Centralian Finds Mountain Climbing Retirement, Leads Olympia Mountaineering Group – Centralia Chronicle

While some retirees look forward to extended periods of leisure once they exit the grind of daily employment, Neal Kirby — a longtime educator — has decided to ramp things up and take the road less traveled. 

Since retiring from a career of 30-plus years as a teacher, principal and member of the Centralia School Board, Kirby has spent much of his free time honing his climbing skills after joining the Olympia branch of the Mountaineers in 2014. 

Over the past five years, the outdoor adventure enthusiast has summited Mount Rainier five times, along with climbing every other Washington state volcano, and has also flown to other countries, where Kirby and his fellow Mountaineers have reached peaks in China, Tanzania and Australia. 

At 67 years old, Kirby told The Chronicle that he has no plans of slowing down any time soon, as he combines regular weight and cardio training to provide himself with the strength, stamina and balance required to successfully ascend the numerous mountains he’ll encounter throughout the year that can range from 8,000 to 15,000 feet in elevation. 

And though he’ll also mix in yoga and swimming into his fitness regimen, Kirby says that the best way to prepare for a two-to-four day excursion is to practice hiking a number of local hills and rocks by carrying extra weight in a backpack. 

“The extra weight is usually water,” he said, “because if it turns out to be too much weight, I’ll just pour it out. But I’ll routinely carry 30 to 35 pounds when I go hiking.”

Some of his go-to hiking spots in the surrounding areas of Lake Cushman include Mount Ellinor and Mount Rose. 

As for the mental part of the prep work involved in tackling any mountain climb, Kirby recommends staying clear-minded by not giving in to the temptation of “summit fever.” 

“Don’t think you’re going to make it come hell or high water because if the weather turns on you, and you’re just a diehard to make it anyway, you can get yourself into deep trouble,” he warned. 

On that note, he recounted some ill-advised decisions he made as a neophyte outdoorsman on his first climb up Mount Rainier, which to this day remains one “eye-opening” experience that Kirby will probably never forget. 

“The first time was with a different climbing group. We got up there and had a snowstorm roll in on us and we probably shouldn’t have been there,” he recalled. “If you’re going to have a risk of whiteouts, you don’t want to be there. You don’t want to be up there in a blizzard and lose your trail, lose your direction.” 

It’s in those types of conditions, Kirby added, where flags used to mark a climbing path will tend to disappear in the wind. 

As the new chairman elect of the Mountaineers’ Olympia branch — which carries a one-year term before the person holding the title is promoted to branch chair — Kirby is intent on encouraging a greater number of Centralia residents to join his team.

Not every person who joins or takes a class with the Mountaineers, he noted, is expected to grab an ice ax and immediately start scaling the Nisqually Glacier, as newcomers will typically sign up for scrambling or outdoor conditioning sessions before they tackle any sort of climbing activities. 

A separate six-month climbing class will allow new Mountaineers to earn a certificate qualifying them to partake in group trips to any number of in-state mountains and glaciers. 

Kirby attributed the fact that very few Centralians have shown interest in partaking in Mountaineer outings to the branch’s “Olympia” moniker, when the group, in fact, serves a “very wide area.” 

“The mission is to get people out in the wilderness and to do it safely. I think I know of only four or five people in Centralia who have taken courses and are actively involved,” he said. “When I was a principal here in Centralia, I always used to ask kids, ‘How many of you guys have been to Mount Rainier?’ And it always surprised me how few raised their hands and how many have never been there.” 

In an effort to recruit more Centralians and other Lewis County residents to its current membership of 700 plus, the Mountaineers Olympia Branch will be holding an open house from 6-8:30 p.m. on Jan. 2 at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey. For more information on the event and the Mountaineers organization, visit www.mountaineers.org.