Grandpa Shreds the Gnar

By Paula Colman Dec 30, 2021
There is no age limit to learn or return to skiing, and more people over the age of 50 are doing so at Utah ski resorts. Find out why and how.
Grandpa Shreds the Gnar

Is there an age limit to skiing? Is it ever too late to start?

Short answers: no and no. The rest of the discussion is more existential than practical. Do you think you’re too old? Why? These were the questions recently posed by Harriet Wallis, age 81, contributor for and communications representative for Alta Ski Area's Wild Old Bunch, one of Utah’s best-known on-mountain networks for skiers over 50.

When I ask why she continues to ski into her ninth decade, she exudes, “Because I like being outdoors! The sky is blue, the snow is white, the sun is shining…or it’s not. It doesn’t matter...” she continues in an almost-lyrical cadence likely conjured from her rhythmic turns off the Sugarloaf lift between Baldy and Devil's Castle. Her response implies that skiing gives one perspective on a rich, meaningful life. Life ElevatedⓇ, indeed.

Although skiing obviously ignites her, it is not the only thing that gets Harriet outside. She walks daily at 5:30 a.m. and regularly cycles, kayaks, swims and probably a few other things I couldn’t jot down quickly enough. She is also passionate about debunking myths about senior skiing and this demographic, in general. I’m reminded of the Warren Miller movies that were aspirational and amusing a decade ago but seem inspirational and meaningful now.

“When I started skiing, my pants were baggy and my cheeks were tight. Now my cheeks are baggy and my pants are tight.” Warren Miller, Filmmaker and Sage of Skiing

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Americans over the age of 50 represent about 35 percent of the population, and as Millenials soon hit this mark (they just turned 40), the growth of these demographics will continue to outpace those in younger groups for several decades. Moreover, those over 50 are more health-conscious, active and adventurous than ever (yes, that’s my Instagram). They’re not just playing tennis and driving golf carts; they’ve added pickleball, triathlons and mountain biking to their mix. 

And they are definitely skiing.

On the slopes, approximately 20 percent of skiers and snowboarders are over 50. The generations that grew up skiing in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s have continued to ‘shred the gnar’ into their retirement years. The Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are slaying groomers, finding powder stashes and bouncing over moguls…well, maybe not as many moguls.


Gravity is Your Friend, But You’re Here to Ski

No amount of exercise will make 65-year-old knees feel like 16-year-old ones. However, as most folks know, there is more to skiing than the bumps and cartilage isn’t the most essential requirement. Skiing requires a modicum of physical strength and balance, among other things, which are essential for anyone over 50 to maintain and improve for general mobility, health and, most definitely, happiness. 

“There are only four things you can do on skis. Turn right, turn left, go straight, or sell them.”  –Warren Miller

“It’s more than sliding down the hill,” said Snowbird ski instructor Susi Muecke, age 56, “It takes more effort than that.” Harriet mentioned that, too. Skiing is not sliding; it’s engaging your muscles – particularly legs and core – to activate the skis, which, with modern equipment, takes less effort than ever. To prepare, start with regular activities that focus on these muscles. For example, take stairs instead of elevators, walk up to an hour at a time (so you can stand on skis for two) and even practice getting up from the ground. Skiing doesn’t require super-human strength, but it does require general fitness. That said, gravity helps.

“The most important thing is balance!” boomed Susi’s husband, Ray Brideau, age 60, also an instructor at Snowbird. But he wasn’t talking about learning a highwire act. “Try getting off the couch without using the armrest,” (or "aaahm-rest"), he suggested in his Western Mass drawl. Although it sounds ridiculous or even patronizing, you can quickly visualize what’s involved: engaging core muscles, looking ahead, getting bodyweight centered over your feet, leaning forward…all things necessary for skiing. He and Susi then, like kids excitedly talking about their favorite desserts, rattled off more simple exercises: stand on one leg, close your eyes, brush your teeth on one leg…anything that gets you off-balance. Again, it’s not about performing a highwire act. The idea is to be body-aware and engage muscles and joints you may have forgotten about, such as those in your toes.

Depth perception is related to balance and is also important for skiing, especially for those over 50, when vision begins to noticeably deteriorate. First, if you wear glasses or contacts, consider wearing them while skiing. Special over-the-glasses (OTG) ski goggles that can accommodate glasses (they are larger and seal around the specs to avoid fogging) are available at most retail shops. Another tip: make sure lenses for any goggles aren’t too dark, because although you want to keep the sun out of your eyes, you really want to see any undulations or obstacles before you. Also, Ray suggested that while climbing stairs is great for leg conditioning, holding a rail and descending is a terrific exercise to work depth perception. 


Wear the Rainbow Onesie but Ditch the Vintage Skis

Talking about ski equipment and gear, there are several things skiers over 50 should know and consider. Foremost, your old gear may look cool, but the new stuff is far superior. Two words that changed skiing in the past 30 years – Parabolic Skis. A simple sidecut into skis lets them turn and carve much easier than the traditional alpine skis you grew up with. Talk to an instructor or rental specialist for recommendations on length, width and style, which vary greatly depending on experience and terrain. Ray and Susi noted that if you haven’t skied in a while, the recommended skis may seem shorter and wider than you’re used to. Don’t argue. Ray cautions, “They almost can’t be too short!” 

Helmet…wear one. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never worn one. You don’t drive without a seatbelt anymore, either. Helmets are safer and warmer, too. 

Boots may be the most significant gear issue for those over 50. Traditionally, ski boots were challenging to put on and remove. Many still are because they need to be stiff and fit snug to allow your feet to engage the ski. Consider using a ski boot horn to help you slide in. Rear-entry boots, where the back of the boot retracts, enabling you to slip into them like mules before clamping, are also making a comeback and are available at some rental shops. Preheating your boots  using a boot warmer or heated boot bag helps too! Finally, use boot heaters. Many companies make disposable ones that adhere to your socks or, if you spend more time outside, heated footbeds or socks can be used in ski boots and other footwear. Although the latter might seem like a pricey upgrades, cold toes will never be an issue again!

Stay warmer longer with proper clothing, as well. Temperatures in Utah “seem” warmer due to its low humidity and often sunny skies. However, plan to spend your day outside in 30 degrees or less. Wear an insulated jacket (or layers with a weatherproof shell) and ski pants, neck gaiter, gloves or, better yet, mittens. It sounds like a new wardrobe, but staying warm means one less thing to impede or interrupt your skiing. Pro tip: Opt for brightly colored clothing. It’s easier for others to see or find you and, most importantly, it looks great in all the photos.

100 plus Ski Club

Great Expectations 

The single worst thing that a skier of any age can do is expect too much. Susi and Ray said they always chat with clients before getting on the snow to discuss their experiences and expectations. Susi explained that older clients have a lot of experience learning things and understand that it’s a process. “They allow themselves to learn,” she said, “If you’re in a choir, you don’t expect to sing a new song perfectly. You learn line by line. You’re open to taking steps to learn something new.” 

It’s the same with skiing. If you expect to blaze down the mountain like Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller on your first day, or your first day after a 20-year hiatus, you’ll absolutely be disappointed. It’s not like riding a bike. Even riding a bike is not like riding a bike! It takes muscle memory, mental memory and, even better, a good sense of humor. Skiing is fun, after all.

If you’re returning to the sport, acknowledge that you’ll first have to clear the cobwebs. Harriet advises starting on the flattest run or the bunny hill (which is an excellent opportunity to hang out with the youngest family members, who will love every moment as much as you do) before heading further up the mountain. Better yet, consider taking some half-day lessons with a certified instructor. Susi and Ray recommend asking for one that has PSIA Certification or regularly works with over-50 skiers. They both said that they map out clients’ goals for each lesson. Having skied with countless skiers over 50, Harriet’s advice was more direct, “Take a lesson and level with the instructor about what scares you. For example, ‘I’m here because (of this), and I’m scared to death because (of that).” Whether you’re learning or returning to skiing, discuss your expectations and fears with your instructors or those with whom you’re skiing. They’ll be supportive, and you’ll likely surprise yourself.

If you don't do it this year, you will be one year older when you do.  –Warren Miller

This brings up the initial question: Is there an age limit to skiing? Have you seen 104-year-old George Jedenoff? Although Alta welcomes skiers 50 and over to the Wild Old Bunch (whose credo, in part, declares that “You’re never too old to be young”), the resort offers a Senior Season Pass only to those 80 and up. Alta’s direct-to-lift Senior Season Pass is $50 per year, but daily lift tickets are free at the window. You’ll see members of the Wild Old Bunch flying down Devil’s Elbow or Rock ‘n Roll. Just look for huge grins, gray ponytails or beards and smiley face Wild Old Bunch 80+ patches on their jackets. Every Utah resort has an abundance of over 50 skiers, but those patches might just be the ultimate status symbol on any Utah mountain. So, the answer is an emphatic, “NO!” If kids can ski before they can walk, then septuagenarians and beyond can ski if they choose.


Sharing Experiences Instead of Things

There is a final consideration – or, perhaps, inspiration – for skiing over 50. The kids. Isn’t it always about the kids? Parents, grandparents or great-grannies are always looking for ways to spend more time with their families. Skiing is one of the best and most memorable ways to bring them together.  

“Exactly one day in your life your kid will ski as good as you do. The next day, he’ll ski better than you.”  –Warren Miller

There are endless options for a memorable ski trip in Utah. With 15 resorts to choose from, you can find the ambiance, atmosphere and entertainment for a "Let’s make everyone happy holiday." So, if Grandpa wants to ride the magic carpet with his 3-year-old great-granddaughter or shred the gnar with his teenage grandson or just share a quiet moment on a lift with his grown daughter or wife, it’s possible on The Greatest Snow on EarthⓇ.

According to one survey, over 60 percent of Americans hope to receive experiences instead of gifts this year. So give them or just yourself the gift of skiing. Get outside. Get to Utah, where the sky is blue, the sun is out or it’s not. It doesn’t matter. It’s just life…elevated, and it’s never too late to start.