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Passionate Pursuits: The Thrill of the Climb

Steven Cohen, M.D., M.P.H., adjusts his footing as he scales a steep vertical wall in the White Mountain National Forest in Rumney, New Hampshire, in 2018.

Passionate Pursuits: The Thrill of the Climb

By Wayne Coffey

It’s a Tuesday night in Long Island City, and a sinewy septuagenarian is making a sure-footed ascent up a rock-studded wall, his muscles taut as a rope. Three times a week, Steven Cohen, M.D., M.P.H., morphs into rock climber extraordinaire, scaling walls for hours at The Cliffs, an indoor facility where he evokes awe among his fellow climbers.

“He’s the most focused and driven person in the gym,” says Judy Aschner, M.D., a fellow climber and an Einstein professor of pediatrics and of obstetrics & gynecology and women’s health. “He pushes himself every single climb, every single time, to do more-challenging things and to do them perfectly. It’s astonishing to watch him. He’s the strongest person his age I’ve ever seen.”

Olympian Gymnast

At 5 feet 7 inches and 150 pounds, the 75-year-old Dr. Cohen has a physique that would be envied by people half his age. That’s no surprise, given his previous athletic life. Growing up in Philadelphia, Dr. Cohen was a two-time city champion as an all-around gymnast before going on to become a Penn State University All-American and member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in Mexico City.

Dr. Cohen balances on one arm before being named the NCAA all-around gymnastics champion while competing for Penn State University in 1966.

More than a half-century later, he works full time as a professor of dermatology at Einstein and is chief emeritus of the division of dermatology at Einstein and Montefiore, specializing in rare skin diseases.

Still, he makes time to climb. He typically travels twice a year to such iconic climbing destinations as Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada’s Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park in California. Closer to home, he enjoys climbing in the Shawangunk Mountains in New York’s Hudson Valley. His goal is to become the oldest person to climb El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite monolith in California’s Yosemite National Park.

“My energy level is high,” Dr. Cohen says with a soft laugh.

The Appeal of Climbing

An avid runner, cyclist, and swimmer as a younger man, Dr. Cohen had to undergo a full hip replacement at age 40, after doctors discovered a tumor. Though he stayed active, he didn’t find an enduring athletic passion until decades later when, at age 69, he talked to a rock climber at a party and was instantly intrigued. The climber invited Dr. Cohen to stop by his climbing gym in Brooklyn.

Climbing, like gymnastics, requires strength, balance, and the ability to handle technical challenges. It immediately appealed to Dr. Cohen, along with the sport’s demand for “interdependence” with climbing partners—a quality Dr. Cohen refers to as “part of the gestalt of climbing.”

At The Cliffs in Long Island City, New York, an indoor rock-climbing facility, he perfects his skills in 2020.

He also loved climbing’s adrenaline rush. “I was climbing in the crib,” Dr. Cohen says. “My parents couldn’t put enough bars on it to keep me in it. I climbed telephone poles, chimneys, anything I could find. I think it was built into my consciousness from birth. After I went [to the Brooklyn gym] once, I never turned back.”

Dr. Cohen now enjoys introducing the sport to friends and students. Several have become dedicated climbers themselves. He says medicine will always be at the core of who he is, because “taking care of people is really what I love doing.” But he’s grateful to have found an outside pursuit that keeps him vigorous and sharp.

He may be the oldest man on the rock-climbing wall, but he’s fine with that. “To me,” Dr. Cohen says, “climbing is part of the joy of living.”

At Rattlesnake Mountain in Rumney, New Hampshire, he hugs the face of the rock during an ascent in 2018.
During the 1968 gymnastics Olympic trials at the University of California, Los Angeles, he took first place.
Dr. Cohen, second from left, perches above the "X" in Mexico in an official U.S. Olympic Team photo in 1968.
He ascends a peak in San Juan de Bernal in Mexico in December 2017.
Dr. Cohen grips the rock at San Juan de Bernal in Mexico in December 2017.
Dr. Cohen on a climb in Nevada's Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in October 2015.
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