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Ain’t no mountain high enough

Walt Roden is a consummate hiker who Tuesday expects to begin a three-week endeavor covering 220 miles on the challenging John Muir Trail that starts in Yosemite Valley and ends atop Mount Whitney.

Oh, and he’s 77 years old. And he’s had a heart attack.

“I had a heart attack in 1996,” he said, “but we got to it quickly and little damage was done. In fact, after a recent cardiac evaluation my doctor said: ‘If I hadn’t taken care of you, I wouldn’t believe you ever had one. Enjoy your hike.'”



Despite the good health report, why would anybody want to undergo such a test? For one, Roden has hiked for a quarter of a century, so it’s almost second nature. For another, he likes his 60-year-old nephew, Emmett, from Washington, D.C., with whom he’ll be spending a concentrated 24 days.

“He was going to do this by himself, so I told him I’d go with him,” Emmett said.




Plus, it’s the sheer challenge of it. “I’ve always wondered if I could do such a long hike,” he admits.

The two things one immediately notices about Roden are he looks fit and he talks with an Alabama twang, an accent he never lost, even though he left there to join the Navy when he turned 17. Twenty-two years with the Navy and another 22 years with the Los Angeles County Health Department brought him to retirement and some serious hiking.

Roden is married, and, yes, his wife of 15 years, Pat, is apprehensive, even if she bravely says, “It’s fine with me. He’s preparing himself quite well.”

That, says Roden, is his secret: preparing well, with shakedown hikes he’s been doing for months now. Take, for instance, a recent hike above Sierra City where “we had a 2,000-foot gain the first day.” He repeated that the next day. This is exactly the elevation gain he and Emmett will do the first days on the John Muir Trail.

Indeed, total elevation gain on this trip is an impressive 10,000 feet. The grand finale is when he climbs to the top of the 14,500-foot high Mount Whitney, something he did 13 years ago. “We’ll be acclimated by then,” he says in his wry fashion.

While that sounds pretty extreme, Roden has built up to this all season, gradually increasing everything from pack weight, to miles walked (like the 11 miles he hikes 2-3 times a week, just because), to elevation climbed – all to get his body ready. “Easy does it” and “gradual” are his passwords, as well as his advice for other seniors. After all of this grand strategy talk, he says straight faced, “I hope it works.”

Another secret is not to carry too heavy of a load. The only thing in his pack that is not light weight is the 2.5-pound bear canister, which is mandated by the Forest Service (yes, bear meetings are possible, but marmot meetings are more likely, he said). It doesn’t sound like much, but if you want to keep your pack weight down to 23 pounds, as Roden does, every pound really counts. Thus, packing becomes paramount.

The pack will contain only one change of underwear and socks (“We wash every day and dry it on the pack”), a one-pound tent (“In case of rain, but otherwise I sleep under the stars”), a down sleeping bag (it can get cold in the mountains, even in summer time; indeed, Roden says his space blanket ground cover can be used as protection in case of a freakish snow) and, especially because of the West Nile virus threat, mosquito netting.

Food is light but filling, with things like cereal, powdered milk, a good trail mix with dried fruit and nuts and the true necessity, chocolate. Because they will not be building fires, everything has to be ready to eat. For taking water out of streams, he has a filter.

Does this sound like a good way to lose weight? You bet. He expects his trim 160-pound body to shed 10 or 12 pounds.

Not that he isn’t a tiny bit apprehensive, if the truth be known. Last year he suffered from sciatica, caused by an injury on the trail, and had to curtail activities for the long healing process. “My cell phone will probably be almost useless, but I will take it anyway. We can always spell out ‘help’ with limbs from pine trees.”

“I’m in great health,” says Roden in closing. “It’s beautiful country, great views. They say the John Muir Trail is the most spectacular hike in the U.S. It’s an outstanding opportunity for me.”


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