Enthusiasts and promoters occasionally make the claim-inaccurately, I'm sorry to say-that skiing is a lifetime sport. If it were, a million more older people might be on the slopes. They're not. A wretched excess of skiers entering their 50s give up the sport. You'll find them driving golf carts or lying stupefied in February on a Caribbean beach, or gone to seed in the garden of couch potatoes. It's unfortunate.
"Do not go gentle into that good night," urged the poet Dylan Thomas. Indeed, do not. Go fast, feel the wind against your skin, cast a plume of snow.
As leading-edge baby-boomers contemplate the potential to extend their longevity, skiing looks better as an aid. It's a more powerful conqueror of aging than wrinkle creams and liposuction. Why? Because the effort to remain a skier forces you to stay in shape. Perhaps more important, older people experience a mental uplift from continuing to be able to ski.
"It's a way to maintain confidence in your physical capability as you age," says Florida-based orthopedic surgeon John Davidson, 57, a life-long skier who once served as a doctor for the Canadian Ski Team.
Davidson was one of 29 skiers, average age 60, whom I met last April during a heliskiing trip to British Columbia's Adamant Mountains. The occasion was Nostalgia Week, a yearly gathering organized by heliskiing pioneer Hans Gmoser at one of Canadian Mountain Holidays' 11 remote lodges. The terrain we skied is strewn across mountains that would fill most of Switzerland.
If I ever had doubts about skiing as an antidote to aging, they disappeared in the company of these 22 men and seven women. Ages 55 to 77, a few of them logged 20,000 vertical feet a day in deep snow. Gordon Logan, 76, a retired cardiologist from Mercer Island, Wash., keeps his own heart pumping by skiing 30 days a season. He has skied 4.2 million vertical feet over 29 winters amid the glaciers and glades of B.C.'s interior.
"Skiing is a motive to stay in shape physically," says Logan, whose second favorite activity is dancing. Another calls his annual heliskiing trip, "a yearly target zone to make sure I don't let my fitness slack."
Retired physician Roy Ostberg, 60, from Illinois, skied 52 days last winter, including seven days at Nostalgia Week. Ostberg's motivation? "To meet new people and be with friends," he says. He has logged a remarkable 7.5 million vertical feet of heliskiing in 15 winters, fracturing his shoulder once and his ribs another time.
Logan and Ostberg understand what gerontologists have long declared: The key to successful aging is to remain active, be sociable and have fun. Researchers have found that aerobic exercise contributes to a significant lessening of inner tension, depression and sleep disturbances, and it aids concentration. A recent study of 550 people in their 70s found that the ones who enjoyed a wide range of activities, from gardening to fitness walking, were four times less likely to suffer from Alzheimer's. This could be heartening news to 80-year-old skiers who have worried that they may one day forget to put their boots in their bindings before heading downhill.
Each morning at Adamant Lodge, we arose from breakfast, grabbed our fat skis and joined our guide in a helicopter flight to a high scenic mountain col or glacier. At lower elevations, we had to ski through tight, treed gullies with heavy snow to rendezvous with the helicopter. It was arduous work for veteran skiers. We averaged 90,000 vertical feet over seven days, 28 percent less than younger CMH heliskiers that week.
Typically we had been skiers for 50 years. None of us had found illness a reason to give up the sport. Seven-almost one-third-of the men, including myself, had recently undergone treatment for prostate cancer, the diagnosticians' current disease du jour.
People over 55-numbering perhaps a half-million North American skiers-account for less than 10 percent of the skier population, yet they may account for as much as a quarter of all ski-vacation spending. A skier over age 55 spends $1,686 on a typical ski trip, according to liftline interviews conducted by the National Skier Opinion Survey. That's three times more than the spending of Gen X or Y skiers, some of whom could be grandchildren of these codgers. I'm informed by mountain real-estate agents that older skiers often buy second homes at ski areas to lure their grandchildren to spend time with them.
"Skiing is a wonderful bonding device for families," says Delta Airlines pilot Tim Danforth, 55, who started skiing when he was 10. "It gets you away from work and activities that tend to cause families to drift apart." A Texan, Danforth owns a condo in Park City, Utah.
Aged skiers tend to be rare, but orthopedist Davidson says, "It's no longer a big deal for the competent skier to continue well past the age of 50, thanks to better gear, groomed slopes, modern lifts and medical advances." The modern ski is even better than the oversize tennis racket, which can't get you to the net in time, or the Big Bertha titanium driver, which won't stop your golf handicap from rising with your age. Today's skis offer a Viagra-like on-slope performance improvement for the aging skier. When 1964 Olympic slalom winner Pepi Stiegler turned 50, he declared he was able to make better turns than when he won his Olympic gold medal at age 26.
Gmoser, 68, may hold the world record for heliskiing, a lifetime 30 million-plus vertical feet amassed over 36 winters, yet he now spends as much time cross-country skiing.
Heliskiing, which he practically invented in the Sixties, "is thrilling, but hard on the senior body," Gmoser says. "Cross-country skiing is easy on the body, excellent for physical and mental well being."
Don MacCandlish, 75, echoes Gmoser's view. A retired engineer who has skied 62 years, MacCandlish touts cross-country as ideal for older skiers. "It's inexpensive, a great conditioner, fun, brings you in contact with natural beauty, and you can start at any age."
The Canadian cross-country pioneer Jackrabbit Johannsen didn't give up skiing until he was almost 100. His example of physical activity was so compelling that after he moved into a retirement home, none of its residents died for three years.
To live longer is easier said than done. It demands motivation. The more proximate the motive the better. Why not do something you've always loved? Ski. To ski, you need to stay in shape. By staying in shape you live longer.