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Christie's Mountains Strollers still climbing 22 years

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Christie's Mountain Strollers, four men who have hiked together every fall for 22 years, landed on a winning formula.

"We want to work our butts off during the day, come back to a hot shower, a decent meal and a good bottle of wine," says Austin's Joe Christie. "Anything beyond that is frill."

The former state senator, 79, is the eldest in this group of Americans and Europeans that started by climbing Switzerland's spectacular Grindelwald district in 1990 and this September heads to Sedona, Ariz.

The three others — Fred Nelan of El Paso, Alan Crisp of London and Hans Peter Holinger of Switzerland — range in age from their late 60s to their early 70s.

"Without preparing for the annual stroll, I might be an overweight and out-of-shape 68-year-old couch potato," Nelan says. "With it, I enjoy an active and healthy life and I have been to places I would have never seen without strolling."

While all four men are amusing and accomplished, Christie, an investor and business owner who lives with his equally fit wife, Tana Christie, in a West Austin home designed by Charles Moore, is the lynchpin of the group.

Christie started life in flat-as-a-griddle Rising Star, population 1,920 then and 830 now (according to the 2010 census).

"I was raised in some of the drabbest areas of Texas," Christie says. "I have always been attracted to beautiful places. When I first saw the Alps, I had to go out among them — and did."

Son of an oil and gas wildcatter and a housewife, Christie grew up in Cisco, east of Abilene, and graduated from high school in Brownfield, southwest of Lubbock. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during an eight-year window between the Korean and Vietnam wars. "I never fired a shot in anger," he says.

He studied geology and then law at the University of Texas before serving as an El Paso County prosecutor. Later, in private practice, he focused on personal injury cases, but didn't discourage other business.

"I could handle anything that walked through the door," he says. "Because I could I hire another lawyer. If someone wanted a lawyer to handle the merger between Ford and GM, I said I could do it."

Christie first ran for the Texas Senate against the candidate of the Democratic Party's Old Guard in 1964, then later won in 1966 when El Paso was split off from Midland and Odessa because of the Supreme Court's one man/one vote ruling.

He learned the political game quickly: "The most valuable supporters are the ones who are supporting you because they hate the other guy," he jokes. He served two terms before running for lieutenant governor. Bill Hobby won.

After six years in the Senate, Christie was appointed by Gov. Dolph Briscoe to be chairman of the state insurance board.

"You don't have to know anything about insurance," the governor told him. "Just hire the right people and have them return my letters."

As far as fitness is concerned, Christie was an early adopter, reading Kenneth Cooper's "Aerobics" in the 1960s. In 1968, he took a stress test from the Dallas-based doctor, now considered one of the world's leading authorities on fitness and preventive medicine.

"He's done years and years of research on the effect of exercise," Christie says. "His clinic has grown from a strip center office with a secretary to 30 acres and 650 employees. He calls me his longest longitudinal study."

Christie has kept up his running regimen for 40 years. "I take more walk breaks than I used to," he admits. "But I've always looked for outside activities that are not only good for the body but good for the soul. They usually involve the mountains or the ocean."

He started climbing mountains in the 1980s on a visit to Nepal.

"I remember looking down on Tibet, which was interesting," he says. "That trip planted the seed."

While shopping for cannons to supply anti-Soviet Afghan insurgents in what has been called "Charlie Wilson's War," he visited a Swiss arms company and made a side trip to Zurich. That's where he met banker Holinger. When he returned to climb mountains, he brought along CPA and old Texas friend Nelan. Holinger in turn invited a London associate, Crisp, also a banker. They all shared a yen for food and drink as well as strenuous exercise.

"I stroll because I want to see the creamy bubbles sliding down the empty beer glass in the first bar we hit after a stroll," Crisp says. "Also, the relief in taking off my boots at the end of a long day. But more, the companionship developed over two decades with fellow strollers and their families is absolutely unique in my life."

Christie recounts a particularly challenging stroll in the Swiss National Forest.

"We were walking on a fairly narrow ledge and part of the ledge had just washed away," he says. "To get past the washout place — and there was a serious drop to our left — Hans moved really quickly across. Alan started sliding, hanging on by fingertips. ‘I'm not at all happy here,' he said. He was able to get some traction. That was the closest we came to anything serious happening to us — like falling."

The most memorable trip ended on Sept. 11, 2001.

"At the conclusion of our hike in Yosemite, we turned on the television set that morning and saw two airliners crash into twin towers," Christie says. "Everyone had been planning to go back home that day from Oakland. We ended up driving from the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite to Santa Barbara. We'd pull in for gas and there would be nobody there. Everyone was in watching television. It was an eerie trip."

Why has the strolling tradition lasted more than 20 years?

"It has a lot to do with our wives," Christie says. "We've run into lots of guys on the trails who said, ‘Gosh. I wish we could put together a group like yours, but my wife won't let me.' "

Holinger, who is married to a Burgundian, has become the group's wine expert. "We've had some awfully good wine over the years," Christie says.

"The key is that we know each other well and feel comfortable in spending time together, talking about everything and nothing," Holinger says.

"Plus we all do things during the year to stay in shape so we don't disappoint the other guys on the next stroll," Christie says. "We are all still married to the same women. And all the wives are happy to see us get out of the house in September."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com or 445-3970.