On Top of the World
How an “ordinary” retired lawyer became the oldest American to climb Mount Everest.
As he neared the top of the world’s highest mountain, Art Muir C’68 WG’72 could not escape thoughts about death. More than 300 people have died attempting to summit Mount Everest, and as Muir made his ascent this past May, he saw two bodies still hanging from ropes in the high-altitude, low-temperature area known as the “death zone.”
“That was a real wakeup call,” says Muir, noting that bodies often remain on the mountain for a long time because they’re difficult and costly to retrieve, serving as an ominous warning for climbers. “I’m thinking, What was happening in his body? Do you suddenly just collapse? Do you stop breathing? Did he feel fine and all of a sudden, his heart just burst? I had no idea.” At 75 years old, Muir was particularly mindful of altitude sickness, exhaustion, avalanches, crevasses, and all the other dangers associated with such a perilous pursuit. He carefully monitored how he felt as he climbed higher and higher, surpassing 25,000 feet in elevation for the first time in his life. Was he in control? Could he handle this? Was his oxygen mask working? Each step, every motion, had to be precise. “My whole mantra was no mistakes, no mistakes,” he says. “I said that hundreds of thousands of times. Only a lawyer can do something like that.”
When the sun rose and he began to recognize certain landmarks near the top of the mountain—the Yellow Band, the Balcony, the South Summit, the Hillary Step—Muir had “this really emotional response.” Upon reaching the summit at 29,031 feet, the relieved climber sat down for about seven minutes and snapped a couple of photos with the two Sherpas who helped guide him on his journey. “But,” he says, “that was only half of the job.” Only later, after making most of the steep descent down the mountain and getting showered with adulation from his teammates on the trek, did his remarkable achievement finally come into focus: Art Muir, a 75-year-old retired corporate finance attorney from the suburbs of Chicago, had just become the oldest American to scale Mount Everest.
“I’m a pretty ordinary person,” says Muir, who’s been humbled by the attention he’s since received, from a Today show interview to Instagram plaudits from Penn President Amy Gutmann. “I mean, I worked hard to get ready for this. But I think you’re going to see a lot more of this. You’ve got to understand: there’s 70 million Baby Boomers in this country, and people are doing a lot more stuff than they used to do.”
Muir is an unlikely person to wear a climbing crown. Growing up in Colorado, he felt the allure of the mountains and remembers enjoying a book, given to him by his father, about French climber Maurice Herzog’s exploits in the Himalayas. But at Penn he had a “pretty routine experience” devoid of athletic adventures, and he was a self-admitted “desk jockey for 35 years” at the law firm McGuireWoods. And the “regular vacations” he took with his wife Leslie Fisher Muir GEd’72 and their three children were not the thrill-seeking kind. So he was surprised when his pal Jim Daverman WG’73, whom he first met at Wharton, called him up about eight years ago and invited him to climb volcanoes in Ecuador. “I remember saying to my wife, ‘Why would I want to do that? It’s just so bizarre,’” he recalls. “And she was at the sink and turned around, looked at me, and said, ‘Because he’s your friend.’ So then, all of a sudden, I’m in Quito, climbing these volcanoes.” Nearing 70 and retirement at the time, Muir was unsure how he’d fare—or even if the guide company would allow an “old geezer” like him to attempt it without having to prove what kind of shape he was in first. But he quickly found out he had a knack for it, learning mountaineering tricks, getting used to all the gear, and enjoying meeting new people and taking in the scenery. “It just spiraled after that,” he says. “Some might say it spiraled out of control.”
After climbing those Ecuadorian volcanoes—Cayambe and Cotopaxi—Muir climbed to the top of Russia’s Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, and then skied off it. He scaled all 8,000 meters of China’s Shishapangma (the background of his Zoom). He found other remote locales to climb and ski, from Alaska to Chile to Japan. “It’s just so funny, when you look back, how life takes you down unexpected pathways—if you’re willing to put yourself out there,” Muir says. Still, while his wife and kids were supportive of his escapades, some of his friends weren’t so sure, especially as he made plans to spend roughly two months in Nepal during the pandemic to climb Everest this year. “I got a lot of pushback from them, basically saying, ‘You’re insane, that’s really stupid,’” he says. “But they didn’t understand I wasn’t going there to die. That was not my plan. I was planning to come back.”
Muir had actually been to Everest before. He took a trip there in 1990, which he says “fired up my imagination,” and then returned in 2019 to try to summit the mountain. But he didn’t make it beyond Camp 2, falling twice, once into a narrow crevasse (he managed to pull himself back up) and another time off a ladder, hurting his ankle and ending his expedition prematurely. “You don’t want to make mistakes on these big mountains,” he says. “Bad things happen.”
Because COVID-19 wiped out Everest’s 2020 April–May climbing season, “I had two years to think about it,” Muir says, “and not make the same mistakes again.” He spent his quarantine working out a lot during the day—“as much as you can at my age,” he says—and going to bed envisioning the same ridge that tripped him up. By the time he arrived in Nepal in late March, he was feeling far more experienced, and his confidence grew as he practiced technique with teammates he met and bonded with through expedition leader Garrett Madison’s mountaineering company. And he leaned on those climbing companions, as well as Madison and the local Sherpas, to get further than he did in 2019: from base camp to Camp 2 to Camp 3—which he says was pitched on the side of a precipitous slope, during a cyclone of wind and snow. “It was not fun,” he says. “I don’t want to go back there.” But he kept pushing, to Camp 4 (where “you can hardly talk because the sound of wind slapping tents is so loud”) and through the final homestretch, much of which he made in the dead of night. “Because of weather and delays, we were up there for 10 nights above Camp 2,” Muir says. “That’s a long time. But weather and COVID were really challenging for a lot of the expeditions, and although a lot of people got to the top, many more did not because of those two things. So we were very lucky.”
Muir tried to downplay his accomplishment of being the oldest American to scale the mountain—and third oldest overall. He reached out to Bill Burke, who previously held the American record, having climbed Everest multiple times, including in 2014, at 72. “He’s more legitimate,” Muir says. “I’m more or less a pretender to the throne.” He also figures someone might come along and break his record—if they want to spend a lot of time and money like he did, or don’t gravitate to an even more technically challenging mountain.
“I think of myself as an ordinary guy who’s been able to do these extraordinary things,” he says.
While he was up on Everest, Muir did have the fleeting thought that this might be the end of his mountaineering career. Maybe he’d settle into a more typical retirement and spend more time with his six grandchildren (one of whom was born while he was on his most recent expedition; another is named Everest). But then he started to think of all the things he’d still like to do, places to visit, people to meet. Skiing off France’s Mont Blanc “would be such a cool thing,” he says. So would climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. And hiking, biking, and kayaking across Costa Rica. “The question now is how long can I reasonably expect to do this,” he says. “I’m trying to do some of this while I still can.
“My takeaway from all of this is that people my age can still do amazing things, if you put in the work. If you have the right doctors, the right coaches, the right teammates, the right guides, the right support, your body will respond. It’s like a miracle.” —DZ