the year after that he was limited to eight hikes because of a heavy snowfall and the dicey knee.
He seemed to catch a second wind as he got older. He reached 600 summits in 2013. A year later, he set out to hike his age and the headline on KSL.com told the story: “72-year-old summits Mt. Timpanogos 72 times in 5 months.”
The following year he set another goal and reached the summit 100 times by doing double hikes — two round trips to the top in a single day. “73-year-old man hikes Mount Timpanogos for 700th time,” reported Fox13.com.
The milestones kept coming — 800 on July 16, 2016, then 900 on Aug. 19, 2017. Channel 4 reported, “Utah County Man sets climbing Record — Climbed Mt. Timpanogos for 900th time. By the end of the year he had 955.
On Wednesday he reached 1,000, accompanied by a handful of friends for the occasion. On the summit, it was so cold and windy that they could barely write their names in the registry. They took photos, sang songs and hurried off the peak to get warm.
In all, Woolsey has totaled about 14,285 miles of hiking, which includes a total climb of some 2,287,710 vertical feet. Hiking mostly from May to October, he has climbed through snow, ice and heat. His fastest round-trip hike was 3 hours, 19 minutes — ironically, the same time it takes him to make the ascent these days. Each climb ends with a visit to the summit shack — which is perched atop the peak — where he signs the registry.
Most men his age tend to do nothing more strenuous than golf; Woolsey climbs a mountain. Of his 1,000 ascents, 811 of them have come since he turned 50, including 700 since he retired at 62.
Woolsey, who has four children and seven grandchildren, has made the vast majority of his summits alone, although some have been in the company of Darren Miller, who says, “Ben is my mentor. I’ve hiked many miles in the dark talking about life lessons, (in) cold bitter winds when you can’t feel your limbs to 90-plus degree days walking the dusty trail.”
Occasionally, Woolsey takes groups up the mountain. He once took a man who suffered from neuropathy in his feet who had always wanted to climb the mountain but required help. “He had to watch every step to make sure it was stable,” says Woolsey, who guided him for seven hours to the saddle of the mountain, just below the summit. Worried that they would run out of daylight, they turned back and returned to the parking lot seven hours later. “That was one of my favorite hikes,” says Woolsey.
Aside from a few trips and falls, there have been only a few misadventures. He started a small snow slide once but it petered out after he had been carried about 70 feet, and he was unscathed. He was charged by a moose once, but was able to put a tree between himself and the animal. He also had an “interaction” (his word) with a mountain goat, which reared up on its hind legs in front of him. He has seen no lions, no bears, no rattlesnakes. He has seen a changing mountain. The trail is often crowded with hikers, which might be why he no longer sees eagles and marmots on the hike.
“I wanted to show old people that when they retire they don’t have to just sit around,” says Woolsey, who was raised in Lehi. “Get out there. If you stop being active, you go downhill from there.”
Now that he has reached 1,000, what's next? “I’m going to keep going,” he says. “I won’t do as many. But I want to climb the Y. mountain. Two hundred more summits to the Y. will give me 1,000. I hope to reach that before the end of the year.”