Arthur Muir is nonchalant about the record he holds as the oldest American to climb Mount Everest at age 75. He reached the summit of the world’s highest peak on May 23 of this year, not while eying the glory of breaking a record, but rather with the humble yet steady thought of achieving a treasured personal goal.
Muir lives in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook. He worked as a lawyer for more than 35 years—not as a professional or lifelong mountain climber. Only two of the five highlights of his life involve mountain climbing.
He revealed a key to his way of thinking, as well as to his lifetime achievements, when expressing his plan to retitle his standard public speaking presentation for groups. Originally titled “It’s Not About Success, It’s About Effort,” Muir changed it to, “It’s Not About the Summit, It’s About the Effort.” He believes firmly in the value of aspirational goals—goals that we may or may not achieve—because they get people to take steps forward and generate self-discovery through the journey.
He scaled other peaks prior to conquering Mount Everest and trained intensively for his attempt to reach its top.
“Anybody that does this has to be really lucky—and they have to have really good support,” Muir noted with characteristic modesty.
“I grew up in Colorado, a state with some mountains,” Muir said. “We used to go out once in a while and do some climbing, so I was used to some of what we call ‘mountaineering’—not the rock climbing with the ropes and all that stuff; didn’t do that.
“And then I didn’t do anything: I went to school. I was in the army for three years. And then I went back to business school. Then I went to law school in Chicago—which is how I ended up here. I love Chicago. It’s just a great place to live. But I sat behind a desk, you know, like many people do, doing my job talking on the phone all the time.”
In 1990, Muir saw an ad for an expedition where trekkers could accompany a team to a Mount Everest base camp. “I’ve always been interested in Mount Everest. I’ve had an interest ever since I was really young—and so I signed up for that and took that trip.” He climbed up to 21,500 feet, to the Advanced Base Camp on the recently opened north face of Mount Everest in Tibet. “That gave me a taste for this,” he said. In 1991, he went to Denali in Alaska, where he attempted to climb the tallest mountain in North America—no one from his group finished the climb.
And then he stopped mountain climbing because of work and family, raising three children.
“So I basically left that scene, even though it was pretty exciting,” he said.
Volcanoes in Ecuador
In 2013, Muir’s friend Jim called and asked him to come along on a trip to Ecuador, where they would climb volcanoes. “All those years I hadn’t done anything—I just sat behind a desk—the only thing I did was lift up the phone, and that was all my exercise,” Muir said.
Muir thought it was going to be easy. But reality hit once he saw the climb in person. “You ever look at a volcano?” he said. “It’s really steep—they’re 45 degrees there—it’s like walking up a ladder for a long time, in the snow, in the air. It’s hard, and the wind’s blowing and snowing.”
Together, the duo climbed two volcanoes, Cayambe and Cotapoxi.
“It was hard—it was really hard,” Muir said. “But here’s the thing: So what I found out was that I enjoyed it, even though you’re really uncomfortable. You’re cold, you’re wet. It’s hard work. It’s really steep. You get to the top, the wind’s blowing, you’re up there—and you’re thinking, ‘Well, this is all pretty neat.’
“Looking down in the fumarole of a volcano that’s got smoke coming out thinking, ‘Oh, this is pretty exciting’—you’re way above the clouds, and you can sit, you climb at night to the sun cup—it’s all very exciting, actually. That’s pretty special in a world where I spent all my time sitting behind a desk.”
From that point, Muir decided that he wanted to attempt the highest peak on each of the seven continents, including Denali in North America, Everest in Asia, Aconcagua in South America, and Elbrus in the European part of Russia. With a guide, he climbed Elbrus and skied back down. “So that was just so much fun to be able to do that. I mean, holy smokes! One of the world’s Seven Summits,” he said.
In 2016, he attempted to climb Shishapangma in Tibet. The expedition didn’t reach the top, but Muir gained more experience. “That was really fun—a hard climb,” he said.
Next was Denali. Muir’s son Charlie told him that they should climb Denali together. Muir said of the experience: “We ended up climbing that together, and stood on the top together, which is one of the five highlights of my life. One was marrying my wife, two of them are taking each of my two daughters walking down the aisle when they got married. Fourth one was fantastic Denali with my son Charlie, and the fifth one is standing on top of Mount Everest. So those are the five highlights.”
Muir also climbed Aconcagua. From his retirement in 2014, he took one or two expeditions every year until 2020. He also took ice-climbing courses in Colorado and eventually felt ready to try climbing Mount Everest, the top of which he had glimpsed back in 1990 on his journey to the Advanced Base Camp. “I thought I could never climb the mountain, because the mountain itself was way up there, another 8,000 feet,” he said.
But over the years, Muir’s skill set had improved, though his age was beginning to become a factor. “I was kind of fighting the age thing, you know, because now I’m getting to the point where it’s a little silly to be doing some of these things, most people would think, but I had a plan, and I’ve been very fortunate,” he said, referring to his climbs at Denali, Aconcagua, and Elbrus. “I was feeling pretty competent, and the other thing was, I had a really great support team.”
Muir had doctors and coaches working with him, while his family and friends were supportive. However, many of them “were very skeptical—with good reason, right?” he said. “Who wouldn’t be skeptical of a grandfather who says he wants to climb Mount Everest? I’d be skeptical, too. I was skeptical—I still am skeptical.”
Muir also realized that one aspect of his job as a lawyer served as mental training for mountain climbing as well. “I was doing corporate finance, which meant big loans to companies,” he said. The documents were long and uninteresting. Going over them was tedious, and it required hours upon hours of focus. “And that was really helpful to me, because I could focus for a really long time on the task at hand.” The experience translated well to climbing up and down Everest.
“But on the mountain, I can say I didn’t make any mistakes, which is remarkable considering I took tens of thousands of steps—so that was a huge part of my success,” Muir said.
Learning From Failure
Muir had scheduled a climb up Mount Everest in 2019, but received a call from his coach before his departure, advising him that he wasn’t ready. “But I’ve already paid for it,” Muir said. “Well, that may be, but you’re not ready,” his coach replied.
“And guess what—he was right. I went there—and I saw the mountain and I thought, ‘You know, this is a big, high, cold, windy, dangerous place, and I’m not sure I’m ready for this’—and it turned out I wasn’t, and I actually got hurt.”
He was crossing the Khumbu Icefall, a dangerous spot where snow and ice converge from the mountain above. As he walked the horizontal ladder that climbers use to cross it, he slipped and twisted his ankle, ending that attempt at climbing Everest. “I wasn’t physically strong enough, and I wasn’t mentally strong enough,” he said. In the attempt, he got only as far as Camp 2 of the four higher camps on Mount Everest. But he went there, got a taste of it, and gained a clearer understanding of what it would take.
The CCP virus (COVID-19) pandemic put a stop to all expeditions in 2020, so Muir had two years to train. “I worked really hard. I would exercise every single day, and [my coach] would give a very demanding exercise schedule that will take between two to sometimes five hours of exercise, basically every day for two years,” he said.
Muir also had to rehab from shoulder surgery, which alone would take one and a half hours of exercise every day for 15 months. He did exercises “designed to basically teach your body to maintain the ability to do output, do work, for a long period of time,” he said. This type of training contrasts with training for sports like football or basketball that require intense bursts of energy followed by brief periods of rest.
“Mountain climbing is completely different. It’s sustained effort over a long period of time. So you have to be able to control your heart rate—so you’re really efficient. You have to have the strength to do this for a long time—one of the days was 13 hours of climbing,” Muir said. Many days required nine hours or more of climbing.
“It’s a long time to be climbing over things and down things and stepping around crevices and not falling off the trail and stuff. But the point is this training—they work really hard to train your body to be really efficient—and you can see the difference between climbers who hadn’t had that training, and those who had. Those who didn’t have that kind of training would basically start off putting a lot of effort and a lot of energy out, and then just collapse and basically run out of energy.”
“I had doctors. I had coaches. I had family. I had friends,” Muir said, referring to his team supporting him pre-climb. He also had a team of guides, Sherpas, and fellow climbers with him during the climb.
Because of unruly weather, the expedition got stuck at Camp 3, with snow blowing into their tents and threatening to cover them. Later, the wind was howling at 10 p.m. when they left Camp 4 with headlamps blazing. At one point, Muir was looking up at the others ahead of him, “and it was like looking up an elevator shaft—I felt like these people were right above me, it was so steep,” he said.
Muir was working his way up the lines, knowing he had been doing it for a long time when he saw a line of light in the east: “We all know dawn, it’s a nice time of the day. But this was really special, because now I know we’re gonna make it through the night. Then the sun comes up and you start to see—drop the headlamp and you start to see the thing.”
As the morning progressed, Muir reached a point where he could see the summit. “That was the most wonderful thing, because I knew I was going to climb Mount Everest. The emotion for me at that point was much more so than on the summit. I thought, ‘I’m actually going to get to the top of Mount Everest,’” he said.
Muir reached the top, but didn’t stay long. “I was tired, but I wasn’t exhausted—but I knew I had reserves. I knew there was more, I knew I was in control, and I was keeping track. That’s because I didn’t want to die up there, okay. So pretty simple, actually, I wanted to come home—and so I started down right away,” he said.
It wasn’t until after arriving at their base camp that Muir fully grasped his accomplishment. “Then the emotions of the whole thing really hit me. I realized that I’d done something I dreamed about for all those years—prepared for all those years—and then, after that, it was more business, you know, it was a job to get down safely—don’t make any mistakes,” he said.
Humble and Thankful
After his failed 2019 attempt, Muir developed a realistic and appreciative approach. “I just wanted to see what the mountain would give me—so I think age gives you the perspective to realize you’re not going to go out and change the world,” he said. “When you’re my age, you realize things are a certain way, and you’re just lucky to be here and to be healthy enough to try these things. But my attitude was so different—I was so intimidated by the mountain in 2019. I’m still intimidated by the mountain because it’s big, it’s really scary, it’s really dangerous—a lot of bad things can happen.
“But I have more come to terms with it. I understand how this mountain and I have a relationship. I understand I got to be respectful of it—got to be attentive. There [are] no guarantees, but that’s a good working relationship. You know, I’m not trying to dominate, conquer, trample you—that sort of thing. And I think you come away with an appreciation for the mountain, and for the culture of the people who live their appreciation.”
Muir spoke about the humility and gratitude of the people living on either side of Mount Everest: the Nepalese people and the Tibetans. “They’re humble. They’re thankful for what they have. They don’t have a lot, but they’re very appreciative. They’re friendly. They’re strong, to live the life they live. You have to admire them.”
As for future aspirations, Muir mentioned skiing off the top of Mont Blanc in France; hiking, biking, and kayaking across Costa Rica from the Atlantic to the Pacific; maybe climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with his son; and maybe climbing the remaining Seven Summits. “But there’s always some things to do—it’s just a recognition at my age that the window is closing in just a little bit. Life is precious, it’s valuable, and you need to enjoy it,” he said.
Lessons to Pass On
“My message for older adults is to get out there and do exercise—but find somebody who really knows what they’re doing—and move some weight around,” Muir said. “I’m talking about exercise that pushes your body in a sustained way, trying to give it higher and higher stimulus over a long period of time—and particularly weights, whether those are dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells.”
Muir has a message for people of all ages as well.
“I told my three kids, as I told my grandchildren that are old enough to understand, I think it’s really important to have dreams in life,” he said. “I think it’s really important to set goals—and especially goals that are called aspirational ones, that you think you may never achieve—and the reason for that is because when you have a dream, if you actually pursue it and commit to it, you’ll start to take the steps that get you closer to it. And it’s not really important, it actually isn’t important if you achieve it—that’s not really the point of it. It’s a point of self-discovery, of the journey you go through. But the point is that if you don’t have that dream, you never move off of the starting position—and so it’s really important to have those. You know, most of the things that come to us in life that are worthwhile come because we put in a lot of effort. Sometimes you’re lucky, but you know, counting on luck to do it isn’t going to do it.”
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.