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Marybel Cova Keeps On Climbing

At age 85, Kirkwood resident isn't ready to let go of her life-long passion for rock climbing

An intrepid Marybel Cova scales a rock cliff at Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin. A passionate climber with her late husband, Dario, the couple together scaled formations in 25 different states. At age 85, Cova still reaches new heights, climbing at Upper Limits, a rock climbing gym in Maryland Heights. photo courtesy of Marybel Cova.

January 12, 2018
We all should know by now why rock climbers feel compelled to scale to the summit of a mountain.

"Because it's there," they tell you.

Marybel Cova of Bethesda Gardens in Kirkwood will tell you she climbs because it's there, and also because at a spry age of 85, she feels she still has some good years of climbing left in her.

Cova started climbing about 30 years ago at an age when many people might think it wise to retire the boots, chocks and ropes necessary to the sport. She said she joined her husband in his hobby, an avid climber himself, out of a spiritual need that she was feeling at the time.

"I was at a place where I had lost some of my faith and trust in people," said Cova. "When you climb, you have to learn to trust people to make it work. The belayers hold the rope to break your fall if you slip. Your life is in their hands, so climbing builds trust in people.

"That is part of why I have loved to climb and am not ready to give it up," said Cova. "It's a spiritual thing and it filled a spiritual need that I had when I started," she added.

For someone looking for spiritual uplift, you would think they would have chosen to climb at the Garden of the Gods in Illinois or in Colorado. Instead, Cova's first major climbing destination was Devil's Lake, Wisconsin.

A climb at the Devil's Lake cliffs, about 30 miles north of Madison, is preceded by a difficult walk through a 200-yard boulder field stretching before the formation. Hard quartz rock at this formation makes for safer climbing, since anchored pitons and chocks will not pull out as easily as in sandstone.

"Devil's Lake was a good place to start, because there are beginners' routes and more challenging climbs," said Cova. "My late husband, Dario, was patient with me and showed me the ropes."

In this undated photograph Marybel Cova scales Whitehorse Ledge in New Hampshire. Whitehorse Ledge is a huge chunk of granite that is host to a wide variety of climbing styles.

Devil's Lake climbing routes have names that are intimidating. They come with titles like "Roger's Roof," "Mouse's Misery," "Dancing Madly Backwards" and "Cheatah."

In three decades after those initial encounters in the Badger State, Cova and her late husband climbed together in an additional 25 states.

"If there were rocks there, we were ready to climb together," said Cova. "My favorite place is Joshua Tree Park in southern California," said Cova. "I especially like the granite rock there and the high country climate.

"The only problem for us was that my husband hated flying, so we put a lot of miles on the car," laughed Cova. "It's a long drive to Utah, Washington or southern California."

Catch My Fall

Cova will tell you what a lot of other climbers will tell you: You are always afraid of falling until your first fall. Then it happens and, you realize: "Hey, this equipment really works."

Cova has had a few scrapes and breaks and sports the scars to prove that she's been to the mountain top – and she has fallen from near that top as well.

"I've had a few tumbles, but they have always been when climbing back down," said Cova. "I never had a problem going up, the real tumbles have all happened coming back down.

"I learned to live by this motto: I will not go up anywhere, until I have studied how I am going to get down," Cova said.

Cova said her climbing sport does not require great physical strength nor superior coordination. These help, but far more important are interest, energy, patience, trustworthy companions and good judgment.

"I was at a place where I had lost some of my faith and trust in people. When you climb, you have to learn to trust people to make it work. The belayers hold the rope to break your fall if you slip. Your life is in their hands, so climbing builds trust in people." — Marybel Cova

Oh, yes, and quality equipment is essential: synthetic fiber rope, chockstones, breakbars and a good carabiner. A carabiner is a spring-loaded metal loop that should be able to hold several thousand pounds of fall force, if a climber wants to play it safe.

Anyone who ventures forth with a light-heart and a clothesline will justifiably be dismissed as light-headed. Cova has few good words for those who climb solo. Solo climbing is climbing alone without a companion and a rope backup in case of a fall.

"I see that solo stuff going on at El Capitan in Yosemite and I have to shake my head," said Cova. "It's madness to climb solo and I would refuse to be around to pick up somebody's pieces.

"When my late husband and I started, nobody climbed solo," added Cova. "We made a promise to each other that we would never climb solo. Climbers make mistakes and hand holds can crumble, and when that happens and you are solo, you are going to fall and be dead."

A Senior Inspiration

Jeff Waldman, vice president and director of marketing for Bethesda Health Group, said Cova is an inspiration for residents at the location at 401 S. Kirkwood Road. According to Waldman, Cova seems to show all the things you can do when you are 85 years young.

Cova has been a resident at Bethesda's Kirkwood location for more than six years. She said the physical therapists at her senior home have helped her stay in shape and ready to climb.

"Before I became a sales counselor at Bethesda Gardens, I was a Bethesda Wellness Coordinator, where my responsibilities included leading exercise sessions for residents who lived in the retirement communities. Marybel never missed a class," Amanda Joggerst said.

'Marybel engaged – and continues to engage – in a variety of classes, including cardio and lifting light weights," said Joggerst. "She also works out on her own. I'm not surprised that she's such an able rock climber. If anyone can do it, it's Marybel."

Cova is well known at the Upper Limits Indoor Rock Climbing Gym in Maryland Heights. She could be found on her 85th birthday in October grabbing firmly onto hand holds and scaling the 30-foot wall at the gym.

"I can't imagine a better way to spend my birthday," said Cova. "It's a great place to climb. And climbing is a great form of exercise and an excellent stress reliever.

"I do all of my climbing indoors now and mostly at the Upper Limits," added Cova. "I am going to keep on climbing for just as long as I can."

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