Aging Skiers Find Downhill Runs Lift Spirits
On a clear November day, there was no resisting the lure of Mt. Pisgah. Anyone who has lived in western Oregon for more than one winter knows such days are not to be wasted.
The much-loved and well-trod trails at Mt. Pisgah wind uphill about 1.5 miles to a soft, open bluff with views on such cloudless days to the Cascades in the east and the Coast Range in the west. It’s a moderate, but steady ascent. Enough to get heart rates and endorphins pumping. Enough to clear a muddied mind.
Midway up the climb, a voice stopped me. “That’s quite a pace you’re setting,” observed a man who appeared to belong to more or less to the same generation as I. I offered a nod of appreciation and continued the push to the top. He stayed on my heels.
“Well, you appear to be doing just fine, as well,” I commented as we paused to take in the view at the summit. We chatted long enough for me to learn his age (78), his motivation (skiing) and his name.
These Pisgah workouts are a means to an end for Larry Cox—preparation for his real passion which lies in swooshing downhill on snowy slopes. Cox was preparing, on that November day, for the ski season that opened two weeks ago at Willamette Pass.
It’s the first year in 40 that Cox has taken to the trails as a recreational skier rather than as a member of the Willamette Pass Ski Patrol. In 1974, when he joined the ski patrol, Cox was making an economic decision. An Army veteran and recent University of Oregon graduate, he couldn’t afford to ski otherwise.
“At that stage in my life, I really couldn’t buy lift tickets for myself or for my family,” he says. Ski patrol service offered in exchange free passes for all of them. "In the beginning, I viewed it as an economic opportunity to do something I loved without significant impact on my finances. Then, it became a way of life. I couldn’t imagine myself not doing it.”
But now, after 40 years of aligning his ski outings with ski patrol schedules at the Pass, he’s trying something different. Age is undeniably a factor he weighs as he prepares for the season ahead.
“Because I have limited years of skiing left, I want to buy my own pass and ski when and where I want,” says Cox who retired 20 years ago from a career in worker safety insurance. Economics no longer restrict him. And there’s another influence as well.
“I don’t have the same self-confidence I used to have,” he concedes. “That’s probably the one disappointing thing about maturation. Self-confidence begins to slip and that’s a critical part of skill. There comes a time when your brain stops you even though you might still have the physical skills.”
Fun on the Slopes at 78
A Matter of Passion and Preparation
Staying physically fit at 78 is Cox’s personal rebuttal to the cautions that emerge with age. Regular hikes at Mt. Pisgah are just one part of a regimen that includes gym workouts three days a week with weights and strength exercises.
I recognize the erosion of confidence that Cox describes. I gave up downhill skis a dozen years ago when a diagnosis of osteoporosis undermined my courage and tolerance for risk. After my encounter with Cox, I was curious about the passions and the conditioning programs that keep other seniors on the ski slopes.
When Rich Maris, 73, was diagnosed with bone-thinning osteoporosis and visual degeneration in one eye, he refused to give up his skis. Instead, Maris gave up risky ski areas. A 30-year member of the Willamette Pass Ski Patrol, Maris was on duty for opening day this season, limiting his service to lower areas and groomed trails on the mountain, giving up the adrenalin-pumping runs on steeper trails.
“As we get older in patrolling you learn that you need to let go of some of the things you may have done previously,” says the retired Eugene architect. “I decided I didn’t want to fall down skiing and break a hip. And I also think it is important to let go and open spots for younger people on the patrol. I aim to keep active as long as I can. I want to live a well-balanced life.”
For the hardy skiers I talked with, these physical, mental and emotional adjustments to advancing years demand humility and a clear sense of priorities. The family bonds that form among long-term patrollers and ski instructors, along with the rewards of service, of helping others find safety and joy on the slopes, ease them through the transition. Training and administrative positions allow maturing skiers to stay connected and useful in less physically demanding roles.
Maris grew up on the slopes of Utah and arrived in Oregon as a college student, well experienced on skis. In his 40s he was skiing with his family at Willamette Pass when he glimpsed a new outlet for his love of the sport. As he watched ski patrol members assist a friend of his daughter who had been hurt, he saw a service he wanted to offer. Larry Cox was the trainer who introduced him to the volunteer patrol in the early ‘70s.
Go for Pleasure, Not for Thrills
“It isn’t how fast you ski,” Maris says now. “It’s how much pleasure you get in executing a turn. Go for the pleasure, not for the thrill.”
That’s good advice for experienced skiers as well as beginners, according to an article earlier this month in The Wall Street Journal. The feature entitled “It’s Never Too Late to Learn to…” offered pointers for older learners on five challenges, including skiing! “For many, the most difficult psychological hurdle is learning to overcome the fear of looking dumb,” the article observed. It advised three days of lessons and a willingness to falter now and then.
Nancy Cross has been teaching people to ski for 40 years now, most of them at Willamette Pass and Hoodoo ski areas. She suggests a little advance muscle toning, in addition to lessons, to make the process easier for beginning or returning skiers.
“For older people who want to start skiing, it’s beneficial to have some leg strength,” says Cross, 60. “If you don’t have good muscle tone, your quads start burning, calves start cramping. But even if you are out of shape, you can learn to ski. You just have to take shorter runs.”
The Eugene dental hygenist grew up on skies and started teaching others the sport when she was a high school junior. She married a fellow ski instructor. Except for a few years when she was introducing their two young sons to skis, she has been sharing her skills and passion with skiers of all levels and ages. She’s back this season teaching at Willamette Pass.
“I love the mountains. I love teaching. I love sharing the joy I get just being out in beautiful country,” she exclaims. “It’s a passion. Skiing gives you a freedom you don’t have in any other sport that I have experienced.”
That passion may be genetic in her family. Her father, Alton McCully, became a ski instructor in his 50s and taught at Oregon ski areas until age 87. The late McCully’s personal training program is legendary with today’s skiers, several of whom told me how he began each day of skiing by walking up the hill, skis over his shoulder, to get warmed up before putting on the slats and gliding down to teach his first lesson of the day.
Although his daughter hasn’t adopted that practice, she has made her own adjustments to age.
“I don’t push myself like I once did,” she says. “I don’t go crazy on mogul runs at this age because I don’t want to hurt myself. I don’t fall as much because it’s harder to get up. I want to ski as long as I possibly can. I’d like to die on my skis.”
Bill Hirsh, 68, has made similar age-influenced adjustments in his approach to the slopes.
“When I was young, I would go down double black diamond runs and not worry a bit,” says Hirsh, a ski instructor for 23 years. “Now, yes, I still do those runs, but I don’t do them so haphazardly as when I was young. Now I rely more on my skill level and I make smarter choices.”
Hirsh retired a few years ago as facilities and transportation director for the Eugene 4J school district, but he hasn’t retired from skiing or teaching at Willamette Pass. The rewards go beyond a bit of income and a lift pass. Years of teaching have honed his own skiing skills, he says, but the real reward comes in watching experienced skiers make significant improvements, and seeing new skiers transition from unease to elation.
He launches into the story of an experience with a four-year-old who was so frightened of skis that Hirsh spent the first hour of a lesson inside, reading books and building trust for the child. On the beginner slope, progress was slow and steady as the boy grasped the techniques for making simple turns. A second lesson gently expanded basic skills.
But the pay-off for Hirsh came a few weeks later when he spied the boy skiing beside his parents, handling a moderate level ski run with obvious pride and confidence. “He was in love with it,” Hirsh exclaims. “It was exciting to see how excited he was.”
Making a difference makes a difference at any age!
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of "The Spirited Walker." Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org