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.
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.
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.”
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.”