Skiing as a Retirement Sport

by John R Dockendorf

I was skiing with my good friend Dan Driscoll at Sugarbush in 1981. We were seniors in college, and like most University of Vermont kids, we spent almost all the time we weren’t studying (or drinking) at the slopes with dozens of our college friends.

College life sure was good. I recall a sunny spring powder day, a rarity in Vermont. As we watched from the lift, out of nowhere, came five brightly clad skiers shredding spring powder bumps, all who looked to be in their fifties. Remind you, these were pre-parabolic days and while 50 doesn’t seem old to be ripping now, it certainly seemed so in 1981. Dan and I huddled together on the chairlift and made a goal. “Dude, when we are in our fifties, we are going to rip like those old guys.”

Friends who have skied together for 45 years!

Well, our fifties came, we stayed in shape, ski technology changed for the better and ripping at fifty ended up not being hard at all. My perception of skiing changed again during a sunny day at Alta in 2018, I was 59 years old. At the top of the Collins lift, I saw an old acquaintance, the mom of a friend I used to ski with at Sugarbush in college. I hadn’t seen her in 30 years, and I was surprised that her name easily rolled off my tongue as I greeted Mrs. Lu Putnam, a women now in her mid-eighties. While she complained slightly about a bad back, she and several similarly aged couples had rented houses in Cottonwood Heights for the winter. They had returned to the ski bum life, but on the other end of the spectrum. All of a sudden retirement had new possibilities. I COULD be a ski bum again (if I could figure a way financially to retire!) I was no longer doomed to play pickle ball in the Villages of central Florida.

John Robert Dockendorf pocahontas
A wonderful day of Pow!

“We only come out on the good days!” Lu said, “But we chose Alta because there are so many good days, here. My body mostly feels great, and I never imagined I would be skiing this deep into retirement!” Mrs. Putnam was always a super strong skier but to watch her still carve sweet turns in her mid-80’s put a huge smile on my face.

While the average skier age is currently 38.5 years old, and skiers over 65 only make up 6% of the total number of skiers, the over 65 skiers are the age demographic who log the most ski days each season. They are also the fastest growing demographic segment. The pandemic and affordable Ikon and Epic passes have opened the doors of this exclusive sport to many new and younger skiers and snowboarders, but skiers over 45 still comprise almost 40% of skiers, reports Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association.

The perception that skiing is a sport only for kids and young adults is wrong! Visit any ski area midweek; stop in the base lodge around lunch time or check the deck on a sunny afternoon for après ski beers. I predict your anecdotal observations will match mine. There sure seem to be a lot of grey-haired skiers out there!

Recently, I showed up at Cataloochee in North Carolina’s great Smokey Mountains, not a place where you expect to see an abundance of ski talent. It was a beautiful Tuesday with a groomed corduroy topping of freshly made man made snow and only a handful of skiers. I joined a pack of 8 skiers and seven of us were in our 60’s and 70’s. I couldn’t believe the amount of talent in this group, all with grey if any hair. there was more combined talent on a slow Tuesday than I would expect to see in the entirety of the crowd on a packed Saturday. There is a rare skier under 40, including the Cataloochee ski instructors and patrol, who could match this over 60 pack for technique and sheer “rip factor! I left ready to retire and be a ski bum, again. A few weeks later at Snowshoe, West Virginia, I joined a smaller pack of skiers in their early 60’s, again the level of talent was amazing!

Mt Hood Meadows

I realized there was a new order to skiing. Once a sport for the young. Skiing was now like Pickle ball, a sport enjoyed by all ages and especially accessible to retirees!

Seventy is the new fifty and many of us oldsters are staying in good shape. We learned to make turns on what today would be considered less than optimal equipment. Hell, my first skis had screw in edges and cable bindings to which I attached my lace up, ankle high boots! We were forced to develop stronger technique than had we learned on the new, easier to ski, fat shaped skis! Plus, we have acquired many years of muscle memory which can compensate somewhat for our slowly deteriorating bodies. As retirees, we can also ski midweek, maximizing our runs and skipping the parking problems and crowds on busy weekends. The Ikon and Epic passes make it easy and affordable to visit a variety of areas and I have met many seniors in camper vans who own both Ikon and Epic passes, traveling the west with annual goals of 50 ski days at over 25 different mountains.

The steeps of Palisades at Tahoe

Seniors are able to follow the snow on the Open Snow App and show up where the powder is deepest or the winter sun shines brightest. As a generalization, us oldsters tend to get up early so making it to the mountain for first tracks in pow or corduroy is easy. And its no problem hitting happy hour early if our legs start to fail.

The potential to be a ski bum again is exciting, knowing if I play my cards right, skiing into ones late 80’s is very conceivable. In fact this goal pales compared to Junior Bounous of Snowbird, Utah who nailed 96 ski days this year. This is only remarkable because he is 96 years old and Snowbird is hardly a gentle cruising mountain! Skiing is indeed a lifetime sport. I can’t imagine playing basketball or soccer aggressively into my 80’s. While, I certainly don’t expect to rip a mogul field like I could in my 20’s, and recovery from bad falls takes much longer, like many, I’m amazed at how well and aggressively I can still ski in my early sixties. The sheer beauty of being outdoors in winter, and the smoothness of tree and steep skiing, means there are many more powder days in my future.

Who knew back in 1981 when I was watching those 50 years old rip that they still had another 30 more years of good skiing to go! And for me – I’ve skied for over 50 years and if things go as planned, I still have 25 more years ahead of me. If I can average 50 days a year in retirement, that’s another 1,250 days in search of the perfect turn!

In search of the perfect turn!

John Dockendorf

P.S.: Dan Driscoll, my college friend, and I try to ski at least five days together every single year since college graduation.

John R. Dockendorf started skiing at age 10 and his life changed forever. As a semi retired hospitality consultant and former owner of three outdoor businesses, John is now content trying to ski his age every year at as many different mountain that his Ikon pass and Indy pass will permit.