The first pink hint of dawn hadn’t touched the horizon of the California desert when Hulda Crooks roused herself one half hour before her usual 6 a.m. waking time. She pattered around the kitchen of her Loma Linda apartment, rustling up a breakfast of brown rice, milk, a banana and a few nuts.
Then 87-year-old Crooks hoisted a 25-pound backpack onto her hunched shoulders and set off for the day’s activity: to climb Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the U.S. outside of Alaska, jutting 14,494 feet into a seamless blue sky. “I have a unique old age,” says the old lady of the mountain—and that is putting it mildly: She has clambered to the top of snow-covered Mount Whitney 21 times since she began climbing at age 66. In the last six years she has scaled 86 California peaks, including nearby San Gorgonio (11,502 feet), which she has topped 30 times. She makes a climb every two or three weeks if the weather permits. If not, she’ll take a hike such as the 212-mile John Muir Trail, which she recently completed in five trips.
“If I had started climbing when I was younger I’d probably want to climb mountains farther away,” Crooks says in her high, almost cackling voice. “As it is, I stay close to home.”
The challenge of scaling peaks may have hit Hulda late in life, but her affinity for the outdoors derives from her childhood in Saskatchewan, Canada. Born Hulda Hoehn in 1896, she grew up on a farm and finished only five grades of school by the time she was 18. That satisfied her father, who preached that all a girl needed to know was “how to read, write and make good soup for her husband.” But that gospel didn’t sit well with Hulda. At 18, she left home to join the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, whose vegetarian diet she partly credits for her longevity. “I haven’t had a bite of meat, fish or fowl in 69 years,” she boasts.
Hulda paid for her education at a boarding school in Saskatchewan by working in the kitchen and selling religious books door to door, traveling by horse and buggy. “I studied long, long hours,” she says. “Outdoors I was strong, but indoors I withered. I became very sickly.” In 1923 she moved to Loma Linda, 100 miles east of Los Angeles, to study dietetics, and at 31 she married Samuel Crooks, an anatomy professor at Loma Linda University. “He had a heart condition, but he encouraged me to do all the things he couldn’t do. Climbing was his idea to get me back outdoors.” Later, when Hulda and their only son, Wesley, ventured off on six-week backpacking trips, Samuel would meet them along the way with replenishments.
Though both husband and son have since died, Hulda kept up her outdoor activity. She started running at 70 “because it made climbing so much easier.” At first, jogging in her small backyard was too much for her. “I’d run it once, down and back, and be out of breath,” she says. “Back then, running was something odd. I didn’t want people to see me.” But the times caught up with her. She is now a member of the Loma Linda Lopers, a running club, and has done a half marathon (13.1 miles) in three hours, 21 minutes.
Crooks works four or five days a week doing health research at the university. She also tours, lecturing elderly people in hospitals and rehab homes about exercise and diet. “Human beings are allowed only one body per customer,” she tells them. “We have a responsibility to show young people that life is worth living right up to the last. If they look at us and see us depressed, it discourages them. We have experience. Young people should look up to us.” In fact, most youths would be undone by her regimen. Every morning she does a 15-minute run, then bounds up and down a steep set of 60 steps five to 15 times.
Ironically, Hulda’s trips down the mountains lately take longer than the ascents. People constantly stop her to chat and take her picture. Observes an admiring Jim Perry, race director of the Loma Linda Lopers, “The package looks like it’s had some wear, but inside there’s an 18-year-old girl.”