Oh, and that record he set? It was for becoming the oldest man to make the 22-mile trek in one day. Jim Pader is 83.
“Most hikers, even young hikers that have done that trail, find it curiously interesting that an old man like me can do it,” Pader said. “I was wondering myself if I could do it. But you’re not sure of something unless you try.”
Or, more accurately, unless you try repeatedly. Pader summitted Mount Whitney before, taking three days to do it at age 77, tried a few years later to make it in one go, at age 81. Hiking with his son, also named Jim, and his trainer Sara Lowell, Pader made it to 13,000 feet before the altitude got to him. Just 2.5 miles shy of the summit, he had to turn around. But Pader didn’t give up.
“Failure is just one step towards success,” he said. “I said, ‘Dummy, you gotta do it again.’”
So, two years before he would see Mount Whitney again, Pader started preparing. Back home in Franklin, he entered phase one of training on Standing Indian Road in the Nantahala National Forest.
“The first part of the program was to do 10 miles nonstop, no rest,” Pader said. “I had to build up time on my feet. I had to be able to be on my feet a long time without rest.”
He marked off 2.5-mile intervals on the road, building up his stamina until he could do all 10 miles at once. After repeating that routine 10 times, Pader was ready for the next step — adding in the elevation change. Progressing from a 200-foot gain per mile on Standing Indian Road to a 400-foot gain, he did 12 rounds of the Appalachian Trail section from Rock Gap to Albert Mountain, six miles each way.
“Then of course I did some 20-mile days in there,” he said.
To do that, he would park at the intersection of the AT and U.S. 64 and plan legs of his hike for each direction, often to Wayah Crest and Siler Bald, with his car in the center in case he needed to bail.
“I had to start at six o’clock in the morning because it would take 16 hours. That’s a long time,” Pader said.
But that hard work got Pader ready for the last leg: altitude training. He began focusing his hikes on the highest points in the Smokies, and he arrived in Lone Pine, Calif., a full week before the big hike. Pader took the time to acclimate to the base altitude and to do a few more training hikes, such as an 11-mile roundtrip trek to Cottonwood Pass, elevation 11,200.
In the simplest sense, Pader began his Mount Whitney campaign for the bragging rights, a way to prove to himself that yes, he could do this, even at 83.
But that’s only part of the story. Pader’s all-out hiking craze began about six years ago, but he’s always been an outdoorsman, in a way that transcends the specific activity and goes straight to the soul.
“Nearly every time I go out hiking, something different happens,” Pader said. “A new scene, a new flower, a new way of looking at the rain, a new way of looking at the forest. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to hug a tree, but if you haven’t, do it.”
That’s an observation based on travels everywhere from Colorado to Wyoming to Florida, and plenty of other places in between. But certain moments stand out in Pader’s memory, snapshots that, like this scene witnessed on the Appalachian Trail near Standing Indian, still force him to pause, dabbing his eyes with a napkin, as he recounts them.
“I came around a turn, and I looked up at a mountainside, and the mountain was full, just uncountable numbers of trillium, white and pink trillium. Just gorgeous. There was a light breeze going. The trillium was swaying back and forth like a chorus of beautiful girls, almost talking,” Pader said, swaying with his arms above his head to reenact the memory. “I was the only one to see it, but I carry it in my mind.”
It’s experiences like that that keep him alive, that give him a reason to push forward. Ever since becoming a charter boat captain at age 19, he’s lived for time spent on the water, in the mountains, under the ocean — anywhere but inside. From sailing, scuba diving and spear fishing, Pader moved to camping when his fishing trips took him the flamingo rookeries of Everglades National Park, excursions that required more than one day of out-and-back. Then, during the decades when Pader, a Chicago native, lived in Florida, he got into hiking, backpacking and camping with his wife as a way to let their two kids, Olga Suzannah and Jimmy, live out their wild side.
“It’s a very inexpensive and wonderful way to take kids out and let them play,” Pader said.
But his love for the outdoors defies practical considerations of vacation expense and play opportunities for children. It was the mountains that drew him to Franklin after Hurricane Andrew destroyed his business in Florida. After six years of futile efforts to recover, Pader found the Smokies, drawn by the mountains and the beauty of the land. When he moved here in 1999 and began exploring the area’s seemingly endless network of trails, he never looked back.
“It gives them a feeling for being part of the earth that we come from,” Pader said of hikers like himself. “We are simply animals on this planet, and if you’re on concrete all the time, your feet can’t tell you what the soil is like.”
Sometimes, though, it’s about the feat as much as it is about the experience. For so many years, Pader said, people are defined by their work. Retirement can be tantamount to losing one’s identity, and that can be a slippery slope to a downwardly spiraling life. By planting his feet atop Mount Whitney, Pader aimed to make a statement: that he was still very much alive, and aimed to remain that way for as long as he could breathe.
But he was still nervous. He’d been plenty determined in 2011, and he hadn’t made it then. So Pader gathered his team, composed of daughter Olga Suzannah Lampkin, son Jimmy Pader and trainer Sara Lowell, and told them that if he couldn’t make it, he would return to the base with Lowell while the other two reached the summit. The siblings weren’t having any of it.
“My son said …” Pader stopped mid-sentence, wiping tears from his eyes. “My son said, ‘If you don’t make it, we all go back.’ It’s hard to describe what that meant to me. I’m fortunate to have such a son and daughter.”
But the mountain was waiting, all 14,497 feet of it. The team left the trailhead at 8 p.m. on Aug. 14, hoping that a nocturnal start would reduce their likelihood of hitting any high-elevation thunderstorms. The headlamps lighting their way didn’t illuminate the spruce and pine at the base of the trail or the four lakes spread along it. By the time the sun rose and turned the craggy rock spires gold and pink, they had reached 13,000 feet. The trees were long gone, and 40 mph winds whipped through the already cold air, the toughest 2 miles of the trail still separating Pader’s group from the summit.
“I was starting to wonder, ‘Was this such a good idea?’” Pader recalled.
But finally, after “getting myself off of my rear end” and completing 13 hours and 20 minutes of hiking, Pader stood on top of Mount Whitney. He was hungry, and he was tired, but Olga Suzannah pulled out a surprise stash of homemade meatballs and gourmet cheese — “You have no idea how good that tasted,” Pader said — and the group sat down to spend 30 minutes eating, resting and enjoying the view from the highest peak in the lower 48.
But Pader wasn’t celebrating yet; going down would be as difficult as going up. Descending the rugged rock-chiseled steps, navigating the 97 switchbacks clustered around one mile of elevation loss and traversing the smooth cliffside rocks where, just two years earlier, a hiker had fallen and suffered permanent brain damage, were all before them. And all that when, by the end of the 27-hour-and-30-minute hike, they had been awake for 40 hours solid.
But, despite the exhaustion and hunger, Pader reached the trailhead jubilant.
“I was happy, elated, proud of my support team,” Pader said, “Because without them, I couldn’t have done it.”
And what was “it,” exactly? It’s hard to call it a bucket list item, because Pader’s bucket seems to be getting fuller rather than emptier. Mount Whitney conquered, he has his eye on the 23.4-mile Grand Canyon hike, though he’d also love to hike the entire 215-mile John Muir Trail, which ends at Mount Whitney. And as far as Pader is concerned, he has until his final moments of life to make that happen.
“If my death is because I fell off a mountain someplace,” he said, “That will be a good way to go.”
Everyday fitness with Jim Pader
Jim Pader is pretty outspoken when it comes to his health. The 83-year-old exercises for at least an hour each day, hikes at every possible opportunity, has been a regular at yoga class for eight years and is quite proud of the fact that he takes exactly zero prescription drugs. But though he realizes that those attributes make him unusual, he maintains that they don’t have to.
“Some people look on retirement as an opportunity to do nothing,” Pader said. “I look on retirement as an opportunity to do all those things I couldn’t do because I was working.”
The key to pursuing those opportunities is staying healthy. He begins each day with 15 minutes of stretching before breakfast to loosen up his body and make sure that his ligaments and tendons stay used to moving the way they should.
First, he stands up and slowly rotates his spine, twisting his hips from side to side. Then he lets his arms hang down and leans first to the left, then to the right, repeating four or five times. Next, he puts his head down to his chest and rotates it all the way around a few times.
“This is hard for most old people, because their ligaments and tendons are all shrunk up,” he said.
Finally, he touches his toes, starting with both hands raised high over his head. He lets them bob around, back and forth and side to side, and then brings them down very slowly, finally ending the exercise by touching his toes.
That regimen alone can go a long way toward maintaining agility and stability as old age progresses, but Pader doesn’t stop there.
“I exercise at least one hour every day. I also stand on my head for two minutes, and I do at least 10 pushups,” Pader said. “I don’t do everything every day. My exercise regime would take at least three hours if I did everything I do in a sequence.”
Because, Pader said, the old adage is true. If you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it.
“All of us are carrying baggage and luggage from our youth,” he said. “We all made mistakes. Instead of drinking that shot of whisky, we could have had a glass of water. Instead of eating that burger and fries too often, we could have had a salad. We could have. Nature is impartial. If you make a mistake, you pay for it. Either now or later. The trick is to learn the rules.”