By Chris Weidner
Jonathan Lagoe worked his way up a gently overhanging wall of sculpted sandstone high above Boulder, clinging to edges so tiny they would accept only his fingertips. With every move he grew more fatigued and his forearms started burning.
He had spent 10 days rehearsing this 110-foot Flatirons sport route. And here, well over halfway up, he knew a “jug” (a large handhold) lay just a few moves higher. He lurched his right hand and screamed as he stuck the jug — until a split-second later, gravity ripped him from the wall.
Swinging in space, he hung safely on the rope, panting from another all-out effort on the hardest route he had ever attempted.
What’s remarkable is not only that Lagoe is 66 years old, but that his boyish optimism still leads him beyond his perceived limits — even after 59 years of climbing.
Lagoe, of Louisville, is tall and thin, with cropped white hair and a charming smile. An ex-pat-Brit-turned-U.S. citizen, he’s kind, quick-witted and exceptionally funny, in his classically understated way.
And he’s as clever in conversation as he is absent-minded. Of the many days we’ve climbed together since we met five years ago, I doubt there’s been a single one when he hasn’t forgotten something critical — like food, water, his belay device…
But for me, packing two of everything (just in case) is a small price to pay to spend the day with a motivated partner like Lagoe, whose intellect and hilarious stories guarantee a day full of laughter.
Lagoe began climbing in the Alps at age 7 with his parents and two siblings. For three weeks every summer they’d drive to Switzerland from their home in England to climb easy peaks as a five-person rope team. He also rock climbed that first summer, but Lagoe was terrified. “I cried, hated it,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t want to ever climb again.” He would even feign illness so he could stay home and read a book rather than go climbing.
A brainy youth, at 11 he ranked second among tens of thousands of kids on a standardized test in England. By 15, again topping the class in every subject, he had outgrown his fear of climbing, and he rapidly outpaced his father on the rock. From then on he took the lead.
Fast-forward 50 years — during which he excelled at whitewater kayaking, fell running (like trail running, but far more adventurous), orienteering (he was ranked fourth in the U.K. over-40 category), road biking and climbing — to last summer in Rifle Mountain Park, where I belayed Lagoe on his first 5.13a — an elite grade that sees few sexagenarian suitors. He surprised himself by doing extremely well on his first attempt. When he lowered, he gesticulated the moves with his long arms, visibly excited. “This is not impossible!” he remarked with a giant grin.
Four climbing days later, he “sent” the route, climbing it bottom to top without falling. He was 65 years old.
He and I were back at Rifle again this Fourth of July weekend. One day in camp we talked for hours over coffee.
“I think it’s a shame when people start to develop a sense of themselves based on how old they are,” he said. “So many people get dragged into thinking, ‘I’m too old for that stuff now.’ It’s really giving up, I suppose.”
Before he retired last year, Lagoe spent 18 years designing leadership simulations for executives in Fortune 500 companies. He still works occasionally, but he’s more focused on climbing and traveling with his wife, Jing.
On June 8, two days after he fell off the jug in the Flatirons, he lurched and screamed and stuck the hold once again. This time, he held on.
He rested there, battling nerves and a racing mind, with 40 feet of easier — but still hard — climbing left. Move by move he executed sequences he’d memorized, and with a loud “Whoooop!” he clipped the anchor. He had just sent Super Tuscan, his first 5.13b.
“It was one of those sends where you think, ‘That wasn’t really that hard after all,’” he said, with characteristic buoyancy. “I wonder what else I can do now?”
Contact Chris Weidner at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram at @christopherweidner and at Twitter@cweidner8.