Over the hill
His whole adult life, Gary Mason wished he could ski. Each attempt ended in disaster until, at age 60, he vowed to give the bunny hill one last shot
Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail
Growing up in Southwestern Ontario, my friends and I did not give a second's thought to skiing. The one and only time I tried strapping two planks to my feet was on a high-school field trip in the early 1970s. I remember burning my hands on a rope tow, then tumbling ass-over-tea-kettle on my journey down the hill.
For the rest of the afternoon, I hung out behind a burger shack with some buddies who were passing around a mickey of Lemon Gin.
When I moved out to Vancouver in my early 20s, everyone skied, or so it seemed. People talked about Whistler, the world-renowned skiing mecca 90 minutes north of town, in an almost spiritual way. I decided to give it a shot.
The day my pals and I arrived in town coincided with a nasty rainstorm. It was February, 1980, and the weather was so bad they closed all the lifts. Determined to get at least one run in so we could say we "skied" at the famous resort, a few of us trudged a couple hundred yards up the mountain and then attempted to ski down. I recall staying upright for about five seconds (it may have been less) before hitting the ground with a terrible thud that sent me sliding on my back 50 yards down the hill. I then had to make the ignominious expedition back up the mountain to retrieve my scattered skis and poles.
In the intervening years, I would inevitably bump into someone going skiing and find myself annoyed that I had not given the sport another chance. Or worse, I would find myself in Whistler on work-related business and feel like the world's most pathetic poser. Sitting in a bar, I prayed no one asked about conditions on the hill that day. Year after year, I vowed to take lessons but never did.
And then I turned 60.
Ben Nelms for/The Globe and Mail
The big 6-0, which I hit last August, was like no other birthday I'd experienced. I found it – what are the words? – profoundly depressing. My colleague Ian Brown captured the dark mood and pangs of angst it can generate in his brilliant book Sixty. One line in it resonated with me: "How much life can you live in the fourth quarter, not knowing when the game itself might end?"
To cope with this dubious milestone, I made a list of all the things I wanted to do while I was still in decent shape and of sound mind. Topping it was learning to ski. I bounced the idea off a few friends; most gave me the kind of wincing look that said: "Poor boy's already losing it." One said it was a lost cause – skiing was too difficult and intimidating a sport to take up after 50. Stubborn ass that I am, I was more determined than ever to press on.
I contacted the folks at Whistler-Blackcomb and told them what I wanted to do: learn to ski at 60. I also said I was going to chronicle my experience, good or bad. They loved the idea and set me up with the equipment I would need and also an affable and highly capable instructor – Tom Radke. We would spend three days together on the slopes, which was a colossal benefit. (Whistler-Blackcomb offers group lessons of up to four people, which are a great and much cheaper option.)
Tom is a bear of a man who learned to ski growing up in Sault St. Marie, Ont. Like many, he would come West and never return. Once he saw what real mountains looked like, and once he experienced the ecstasy of skiing down them, that was it. It became an addiction. Over time, he would become an in-demand instructor in both Canada and the United States.
One of the first things he asked me was whether I had played hockey growing up. I had. This, I would discover, would be an enormous advantage in learning how to ski. Day 1 was mostly spent on the bunny hill. Actually, we didn't even go to the bunny hill at first; we went to a bunny patch, which was mostly flat but did contain elevation changes of six inches or so. There, Tom taught me how to feel comfortable on one ski, then two, and then we quickly graduated to a snow plow – forming an inverse V with your skis – which is the elementary way to stop. After mastering that, we hopped on a chairlift so we could practise the snow plow on something resembling a real hill.
Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail
This went fine. The only thing remotely upsetting was watching all the three- and four-year-old kids whizzing by me. There were literally dozens, coming from everywhere. It's shocking, actually, how young kids are when they start this sport. It's even more astonishing when you see the kind of runs they are going down – ones so steep that when I eventually faced one myself, I was paralyzed with fear.
On Day 2, Tom taught me the essentials of turning. This is where my skating skills came in handy. (It's all about the ankles.) The motions were familiar to me, even if I had five-foot slabs of fibreglass attached to my feet. I did well, despite catching the edge of my ski blade a few times in the snow and going for a tumble. On my third and final day, Tom took me further up Blackcomb where, he assured me, there was a run he thought I could handle. I wasn't so sure. And when I had my first look at some of the drop-offs I was going to have to travel over, I felt sick – although I never displayed any hint of my nervousness to my supremely confident instructor.
Having said that, fear is a legitimate emotion. Skiing is not without its risks, especially as you get older. And you have to know and accept this. Broken bones, or worse, can happen, especially if you're not aware of your surroundings. A good helmet is a must. The better shape you are in off the mountain, the better chance you have of succeeding on it.
There are no official numbers on how many people older than 60 are downhill skiing in Canada today. In the United States, the National Ski Areas Association reported that just more than 5.3 per cent of skiers visiting American hills last year were older than 60. When I was in Whistler, I caught up with Wendell Moore, 67, who runs a senior ski team program at the resort for anyone 55 and older.
When it began, in 2003, only seven people took part, Moore told me. Most had skied before but wanted to continue in a group setting of like-aged adults. Today, Moore has more than 250 in the program, with six older than 80. "And many are excellent, excellent skiers, including a few over 80," Moore told me. "Today, with the way they make and design skis, the sport is easier than it's ever been."
Besides, when you're over the hill, you pick up speed. (Old ski joke, apparently.)
You don't want to hear about how I coped with some of the more technical aspects of skiing, and what was involved in mastering them (or beginning to). You want to know how I did; whether I overcame the physical and psychological impediments my age placed in my way. The answer is I passed the test with flying colours. And it gave me a unique joy I hadn't felt in a while.
Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail
Why? The supreme rush of shushing down a ski slope, the wind hitting your face, the mountain scene spread out in all its glory before you. There is nothing like it. I was irritated that I'd waited so long to experience this feeling, and delighted that I fought the ennui that settles in with age, ignored the impulse to take a pass on things that seem remotely scary or even dangerous.
Now, I am forced to say here (my instructor insisted, seriously) that not everyone my age (or just on either side of it) who is contemplating learning to ski will enjoy the same success, at least immediately. I have an athletic background, played a lot of sports. I stay in reasonable shape. I have strong legs. This likely helped me avoid the sore muscles I fully anticipated having after each day on the slopes. There were a few bruises from falling, however.
And as I mentioned, years of skating was a considerable asset. You bend your ankles to turn in hockey in much the same way you do when you ski. I found I could come to a full stop with my skis the same way I do with my skates. That said, I believe most anyone can do what I did with time and motivation.
I can see joining a program such as Wendell Moore's one day, but not yet. I have lost time to make up for. I need to get better. I need to put some miles under my skis. But I've discovered that learning the sport has opened up an entire new world. Now I spend my time researching equipment and techniques. I'm looking for a new ski jacket, to replace the hand-me-down snowboard coat that one of my kids loaned me for my ski lessons.
It is possible to breathe new life into an old body and in the process feel exhilarated in a way you haven't for a long time. In fact, I can't wait to get back up to Whistler, to feel the power and energy the town and the sport give me. And I can't wait to be sitting in some bar afterward, hoping someone asks how I found the conditions.
Gary Mason is a national affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail based in Vancouver.