As we get older some of us look for different ways to celebrate our birthdays. I know when I was young birthdays were a big deal and would be memorialized with much fanfare.
Once we start getting into our graying years the fanfare pretty much disappears and we look for other ways to honor another year of life.
Hilo’s Jim Phillips wanted to celebrating his 73rd birthday by doing something he has always loved doing – hiking. So this senior citizen decided to do something special that he would truly bring him pleasure.
Phillips decided that in the weeks prior to his 73rd he would hike from sea level, in increments, all the way to the summit of Mauna Loa.
“Hiking to the summit of Mauna Loa is something that I had first started on my birthday, December 17, 1997,” Phillips said. “I hadn’t done it for the past three years due to health issues and I decided to make this a December ’09 birthday present to myself.”
Since ’97 Phillips has done the summit trek in ’98, 2000, ’03, ’04, ’05 and ’06 and in Dec 2009 decided to do it again.
To accomplish what Phillips wanted to do at his advanced age requires that he be in top physical shape. Walking from sea level in your early 70’s, even in increments, requires a healthy body and good conditioning, something that Phillips began working on during his youth.
Phillips had an early start on physical activity, growing up in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
“I had always been involved in playing sports,” Phillips said. “Touch football in the street in Mt. Lebanon. Baseball, football, high school track, cross-country and hockey were all things I did as a kid.”
At Ohio University Phillips stayed active with baseball, tennis and fraternity basketball. Following college Phillips became an Air Force pilot, retiring as a Command Pilot with 101 combat missions over North Vietnam. In March 2009 he received the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award earned by documented safe and incident free aviating for over 50 years.
“The toughest activity during my Air Force career was getting in shape and earning my US Army parachute badge at age 36 while having to compete with 18 to 20 year olds,” he said.
Phillips fell in love with the Big Island during his military stint when he was stationed at Pohakuloa Training Area.
“Having worked at Pohakuloa, in the shadow of Mauna Loa during the 1970’s, we hiked the mountains and were often found scuba diving the Kona coast,” Phillips said.
In 1978 he purchased a home in Hilo, but was not a permanent resident until 1994 when he began to slow down from traveling the globe.
“I traveled the planet in my 36 foot sailboat and was just a part time Hilo resident, until I decided to slow down a bit,” Phillips said.
“I met and married my wife Drenna in Alaska in 2001 and since then we fly our single engine airplane from California to Anchorage where we take off the wheels and install floats and fly around Alaska camping in Forestry cabins,” Phillips said.
Phillips was a member of the Hawaii’s Sierra Club and became a hike leader on the Big Island where he enjoyed leading groups on Hawaii’s trails.
“I can still remember having to push a couple backpackers up the trail to the Mauna Loa Cabin after carrying their pack to the cabin,” he said.
Phillips tried, over the years, to become a Volcano National Park back country volunteer, but says that the program never took off.
Today Phillips serves as a board member of E Mau Na Ala Hele. He hiked many of the weekly treks that E Mau members did documenting the 175 mile Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail.
“We were successful in having the Ala Kahakai Trail designated a National Historic Trail,” he said.
Phillips love for trail hiking also led to his working with DNLR to help re-construct and identify the historic Pu U O’o Trail on the Mauna Kea side of saddle road.
“The project, which would have extended the Pu U O’o trail, was abandoned when the state Department of Natural Resources took over the cabin a few years ago,” Phillips said. “The cabin now sits awaiting repairs that hopefully will make it accessible to the public along with an already completed wheelchair accessible composting toilet and a sign the reads, handicapped parking only.”
Phillips began his sea to summit hike on Nov. 5 and his plan was to hike twice per week so that he could finish the entire distance on his birthday.
“I came up with a plan that if I hiked two days a week doing 1250 ft. elevation each of the two days, I would have covered 10,000 ft. of elevation in route to the summit of 13,681 ft.,” he said.
Phillips marked each place where he stopped for the day and returned to it for the next leg of his journey. After 15 days of hiking, often joined by his twice weekly hiking buddy, Lesley Sears, between Nov 5 and Dec 14 Phillips covered 56.9 miles while climbing 13,143 feet of altitude. Not bad for a fellow who was just turning 73 years of age.
Jim Phillips serves as a good example of how getting older can be a positive thing if we just take the time to care of our bodies. Phillips had found something that he loves to do and has spent a lifetime doing it.
Getting older might slow us down a bit, but it shouldn’t stop us from continuing to do the things that we love to do.