Features and Occasionals

Aging Gracefully: Skiing Over Fifty

By Debbie Leaman

My husband and I have danced our ski dance for years. With gusto for the sport, he extols an “epic” ski day; I casually mention the whiteout. He pushes for steeps; I retreat to groomers. When he praises me I know I’m in for a few more runs. As much as I want to give it all up, I can’t. Howard and I made a pact 19 years ago, when we left New York and traded our East coast ambitions for an outdoor life in the Wasatch Mountains, that we’d always ski, well into our 80s we told each other – that was before our knees hurt, when we could still check a trail map without reading glasses – and we’d imbue our children with the same passion.

Together, we took lessons, workshops and clinics. Following behind in my husband’s tracks, I skied down chutes, raced through gates and found myself perched on the edge of one too many precipices.

An uber-macho ski instructor once told me that I’m a level-9 skier with a level-5 attitude. Translation: I’m an expert skier with a bad attitude. It’s true. And I’ve often threatened to quit. But the moment I say to Howard, “Let’s try snowshoeing,” he is online researching new skis for me. When I’m in a good mood, such enthusiasm is contagious; when I’m cranky, it floods over me, like I’m being waterboarded. But in skiing, as in life, we managed to navigate most anything together until, a few years ago, I finally encouraged Howard to start skiing with his friends on the weekends. While I cheerfully chauffeured our two teens around town, he got his yah-yahs out with his testosterone-filled buddies. It was perfect—for a while. But at some point I began to worry that the better he got the less he’d want to ski with me, or, worse, the less I’d want to ski with him. The revelation terrified me.

That year, we’d planned to spend Valentine’s Day together, my choice of activity. I opted for a winter hike and a nice lunch, but that morning when I woke up, I actually wanted to ski. Not only did I want to ski; I proposed we “demo skis.” My off-handed suggestion made Howard’s day.

We headed straight to the resort’s demo hut to test-drive a few pairs. Part of the way through the day, I clicked into a pair of “rocker” skis — fat, black skis with curved tips on both ends and Japanese anime graphics so strange that even our teens would’ve gagged. Whatever. I took a deep breath, looked beyond the wide-eyed pubescent girl staring up at me, and took off. I hit some bumps, powered through crud, and floated over what little powder I could salvage on the side of the run. I skied fast, competent and strong. My heart raced as I soared down the run, and for those few minutes I forgot that I was AARP-eligible.Screen Shot 2015 12 30 at 1.53.32 PM

After our last run I immediately bought a pair of the next year’s model. Pink Japanese anime and skull graphics be damned, liquid energy lived in those skis and I wanted to drink it up.

Back at home, I lovingly leaned my new spoils against a wall in our garage, afraid to hang them with the other skis for fear of damage or, worse, complacency. Really, I wanted to bring them inside and wrap them in a blanket, protect their innocence, their newness, their fountain of youth properties.

When our daughter saw my new boards, she looked at me like the time I’d brought a pair of jeggings home—tight jean leggings—which fit, by the way, but I returned the next day.

“Hmm, interesting,” she said as she popped out her ear buds. “They aren’t really you, Mom.”

“I know,” I said, “aren’t they great?”

She shrugged, slung her backpack over her shoulder and slipped inside the house. I was your age once, I muttered after her. Seriously.

Half-way down life’s run, having shifted from youth to middle age and quickly heading towards my lodge-lounging twilight years, I still don’t understand how this transition has happened so fast. Everything seems to be picking up speed as I travel downhill. My life’s trail map should read: Conditions ahead unpredictable. Will I be able to do move forward gracefully? Maybe, with a touch of attitude, and a little Japanese anime.

Two days after buying my rocker skis, we headed to Alta. It was an epic snow day by anyone’s standards — three feet of fresh powder. I cleared my head and let my body do the work. I sliced through the deep powder, turning without effort, and loved every minute. “Sweet skis.” A 20-something guy with shoulder-length hair nodded at me in the lift line as I prepared for my next run. I laughed and hoped it wasn’t just the skis that impressed him.284 d632334130a2b9d194362b7d857b88bf m

In the next 10 days, I hit the slopes over half a dozen times —something I hadn’t done in decades. Aside from calves that burned and a pulled glute muscle, I could walk down stairs and function without too much pain and too many Advil. In the evenings, Howard read me passages from his latest technique book, Soft Skiing: The Secrets of Low-Impact Skiing for Older Skiers. “…Skiing is a sport at which one can not only excel, but get better and better as the years go by,” he reads. And “skiing depends on stuff, on equipment… Today, that perfect turn is easy—not because I got better but because my skis and boots are so much better. Those great turns are somehow built into our modern gear, waiting for us….”

Anime girl, you know it. Sometimes what feels like youth can be bought.

Debbie Leaman, a freelance writer, has decided to use her renewed love of skiing to become a part-time ski instructor.

This article was originally published on December 30, 2015.