Debra Hotaling, 65: Freedom to Try New Things

Entrepreneur, podcast host, and founder of Dareful adventure travel for women Debra Hotaling started rock climbing at age 60 to “shake everything up.” She discusses the power of women over 50, the intergenerational community that comes with her new sport, and why she challenges herself to “be bad at stuff.”

At 65, having raised a couple of daughters and been a regular PTA mom, Debra thought she could maybe do something more, something that she had never tried, and knew zero about. Rock climbing? Why not?

If not now, when? This is the question Debra asks herself. Will it be hard? Maybe. But if we don’t try, we will never know. Let’s try saying yes while understanding our bodies are capable of so much more than we may believe. The key is to be willing to, as she puts it, “be bad at it.” Willingness is how the door is opened to new experiences and adventures. When we were young, we were ok being beginners, not having any proficiency, but sometimes as we age, and gain skill and recognition in one arena, we are unwilling to go back to the grasshopper stage, struggling to learn the basics. 

The rewards, however, far exceed the perceived struggle. We can find comradery, support with our crew, and discover vast resources within ourselves we may not have known existed. Our time with our bodies is limited — this could be be the moment we push out and try something radically new.

When did you start your adventure stuff?
Well, I started rock climbing when I was 60. I really, really wanted to do something that was going to shake everything up. So, my adult daughter and I decided that we were going to go on a yoga/rock-climbing day in Santa Monica. We absolutely fell in love with rock climbing. I just love the rawness of it, and I loved that it really makes you connect again with fear — as a woman standing by yourself and not being able to be invisible on the wall, because everyone’s looking at you. So, that’s now my passion sport.

Isn’t rock climbing dangerous?
Not the way I do it. You’ve got ropes, you’ve got harnesses, you make sure you go through safety protocols. My daughter and I are those geeky people at the climbing gym going through all the protocols every time we climb. So, we do everything we can to make sure that we’re with people who take safety very seriously. 

Is there any message you would like to give to people who think to themselves, “Well, jeez, I’m 60, I probably shouldn’t be doing these things”? How would you encourage them to try?
Oh, I love that question. Thank you for asking. Let’s all be bad together. It’s good to have a beginner’s mindset and just to try it, because there are all sorts of ways that you can be a beginner — rock climber, a surfer, a skier — and you can take those little baby steps. What you will find is that there’s a whole community of folks who are our age who are of varying levels, and everyone is super generous to help out and give advice. I’m here. I am totally committed to helping other folks find their ways into these adventures and finding out what their minds and bodies can do. If they want to reach out to me, I would love to connect with them.

That’s wonderful. What is it that people don’t understand about their physical capacity at this age?
Women underestimate how powerful they are. Honestly, I went through middle-age with small children. Just like what you would think a middle-aged person should be, I was not an adventurer and I was not an athlete. I was able to go back and start training my body because there isn’t anything that you can put off now. Whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to have to figure out a way to do it or you’re going to have to gracefully let it go, because the clock is ticking.

“Almost always the winners are women over 50, because they have the mental capacity to be able to do this really arduous thing”

What I found is that we are strong, and we are capable, and we are able to do amazing things with our bodies and our minds. My sister does long-distance trail running. Almost always the winners are women over 50, because they have the mental capacity to be able to do this really arduous thing. I find that it’s the same here. So, we’re able to do things that we didn’t think we could do and we can do them really well in a really fun way, because we don’t have to follow the rules of being a bro and we have to do a certain — I’ve got to lift this weight if I’m going to feel good about myself. We’re making up our own rules in a wonderful way.

I love AGEIST because you’re not precious about people being badass. It’s frustrating to get onto Instagram and see a post gushing, “Oh my gosh, this woman is 65 years old and LIFTING WEIGHTS! How adorable is that?” I mean, really, why is this exceptional when it should be normal?

And do you climb with other women your age?
The funny thing is, really, actually, I am decades older than everybody else, and there’s such a lovely moment when you connect with women who are in their 20s and 30s and you realize that we all have those same fears of, “What am I going to do when I grow up? Is everything going to be okay?” I have so many really good climbing friends who are in their 20s and 30s. We connect by that; not by age, but just what brings us together.


Amazing. I know you’re doing Dareful. Is this part of that?
It is part of that. I believe that there are other women my age who would love to be able to have adventure like this. I was a mom, and raised kids, and PTA, and did all of that stuff. So, I’m just like everybody else out there. I have found this, and I know that there are other women, and men, who would love to be able to do this as a beginner. You can do this as a beginner. I really am looking for other men and women who want to try adventure. It could be surfing, it could be rock climbing, it can be kayaking. I think there’s a lot.

There’s so much that we can do that can challenge ourselves, because we’ve got a limited time here with our bodies that are strong and good, and we’ve got to get out there and try new things.

Where do you do your rock climbing?
I have a local gym here in Los Angeles: Hangar 18. I do my indoor rock climbing to stay in shape, then my daughter and I go up to Bishop. There’s some great climbing up there in the Bishop area. And we’re also working on doing some trips out to Joshua Tree once it cools down.

Oh, yeah. Joshua Tree is cool. That rock is wonderful.
Right. Have you done it?

I used to. I scared the bejesus out of myself once, and I just like, “No, I’m not going to do this is anymore, I’m done.”
Yeah. I have different rules than my younger self would have. I go by: “What am I feeling today? What’s my PR, my personal record, on this?” Whether it’s a new hold or just scaring the bejesus out of myself and making it up the wall a little bit further. I try not to really scare myself that much.

That’s a good idea. Near death experience will really shake you up.
So, were you with other climbers? What happened?

Yeah, I had a guide. We were in Moab and we were climbing Devils Tower, and the weather changed. We were up about 2500ft in the air. The short story is we got to the top and it got really stormy and difficult. We couldn’t repel down because the wind was too high. So, the choice was either down climb, not great, or you needed to put a weight on the rope, and I was the weight. So, lowered down and smacked against the wall. A lot of really scary moments there. I decided: Nah. Yeah, I don’t need to do that anymore.

“I really make sure that my hips are strong and flexible because if you do that right then you’re not fatiguing your arms as much as you would”

Climbing involves a lot of hand strength. How are you dealing with that?
Well, the good news about having a woman’s body is actually the strength comes from hips and legs if you’re doing it right, and that’s why you go do inside gym work. You’re really pushing from hips and legs, which means that we have a special secret sauce on this stuff. I really do a lot of gym work, a lot of lifting, and I do kickboxing. I really make sure that my hips are strong and flexible because if you do that right then you’re not fatiguing your arms as much as you would. Once you get tired, you’re using your arms a lot, because you’re pulling yourself up. But the better way to do it is to be lifting from your legs.

And how does your daughter feel about you doing this?
It’s been really fun. She’s 32, and solidly in her career. She’s a lawyer. We find times to sneak away together and have these really great mom-daughter moments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like in my 20s where I would sleep on someone’s floor after doing this. We go, we have a nice day climbing, and then we have a really nice dinner, we stay at a really nice hotel. It ends up being a terrific girls’ weekend.

That’s wonderful. When you’re not rock climbing, what are you doing?
Well, right now I’m starting a new business. I have a communications business that I’m just starting up. I have my podcast. I’m recording Season 2 right now. I’m always looking for other men and women to pilot adventures together.

What do you eat?
What do I eat? Well, my husband’s mother is from Icaria, which is a lovely small island in Greece. It’s one of the handful of Blue Zones. I’m having her come over and teach me how to make things like Soufiko and other Greek plant-based dishes. We’re really trying to live the Blue Zone diet here. So, lots of beans, legumes, lots of veggies, a little bit of wine, because that’s the Greek way, and just trying to live that way, kind of fresh and easy.

Nice. What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to the standards. I’m a huge Sinatra fan.

What are the three non-negotiables in your life?
Freedom to be bad a something. I’ve cultivated a life where I’ve become good at things, and now it’s easy to wrap myself in those skills like a soft blanket and pretend that’s a full life. But it’s not. I challenge myself to be bad at stuff. And being really ok with the likelihood that I’ll never excel at it — which is exactly the point. One of my friends went so far as to make a t-shirt for me that reads “Let’s be bad together!” Being bad at something opens all kinds of doors: you have to ask for help, you have to be humble, you have to laugh at yourself. I’ll never be really good at climbing which means I’m free to find new ways to explore. 

Freedom to be invisible — or not. I’ve always been high energy but now I can dial it up or down as I need to.

Freedom to say yes. We’ve all done it: putting stuff off until we …fill in the blank — work, home life, finances, time. But the cool part about being older is that you can’t put it off anymore. So go do it or let it go.

Connect with Debra:
Podcast: The Dareful Project
Instagram: dhotaling
LinkedIn: Debra Hotaling
Email: djhotaling@gmail.com
Business: Dareful Communications

See medical disclaimer below. ↓


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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.


David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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