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On skiing at 70: “big air” is a thing of the past, or at least it should be

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By BEN OLSON/for The Herald  —  My doctor asked me if I had fallen recently. I felt it was important to answer him honestly, so I told him yes.  Then he asked in which part of the house the fall had taken place. I told him the fall took place at the ski hill where I was snowboarding.

I guess these are the kind of questions doctors are supposed to ask patients pushing 70. My knees and my ticker won’t let me run up and down the basketball court any more. And, even if I could, my right rotator cuff makes shooting my once-reliable 3 point shot a painful experience. Skiing, however, is just using gravity to your advantage.

I began skiing when I was 5 years old. At that time, you had to hoof it up to the top of the hill, strap your skis on and point them downhill and then repeat until exhausted. Turning was not something that you did because that would slow you down. When I was 6, a ski hill opened up in a town about 25 miles north of where we lived. On Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings one of the parents would load up the station wagon with hyperactive kids and take them skiing.

You had to be big enough and strong enough to hold onto the rope tow to be a skier. That was the only way to get to the top. Hoofing it, with skis on your shoulder was considered poor form. At an actual ski area, the importance of being able to turn and slow down became a skill you had to learn, even if going straight down the hill as fast as you could was what you did most of the time.

I was 10 before I had a chance to ride on a chairlift. It was something I had only seen in pictures of rich and famous people skiing in Switzerland or Aspen. After wearing out dozens of pairs of gloves on the rope row, I was delighted with an easier option of getting to the top. 

After skiing bumps in the Midwest with a few hundred feet of vertical drop, my first trip to Colorado, when I was 13, ratcheted up my appreciation for the sport a few notches. A 10 minute chairlift ride would get you a half an hour’s worth of uninterrupted skiing. It wasn’t necessarily steeper, just longer. The other big difference was that the snow was fluffy and snow-like. It was not the sheets of ice that we had routinely skied on back in the Midwest. Lift tickets in Aspen were $6 then, now they’re pushing $200 for a one day ski pass.

I was forever spoiled by that trip to Colorado. I was destined to return whenever I could corral the requisite amount of time and money. With friends living in Summit County, home to Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain, a trip in March or April for the spring skiing became an annual event.

Sometime in the 80’s, I took over as the head of the ski school at nearby Christmas Mountain in Wisconsin. In 10 years of running the school, I taught thousands of people how to ski, perhaps giving them the only lesson they would ever have. The initial lesson had to cover everything that they would need to know to have fun the rest of the day. That included riding the rope tow, turning, controlling one’s speed, stopping and getting back up after you have fallen.

Some of my students couldn’t wait for the lesson to be over so they could go to the chairlift for more adventure. Others would take off those clunky rental boots forever and retire to the bar for the rest of the day.

On those slow January weekdays I taught myself how to telemark ski. Then I bought a snowboard, the first to show up on the slopes of Christmas Mountain. It was a humbling experience learning to snowboard. It’s something that should be learned when you’re young enough to not mind falling down hundreds of times, which you will.

After 8 years in south Florida with their lack of proper terrain or snow conditions, I’m finally back in the part of the world where I can slide down the snowy slopes once again. As I mentioned before, my knees are a little creaky so I’m only good for a run or two on my telemark skis. Then I head back to the car, change boots and return to the hill as a snowboarder for the rest of the day. I get a few looks from the youngsters, who think that they invented the sport.

I am content to frequent the green runs and blue squares now- no more double black diamonds. And, I don’t get much ‘big air’ anymore. I’m looking forward to bountiful snowfalls above 4000 feet this winter where, several times a week, I will be a winter sports enthusiast once again.

Ben Olson, musician and Oakridge Resident, with his standup bass. Ben is a regular contributor, as well as the Entertainment Report’s columnist. Ben Olson photo

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