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The Old Man and the Ski

On Skiing Essay

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Alta, Utah, on a powder day is legendary.

The place is stacked with ripping skiers, frothing at the mouth to go big. One such day a few seasons ago, I was enjoying the free show that comes with every ride up the Collins chair. Back flips, front flips, twisty-spinny things I still can’t comprehend—the local young guns were out and in top form. They were unbelievably strong skiers, and they appeared to be, on average, somewhere between puberty and drinking age. But a single skier stood out that day, a geriatric guy calmly arcing down groomers wearing an unironic one-piece suit. He had to be more than 80 years old, and he skied in an arthritic perma-hunch. His turns were sweeping, low-speed affairs, and he wobbled a bit on occasion. But the man’s smile was so wide, we could see it from the lift. It was the kind of smile that is airborne-contagious. He smiles. You smile. Your buddy on the lift smiles. It’s one of nature’s coolest autonomic systems.

This elderly gentleman was so clearly loving what he was doing that we were instantly right there with him, slow turn by slow turn, until he dipped below our line of sight. Sure, we were sharing his joy, but we were also seeing ourselves—we hoped—doing the same thing decades in the future. This guy was an embodiment of the cliché to which we can all relate: Skiing is living.

That old guy represents vitality; life well lived; a refusal to go gently into that good night. That’s why it’s amazing to see an octogenarian swooping down the slopes; think of the passion and effort it takes to brave snow and cold and the possibility of broken hips to scratch the ever-familiar ski itch. That’s why the oldest skiers on the mountain are the most admirable, if not the best. Their bodies remember millions of turns—decades of deep powder, slushy spring moguls, miserable ice, and bruising crashes—and in wide, predictable arcs, they continue to live run by run.

Skiing is analogous to vitality—always has been, always will be. It’s sexy and cool and fast and dangerous and raw and real and beautiful. It’s part of what attracts people to this sport—it’s part of what attracted me.

But at 70 or 80, you’re not going to ski the way you did at 20 or 30. You aren’t going to go as steep, or as deep, or as big. You aren’t going to ski as fast, or as long. The truth is, even by our mid-30s, most of us are never going to be better skiers than we were the day before. (At 33, I’m just beginning to get my brain around that realization.) But at an advanced age, when many former skiers are getting soft on the couch, just being out there is remarkable. Any 20-year-old can huck Corbet’s. Really. It takes a truly hardcore skier to step into skis at the age of 80 and harness gravity for pleasure’s sake. To me, that skier is the hero of the sport.

Skiing is cold, dangerous, and expensive. It requires lots of gear and lots of driving and lots of time. None of these things are elder-friendly. Which is why those annoying Viagra commercials (watch an NFL game on TV lately?) are so laughable—endless loops of silver-haired surfer-dudes emerging from warm waves at sunset, or Napa Valley cyclists drinking midday wine in spandex shorts. Those guys have it easy. Viagra might have made vitality a pharmaceutical product but Old Guy skiers define it.

Maybe best of all, Old Guys (and Gals) like the one I saw at Alta have found a way to return, in old age, to a state of childlike play—perhaps childlike grace is more accurate. They have uncoupled ego from the intrinsic value of skiing. The act alone is enough. Well past needing to prove anything or win peer approval, for skiers of a certain age it’s simply about the love of skiing.

At the end of that day at Alta, I saw the old guy in the Rustler having an après cocktail with friends decades his junior. Naturally, he was smiling. It could’ve been just because he’d survived another trip around the sun, but I like to think it was because he understood why we do this silly thing—why some of us dedicate our lives to it—and what it really means to be a skier.  ●

Drew Pogge is owner and lead ski guide at Bell Lake Yurt in Bozeman, Montana.

Illustration: Matt Wood