Travel

Hiking Tips from a Peak Performer

Eighty-six-year-old David Birkner has an unparalleled passion for hiking and climbing

By Sean Meyers October 25, 2021

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This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Seattle Magazine.

David Birkner has been a Wharton economics student, a naval officer stationed at Pearl Harbor, a travel agent, a freelance writer, a pioneering environmental activist, an outdoor guide, an elementary school teacher and a successful entrepreneur.

But mostly, the 86-year-old walks – on all five continents, from the southernmost tip of South America to North Africa to New Zealand to Nepal. Each year he devotes three weeks to international destinations and seven weeks to domestic hiking trips.

The Chicago native was instantly smitten with Seattle, but it was nothing compared with his first glimpse of Mount Rainier in 1959.

“It had been cloudy for several days, and suddenly the weather cleared. It took my breath away,” says Birkner, who moved to Seattle permanently in 1963 after being stationed in the U.S. Navy. “I grabbed the arm of the girl I was with so tight that I was afraid I had cut off her circulation. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I was spellbound. It was a magical moment that has never left my memory. It’s like an old, dear friend.”

Since then, he has hiked Mount Rainier hundreds of times. He estimates he’s walked all 300 miles of its trails during the months of the year when they’re cleared of snow. He’s hiked almost all 423 national park sites in the U.S. He’s climbed countless mountains in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe.

Birkner is his own beast of burden. In Hannibal-like fashion, he walked through the Jungfrau (“the top of Europe”), the Eiger and the Mönch in the Bernese Alps, but didn’t need elephants. He let others ride the camels on a Saharan trek with Tuaregs. He bumped noggins with a mother bear on a Northwest hike, and held the trail.

He kicked the tires on a leper colony on a Pacific isle. A long hike through the Himalayas put him in successive intimate contact with three homogeneous cultures: Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. He created the Heritage Institute, an experiential school for teachers to learn about the national parks of the Pacific Northwest. He sold it in 1994, using the proceeds to travel.

He doesn’t always walk alone. In the early 1960s, he organized a successful walk-in against Kennecott’s proposed mining operation in the North Cascades with Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas, a Washington native and polio survivor.

When he was in his early 30s, Birkner testified before the U.S. Senate in favor of the establishment of the North Cascades National Park. His comments would foreshadow his own life.

“I hope I can put to sleep once and for all the old fallacy that wilderness is for the elite, and that only the young and the able are to go into it.”

Birkner has been putting his feet where his mouth is ever since. He does 100 push-ups each morning and walks 30 miles a week between sojourns to keep in shape. Doctors tell him he has the physical conditioning for a man half his age.

His No. 1 tip for hikers? When it’s apparent you’re lost, don’t push blindly ahead. Retreat to the last point where you know for certain you were on the trail.

Whenever possible, he schemes to hike in good weather. “I think the world is more beautiful when the sun is out,” he says.

Birkner has an encyclopedic recall of his collection of more than 100 hiking guide-books. Here are some of his favorite treks.

MAGNOLIA: Birkner lives in this Seattle enclave, which he calls “the most beautiful urban neighborhood in America, maybe the world. Plenty of beaches and incredible views. When I go out for a walk, I see maybe three or four people, when I should be seeing hundreds.”

DEATH VALLEY: The hottest-ever temperature on earth was recorded here in summer, “but for five months out of the year, beginning in November, the weather is wonderful and there are a lot of interesting hikes.”

SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS: “Great hiking at 1,000 feet overlooking the ocean. It’s hard to believe you’re so close to Los Angeles.”

PALM SPRINGS: “One of the great hiking centers in the world, and five nonstop flights daily from Seattle. At 10,500 feet, Mt. San Jacinto is one of the greatest escarpments anywhere on earth.”

CANARY ISLANDS: “I had intended this as a stopover, but it was so lovely, I stayed five weeks. It’s a special world unto itself, virtually unknown to Americans.”

SOUTHEAST OREGON: This vast region has Birkner’s vote as the Northwest’s undiscovered gem. “It’s one of the most sparsely populated areas in the Lower 48. Make sure your tank is full of gas.”

Birkner’s niece, Nancy Goldfarb, calls him “colorful” and “quirky” and compares him to the itinerant character Waldo. “You never know where in the world he will appear,” Goldfarb says. “But I can always count on receiving a photo of him atop a summit somewhere.”

Want to go on your own hike? Here are some local resources: 

The Washington Trails Association provides a comprehensive list of Puget Sound-area resources for those looking for hiking clubs and information. WTA is a nonprofit that helps hikers explore, steward and champion trails and public lands. This list is compiled as a resource and WTA does not endorse any of the groups listed.

ISSAQUAH ALPS TRAILS CLUB: Offers multiple free guided hikes every week to help educate and engage the public (Issaquahalps.org).

NEPAL SEATTLE HIKING COMMUNITY: Connects people with nature by organizing hiking trips (Facebook.com/pg/nepalseattlehikingcommunity).

NORTHWEST ADVENTURE CENTER: Outdoor organization serving military families near Joint Base Lewis-McChord (Jblm.armymwr.com).

OUTVENTURES: Outdoor recreation organization for the LGBT community (Outventures.org).

SEATTLE MOUNTAIN RUNNING GROUP: A group of long-distance runners who get together for
group runs in the mountains near Seattle (Facebook.com/groups/seattlemountainrunners).

BLACK GIRLS RUN! SEATTLE/TACOMA: Provides resources to new and veteran African-American women runners, including trail runners. (Facebook.com/groups/seattle.tacoma)

OUTDOOR AFRO SEATTLE: A community that reconnects African-Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening, and skiing (Meetup.com/Outdoor-Afro-Seattle).

SOUND STEPS WALKING PROGRAM: Seattle Parks and Recreation-sponsored program providing transportation and monthly guided hikes for active older adults (Seattle.gov/parks/find/sound-steps-(50).

THE MOUNTAINEERS: Outdoor recreation nonprofit with volunteer-led courses and activities
Bellingham Branch: mountaineers.org/bellingham
Everett branch: mountaineers.org/everett
Foothills branch: 
mountaineers.org/foothills
Kitsap branch: mountaineers.org/kitsap
Olympia branch: mountaineers.org/olympia
Seattle branch: 
mountaineers.org/seattle
Tacoma branch: 
mountaineers.org/tacoma

NORTH SHORE SENIOR CENTER HIKERS: Hiking group that meets regularly in summer and fall (Sites. google.com/site/nsschikers/home).

SEATTLE OUTDOOR ADVENTURER’S MEETUP: A community from various backgrounds with a common interest in outdoor adventure (Meetup.com/SeattleOutdoorAdventurers/).

SNOQUALMIE VALLEY TRAILS CLUB: Based in Issaquah and offers hikes, snowshoeing and other outings for members (Snoqualmievalleytrailsclub.org).

WASHINGTON ALPINE CLUB: A volunteer-led organization providing climbing and snow-travel classes. In addition to classes, members organize climbs, hikes and ski trips among themselves. The WAC also owns Guye Cabin located at Snoqualmie Pass, which is available to all members
(Washingtonalpineclub.org).

CASCADE MOUNTAIN ADVENTURES: Seattle-based hiking and outdoor skills company focused on providing outdoor adventures for women, by women offering guided day hikes, backpacking skills sessions and overnight backpacking adventures (Cascademountainadventures.org).

OUTDOOR ASIAN: Outdoor Asian has a vision to create a diverse and inclusive community
of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the outdoors. The group does local hike outings and workshops, among other activities (Outdoorasian.com).

PENINSULA WILDERNESS CLUB: An active club for finding partners for hiking, backpacking, kayaking, skiing and more (Pwckitsap.org).

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