I am part of an informal group of skiing enthusiasts. We meet once a year for four days, all at US venues in the west with challenging terrain for the serious skiers and nice hotels for the less dedicated. We all went to Yale and graduated in 1966, so if you do the math you will find that all of us have long since become eligible for social security, but none of us admit to taking the money. We also eat and drink and brag about our health and our children and our jobs. It used to be the reverse order, which is why I never go to reunions where there’s no physical activity and lots more bragging. But time changes things, and now at these annual gatherings there is, as one classmate beautifully put it, “less show of plumage.”
Certainly all of us still believe that we can participate in athletic activities almost as well as we did in our twenties. But reality is a bitch. We have an annual ritual called “Le Club Titaine” which is administered by one of the docs in our group. Anyone who has had some bit of titanium inserted into his or her body during the past year is inducted and given a surgical screw made of titanium, hanging on a handsome yellow lanyard, to wear around his neck at the final dinner. I estimate that at least 60% of the regulars, some 25 of us in all, have qualified for membership in the Titanium Club.
No one wishes to be inducted into the Club, but life is uncertain and skiing more so. Hence, we have derived some useful rules from the twenty years that we have been meeting and flying recklessly downhill on narrow pieces of fiberglass, Kevlar, or kryptonite. These may be useful for all skiers above a certain age and below a certain skill level, and especially for anyone who believes that riding down the mountain in a ski patrol sled is not that much fun. It makes a great picture for your Facebook page, however.
1. Don’t fall down. It is with some disappointment that I find that age is negatively correlated with the capacity of the human body to heal quickly. Just google “age vs fracture healing” and you’ll see a wealth of articles. At least three quarters of these state categorically that the older you are, the slower you heal. It is not easy to find longitudinal studies done on humans that prove this. I guess recruiting the subjects would be hard. There is some data on rats. If you’re a six week old rat, broken bones take 4 weeks to heal. By the time you get to be a one year old rat, this healing takes 10 weeks. It’s not clear if the rats get to wear little rat casts on their legs. Given that rats live between one and two years then one year for a rat is the equivalent 50 in human years. The rat is not a perfect model of a human, of course, but you get the point. By the way, if reincarnation is real and you have a choice in your next life, don’t come back as a rat, especially one living what appears to be a cozy life in a nice little cage in a lab. You’ll be well fed for a while, and cats won’t come after you, but your destiny is to be the participant in some sort of unpleasant biological experiment, and pretty much all the ones with rats as the subjects have a bad ending, at least for the rat.
At most ski resorts one can find t-shirts that say “No falls, no balls” and didactic bumper stickers with the legend: “If you’re not falling, you’re not pushing hard enough.” And even the famous chef Guy Fieri has gotten into the act, saying somewhat mysteriously: “Cooking is like snow skiing: If you don’t fall at least 10 times, then you’re not skiing hard enough.” What he knows about skiing is not clear, and how do you fall when cooking?
Ignore all this bravado. These are slogans for much younger people. It is remarkably hard to be damaged when you’re standing up unless a meteor hits you or a tree falls on you. Our guidance is clear: don’t fall down. It’s really the only way you can get hurt.
2. Get new equipment. If you can afford to ski, and it is manifestly not a cheap sport, then you can afford good equipment, and that means new equipment–bought or rented. I am not talking about fashion here, it’s not so important that you have the most up to date Bogner ski jacket, although they are lovely. It is important that you have boots that keep you warm and appropriately attached to your skis. And skis that aren’t too long for your current skill level. Long skis make you go faster than perhaps you would like. I have never had skis on, of any length, where I couldn’t go faster than I liked.
And boots matter more than skis. A member of our group recently found that, upon leaving a resort snack shop at the top of a mountain, one of her seven year old plastic ski boots, made by a reputable manufacturer, literally blew apart as she walked down the stairs to retrieve her skis. “I wondered why my toes felt cold,” she later remarked. The good news is that she was NOT in the middle of a steep run, as it is not clear whether the ski would have then released from the boot, or something worse. Instead she was able to trudge, slowly and awkwardly, over to the top of the chair lift and get taken down to the bottom of the mountain. If you’ve always vaguely wondered if that’s possible, the answer is yes, it is.
The bad news is that there was absolutely no warning of the imminent catastrophic failure of her footwear. So grit your teeth and get rid of equipment older than five years. Boots are expensive but hospital stays are way more pricey, and hiking around with a broken boot does not look cool, even if you are wearing a Bogner jacket. If you can still fit into your old ski pants, wear them and brag about it, but don’t use old equipment.
3. Stationary is dangerous, and lift lines are especially dangerous. I have fallen over more times when I was standing still than when I was moving on my skis. And lots more times when I am in a lift line, trying to get onto a chairlift, or trying to get off a chair. In this situation, you are surrounded by other people, most of whom aren’t as careful of your health and safety as you are, and who are also younger and thus likely to be less careful even of their own. Translation: they run into you and you fall down. Or you fall trying to get onto the chair or coming off the chair. When in doubt, let the millennials go in front of you in the line. Just say that you’re waiting for the rest of your party to catch up with you, thus indicating that you are not a wuss, you are instead the most macho skier of your group. So there.
4. Only stop by the side of the trail. Ski runs have gotten longer than they used to be. Or perhaps mountains have gotten taller, although this seems less likely. Hence it is more easy to get winded or to have your legs tire, and only reasonable to stop and rest a time or two before reaching the bottom. Unless you have personally rented the entire resort, there will be others on the slope with you, mostly people who don’t want to stop at the exact same time that you do. You wouldn’t stop your car on the middle of a freeway, would you? So don’t do the same thing here, get over near the trees so you’ll be less in the way. Let the little kids on the run be the targets, that’s their natural role in life. It’s why they wear those colorful outfits.
5. Snowboarders do really want to run into you. Also they say “dude” a lot which is annoying, but not relevant here. There is some secret snowboarding oath that they take, once they have finished snowboard training, which requires them to attack you. At least this is the way to assume life in the mountains is currently structured. These people are young, they’re clueless, and there is lots of testosterone going on, even with the girls. It is also useful to act as if you are invisible, and so no one barreling down the slope behind and above you can see you. If you hear a snowboarder, move as much out of the way as you can. No, to retaliate you can’t learn how to snowboard without falling down constantly, so don’t even think about it. See #1 above.
6. Don’t adjust anything while skiing. It seems silly to say this, but skiing requires focus, given what a fast and unnatural activity it is. Don’t try and adjust your neck gaiter or zip up your turtle neck or get that housefly out of your goggles (where did that come from?) or take off your gloves and blow your nose while heading downhill at a high rate of speed. I have seen people doing all these things, although not all of them at the same time. If you really need to make an equipment adjustment, even what should be a simple one, get over to the side of the trail and stop. See #4 above.
7. Skiing isn’t supposed to be a competitive sport unless you are Billy Kidd or Jean Claude Killy, famous skiers of our generation. They didn’t fall down too much, and they skied very fast, but they were pros and did it more than four days a year. Skiing uses muscles and postures that you don’t normally use, even if you go to the gym regularly and use the Stairmaster. Skiing a lot makes these untrained muscles tired. It also goes without saying that snow is cold so you’ll get cold, too, no matter how many layers of clothing you wear. If you’re cold and tired, stop and go home.
If you have had the bad luck to become part of a group of folks who use smart phone apps to measure how many vertical feet they’ve skied each day, and then compare this with other maniacs at the bar, do the following. Try to borrow one of their cell phones, drop it on the floor, and then by accident step on it. Hard. This should disable the phone and its unhelpful ability keep track of ski mileage. No data, less bragging.
8. Keep a bottle of wine in your room. This is very helpful after a day of performing this peculiar act in steep and snow covered terrain. It helps keep you away from the bar, a place where challenges seem to originate and alcohol erodes judgement, leading to accepting such challenges. You probably don’t want to ski double black diamonds and try to keep up with people who do. A small glass of wine before dinner, shared in your hotel room with your companion and not at the hotel brag bar, is a valuable inoculation against this competitive virus.
If you follow these suggestions, you will at least survive your ski outing, and be able to delude yourself, after several months when you’re finally warm again, that it was fun and you’d like to do it again next year. Memory erodes with age, just like the capability for wound healing.