While most retired men are walking their dog, watching TV or spending a day on the golf course, 72-year-old Ben Woolsey of Orem makes the 15-mile round trip hike up to the summit of Mt. Timpanogos three to six times per week during the hiking season. Over the years Ben has become a familiar face on the mountain, earning the nickname “That Guy,” meaning "that guy" that is always hiking Timp.
Anyone who has climbed Mt. Timpanogos knows it is a grueling, uphill climb over seven miles to the summit with more than 4,500 feet of elevation gain. However, for Woolsey, who made his 650th summit this past week, climbing Timp is just another day on the mountain.
Before Woolsey first summited back in 1966 at the age of 24, he had no idea there was even a trail up there, or that he would re-visit the mountain many hundreds of times throughout his life. His “love affair” with Timp didn’t begin on that first hike, especially after sliding down the glacier and ripping open the back seam of his cut-off jeans. “I had to hike all the way down in a mini skirt… I probably started the trend,” the former postman said.
From that time forward, Woolsey would challenge himself to increase his number of hikes each year. The year he summited 36 times, he topped it off with a double-ascent: from the Timpooneke trail up to the summit and back down the Aspen Grove trail, then back up to the summit and back down the Timpooneke trail -- over 29 miles in one day. He made his first 100 climbs in a pair of National Guard-issue boots, and regularly summited in under two hours (his fastest total trip time has been 3 hours and 19 minutes -- a fraction of the time most hikers take).
So, why does he do it? “I don’t golf,” he replied with a smile.
At age 39 his hip began to feel sore; a doctor gave him a false diagnosis of arthritis and told him to quit hiking, which he did for the next 10 years. By this point he had climbed Timp 190 times and thought he wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. Woosley related, “When I turned 50 I thought I would just bear the pain and go for 200.” He reached his goal and since his hip pain did not return, he continued summiting and gradually increased his hikes each year.
When he lived and worked in Salt Lake City, he would drive down around 2 p.m., after doing his postal route, go hike Timp and then drive back home.
“There was a time when the post office would give you half a day off if you would give blood. I would go give blood, and then use that half day to go hike Timp. I did that for several years because they would let you do it up to four times per year.”
A humble, quiet man, Woolsey explained, “I wasn’t trying to set any records. I like the mountains and the enjoyment of hiking. It wasn’t until I retired [at age 62] that I started to really do more hikes.”
He continued to amaze himself as he logged 200 more climbs from age 62 to 67, averaging between 40-50 per year. At age 67 he could make it to the summit in a little under three hours doing a “shog,” a cross between a shuffle and a jog, and still keeps up this pace today.
“I was in the best shape of my life at 67,” he said, something few men his age could boast. In that year alone he did 63 hikes including a stretch of six per week for six straight weeks!
Because the frequency of his climbs was giving him added strength, he decided to try hiking the same number of times each year as his age. Even a torn meniscus in his knee in 2010 didn’t put a stop to his hiking; he took it easy after the surgery but kept hiking a little bit each year as he approached his 600th climb.
The summit’s logbook, which he maintains, has helped him keep track of his climbs. He creates each register, which holds around 1,800 entries, and has saved most of these logbooks clear back to 1991 with the exception of those that were either stolen from the summit, burned or subjected to the weather.
Always willing to help a fellow hiker, Woolsey carries brand new water bottles, rain ponchos and even flashlights to hand out to the less-prepared. “I would encounter people up near the summit as the sun was setting, and I knew they weren’t going to make it back down without light. I always carry food, but I rarely eat it.”
He once helped a man who had damaged his knee, only to realize he had given this same man a water bottle on the trail two years before. Keeping hydrated on the trail is important to Woolsey.
“In the old days, I used to carry a sandwich bag filled with water up the trail and refill at the spring.” Now he stashes his water bottles along the way so he doesn’t have to haul all his water to the summit. “I have my refrigerators up there … at the 3-mile marker and the meadow.”
Before each hike he fuels up his body with a bowl of oatmeal, whole wheat toast, a banana, blueberries and strawberries in season. “That carries me through the day unless I am going to be up there over eight hours. I typically don’t eat on the hike.”
Wildlife encounters while hiking the Timpooneke trail are not uncommon. Woolsey has enjoyed the howling of coyotes in the early morning as he enters the Timp Basin, seen pika among the boulder fields, and recently saw several bighorn sheep along the trail. One animal you are almost sure to see on the trail are moose.
“There was a big moose on the trail. ... I thought I would take my trekking poles and clack them together. This was during mating season and I didn’t know if the moose took that as a challenge, but he came at me down the trail. I got behind a pine tree and the moose stopped on the other side of it. That’s when I picked up a rock as he walked past and hit him on the flank and he walked off.”
Does Woolsey have any concerns about the future of the Timpooneke trail, his favorite route?
He says the biggest problem is that runners and hikers are creating shortcuts along the trail that are causing erosion. They cut through the beautiful meadows of flowers and now in some areas where flowers once grew, there are none.
There are also many trail runners who are trying to set records for their time doing the Timp trail. However, they take the shortcuts, according to Woolsey. “They have a record to the top, but they don’t have a true Timp summit record ... the full 7.1 miles. I know one guy who cuts a whole mile off using shortcuts on his way down. There’s a $30 fine for cutting trails.”
Woolsey wishes the Forest Service would educate hikers and runners about what this is doing to the future of the Timpooneke Trail.
The most common mistakes he sees among people hiking Timp: improper footwear and not carrying enough water. His advice for those who have never hiked Timp: “Take a steady pace with shorter breaks and keep moving. If you cannot talk, you are going too fast. If you can sing, you are going too slow. If you can carry on a conversation then you are going at just about the right speed.”
This past fall, when Timp became too snow-packed to summit, Woolsey began to hike to the block “Y” above BYU to stay in shape. From this past November to February he logged 300 “Y” trips, with 106 in February alone: 100 for himself and one for each of his six grandchildren. His record was 15 consecutive hikes in one day (over 30-plus miles of hiking with 15,000 feet of gain).
Woolsey's goal for hiking Timp this year is to make 50 trips up to the summit, and 50 more next year to reach 700 total Timp summits in August. His secondary goal is to assist someone on each hike with water, information or just a little encouragement.
The next time you hike to the top of Mt. Timpanogos, keep an eye out for “that guy” -- chances are, you’ll see Ben Woolsey for many years to come.
Be sure to see photos and videos of Woolseyin the online version of this article at UtahAdventurer.com.