Not even a handful of replacement surgeries can keep Brian Chalmers from climbing higher.
Brian Chalmers insists that he’s just a mere mortal with a few replacement parts but, at 72, Chalmers set off on a journey on foot through the mountains of Greece that would ultimately take him to Mount Olympus — the home of the Greek God Zeus.
In 2007, less than two years after he underwent knee replacement surgery — his fourth joint replacement in a decade (left and right hip, left and now right knee), the man whose love affair with mountains had begun half a century earlier, started out on what many would consider an epic hike over often rough and steep terrain.
Chalmers, who had led an active life rock climbing and mountaineering and was still running marathons and some double marathons in his 50s, was determined that two new hips and two new knees wouldn’t slow him down and that he “just wanted to carry on as before.” As a retired professor of engineering at the University of Manchester in England, Chalmers views joint replacements as “a simple mechanical procedure.” Because one of the main risks to joint replacement surgery is blood clotting, Chalmers says he did plenty of cardiovascular exercise in the approach to each operation. “This also means that deterioration was not as great as it would have been if one had just sat around,” he adds. “After one has redeveloped the muscles, which have deteriorated during the run up to the operation, there is no reason why one cannot return to previous activities.”
For his first major expedition after his final knee replacement, Chalmers chose a 15-day trek with British-based Sherpa Expeditions that crossed the Pindos peaks of northwestern Greece before heading to the summit of Mount Olympus more than 2,900 metres above the town of Litochoro. Sherpa grades the hike, which involves more than 150 kilometres of walking and a cumulative height gain of more than 6,500 metres, as “moderate to challenging.”
Chalmers never gave much thought to the possibility that he might be too old for such a venture. Instead, he saw it as a test to see what was possible with his replacement parts. “I have always had the naive view that I regard myself as having a constant age. Aging is something which happens to other people,” he says. “I did have a fallback plan: if I was unable to do any section, I could have travelled in the vehicle with the baggage.”
Right from day one of the hike, when his group descended into the 1,600-metre deep Vikos Gorge, walked for 12 kilometres and then climbed back up, Chalmers had no problem keeping up, says Nikos Koutsoupas, the guide hired by Sherpa to lead Chalmers’s group on the trek. Although more than a decade older than the other members of the group, all of whom had their original joints, he was out front most of the time, notes Koutsoupas.
Chalmers’s only concession as the group walked relentlessly on over the Pindos Peaks was using a hiking stick to help protect his knees from the pounding of a long descent. The final two days were spent climbing Mount Olympus, stopping overnight in an Alpine hut during the ascent. The path was well-trodden but unmercifully steep and, near the top, involved scrambling over loose rocks, which Chalmers managed with ease, says Koutsoupas, to reach Skala and Skolio, two of the three highest peaks that make up Mount Olympus.
Mytikas, the third peak, is connected to the other two by a very narrow ridge flanked by sheer rock faces with drops of several hundred metres to giant jagged rocks. Chalmers was keen to climb all three and was clearly disappointed when Koutsoupas, citing concerns about insurance coverage for what was a walking holiday, told his group of climbers that Mytikas should be left to the gods.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2009 issue with the headline, “Olympian,” p. 56.