Hulda Crooks, nicknamed “Grandma Whitney” for her two dozen climbs up 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney between the ages of 66 and 91, has died. She was 101.
Crooks, the oldest woman to scale Mt. Whitney and 12,388-foot Mt. Fuji in Japan, died Sunday at Linda Valley Villa retirement home in Loma Linda, Calif., where she had lived for the last six years.
“It’s been a great inspiration for me,” she told The Times in 1991, four years after her last climb up Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States. “When I come down from the mountain, I feel like I can battle in the valley again.”
That year, she took a helicopter to the top of Mt. Whitney for a special ceremony--designation of the second peak to the south as Crooks Peak.
Legislation to name the mountain for the climber, sponsored by her friend and climbing companion Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), took five years to win passage because Congress was reluctant to confer the honor on anyone still living.
Last year, Crooks published her memoirs, “Conquering Life’s Mountains.” In 1989, she was featured in a book by Francis Raymond Line titled “Super Seniors: Their Stories and Secrets.”
Crooks started hiking as solace after the death of her husband, Dr. Samuel Crooks, in 1950. She climbed the San Bernardino Mountains’ 11,502-foot Mt. Gorgonio about 20 times before challenging Mt. Whitney for the first time in 1962.
Six years later, when she was 72, she started jogging and running because, she said “it made climbing so much easier.”
At 82, she ran 1,500 meters in 10 minutes, 58 seconds in the Senior Olympics, setting a world record for the 80 to 85 age group. At 95, she continued to walk two miles a day.
The 5-foot-1, 115-pound phenomenon also backpacked the 212-mile John Muir Trail, hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and trekked the Sierra 80 miles from west to east.
“Good health doesn’t always happen by accident,” she told The Times in 1978. “Sometimes you have to work at it.”
One of 18 children of a Saskatchewan, Canada, farming couple, young Hulda gorged on meat and candy and by age 16 weighed 160 pounds.
Shortly before she turned 18, however, she left the farm, became a Seventh-day Adventist and adopted the religion’s ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet.
The weight came off as she worked and went to school at Pacific Union College north of San Francisco and Loma Linda University. But the work and study combination damaged her health, and she was 31 by the time she completed her degree in dietetics.
She married Dr. Crooks, who taught anatomy at Loma Linda University, where she became a researcher. Despite his heart condition, Crooks took his wife camping and continually encouraged her to study and enjoy the outdoors.
Hiking and climbing helped her endure his death and that of their only son, Wesley, in 1969 from a drug overdose. She began running by jogging across her backyard. Later, when rain occasionally marred the the Loma Linda University track, she ran up and down the fire escape.
“Exercise you enjoy does you more good than exercise that you do because you think that you have to do it,” she once said. “You say, ‘I’m going to do this. I have to do it. I’m going to do it if it kills me.’ And maybe it will, if you do it that way.”
Crooks credited her longevity not only to exercise and diet but also to her religious faith. Mountain climbing and running, she once told a reporter, were her “high-altitude evangelism” aimed toward inspiring young people.
“Good health is not just a matter of diet or exercise,” she said in 1978. “It’s a way of life, and I think in my church affiliation I have found it.”
“When you have faith in a supreme power that you believe is love and kindness and justice and has a care for you, you’re not under tensions that people are that don’t know where they’re going or what’s going to happen to them,” she said. “You develop a habit of trusting. Whatever comes to you in life, you feel that it’s part of character development. You learn patience, hopefully, and tolerance. I think that to look at things hopefully and develop a spirit of gratitude is very important.”
Crooks is survived by three grandchildren, Bruce Couch, Tammie Singer and Scott Hoehn, and two great-grandchildren.