Published: 7 February 2019
I have skied with a few octogenarians. Patrick, with two hip replacements under his belt, left me in his tracks on the steep runs of St. Anton. But he quit last year. All my skiing chums have given up or died. After half-a-century on the slopes when should you hang up those comfy, ancient rear-entry boots? There are no regulations, if you’re in reasonable health no doctor can advise you; you’ve got to balance the risk and reward.
I was in my thirties when I first clamped a pair of hired leather boots into wooden rental skis. It was the year the Winter Olympics were held in Innsbruck, but there was precious little snow in nearby Igls. I clattered over ice and rocks for a week. My instructor, who was well into her seventies, despaired of my ever learning how to snowplough, the essential manoeuvre for stopping.
“I’m still skiing at an age when people are breaking legs leaning over to pick up the tea cosy”
I started too late to ever become expert, but I reckon I’ve spent eighteen months of my life in mountain resorts, skiing hundreds of miles. I was part of that generation that studied the theory of parallel turns in We Learned to Ski, published by Sunday Times editor Harold Evans in 1974. I absorbed the psychological mantras, ‘leaning into the valley’, ‘following the fall line’, and ‘attacking the mountain’. I got better, but I got older, too. Sometimes I over-reached. In Kirchberg I was tail-end Charlie in the top class, ending each run with steam rising from burning quadriceps through the fabric of my flared stretch trousers. By the time I felt skilled enough to have a go at deep powder, I didn’t have the stamina for all that knee-jolting.
I’m still skiing at an age when people are breaking legs leaning over to pick up the tea cosy. I’ve been lucky. In St. Anton I saw off a ski instructor in the blutwagen. In Selva I persuaded a girlfriend who took a bad fall to man up and carry on to the bottom, where we discovered she had fractured her femur. In Saas Fee I had to wave my tranquilised wife with a smashed shoulder off in a helicopter. My only injury has been a twisted ankle. It was fine strapped in the ski boot, but I limped around town all that winter.
Clearly one’s bones are more vulnerable now. But safety measures have evolved. My first skis were 2.1 metres long; now they’re 1.6 metres. Lighter, wider, shorter skis make turns much easier. There’s a machine now which sets the correct tension of the clamps and adjusts the twisting torque. It’s calibrated by your height, weight, skiing ability and age (although the oldest level is ‘over 55’). A few years ago only kiddiwinkles wore helmets; now, like almost everyone, I do, too.
But it’s not injury that worries me; it’s endurance. I have less puff these days. I have atrial fibrillation and a touch of sciatica. I walk more slowly. I can do fewer press-ups. I’m creaky. As they say in Cornwall, ‘The age is there’. Tramping about in heavy boots schlepping skis over icy streets, uphill and upstairs is exhausting.
I am no longer strong enough to ski badly. Dragging a foot and braking on turns consumes an enormous amount of energy. You don’t need strength to glide down a well-groomed piste; gravity does the work. You need style. I still don’t crouch and sway and bend the knees enough; in videos I look a bit like Prince Charles in Klosters, too upright and rigid. But then he’s not used to bending a knee. We both need to relax a bit more.
The best protection is in your head. The days have long gone when we caught the first lift and chased the sun all day over vast swathes of geography, seeking out washboard moguls and challenging black runs. Nowadays I’m happy with a few leisurely runs before and after lunch. As a veteran you know it’s not the steepness of the run that matters, so much as the quality of the snow and visibility. So, I’m a fair-weather skier now. If it snows, I head for a hot chocolate. And I no longer attack the mountain; I negotiate with it. I used to believe that if you didn’t fall over occasionally, you weren’t trying hard enough. But now it’s hard to get back up again in a snow drift.
My wife and I anticipated this. A lot of elderly Europeans saunter about on those long, slender cross-country skis on the valley floor. So, we thought we’d have a go. But the Europeans must have been born welded to those skis. It was ten times more strenuous and I kept falling over. We ended up playing football on skis, which at least was a bit of fun.
Alpine ski resorts are ambivalent about lift passes for Oldies, and keep changing their minds. This year, over-75s get a 50% reduction in St. Anton, while Seefeld, a far tamer Austrian resort, grants no concessions whatsoever to the aged. I’m not sure why they want to clutter up their slopes with geriatrics, but French resorts are more generous. Montgenèvre charges 40% of the standard price to ‘Legendaries’, the honorific they use for us Oldies, while you can ski free both in villages like Val Cenis and fashionable resorts like Courchevel.
That’s where I met my wife. She was a competent skier, and even after comprehensively smashing her shoulder and later being concussed by falling off a horse (the horse was not on skis), she gamely took up both horse-riding and skiing again. But at the end of a white-out run in Engelberg she was no longer having fun. So, now she comes along to walk, or sit on a mountaintop and sketch, and we keep in touch by walkie-talkie. I’m not liable to pick up anyone of a companionable age on a chairlift, so I usually ski alone. This is not ideal; you need a buddy for sharing and for safety.
We have spent dark, sorry days trudging through dirty lumps of snow on rain-soaked slopes. But when sun and snow combine a skiing holiday is paradise. This January there was a great dump of snow in Austria and we enjoyed good conditions in Seefeld, not far from Innsbruck, where it all started for me. The mountain restaurant displayed the bobsled used by the Austrian team in the 1964 Olympics, now a historic relic. The wheel had come full circle and I wondered whether somebody was trying to tell me something. My wife, as usual, has the answer. When you’re not having fun any longer, she says, you don’t ‘give up’; you stop and start doing something else.
‘Decision Theory’ holds that sound decisions flow from a choice between values: rather than maximising existing values, we opt to shift them. My old value – the sheer exhilaration of downhill skiing – might be replaced by another – relief from the increasing hassle of organising and enduring the encroaching limitations on that experience. Or, as they say, ‘Get over it’!
Brexit may provide the imperative. I carry in the pocket of my frayed and greasy ski jacket the European Health Insurance Card, entitling me to free medical care throughout the European Union. At the end of this winter season, this will no longer be valid. At my age, what price winter sports insurance?