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Skiing far beyond retirement

Lauren Glendenning
photo by Dominique TaylorBetty McLaren is surprised at the base of the mountain with balloons by her grandson Ben Bever, left, as she skied down for her 80th birthday in Loinshead. McLaren is one of many seniors who haven't given up the sport.
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At 80 years old, Betty McLaren can’t stop smiling after skiing down the Born Free run at Vail.

“I love it,” she says.

She wasn’t shredding as hard or as fast as some of the youngsters on the hill, but McLaren says her legs feel great.

McLaren isn’t the only skier around getting a senior discount. At the Talon’s Challenge in Beaver Creek last month ” an event where skiers and riders completed 13 black and double black diamond runs in one day ” older skiers were everywhere.

While skiing beyond the age of 65 might pose some risks that weren’t around at 30, such as delayed reaction times or less-than-perfect vision, it’s generally pretty safe for skiers who have been doing it a long time, says Dr. Jack Eck, the ski patrol’s advising physician.

McLaren, of Erie, Penn., hadn’t skied out West in nearly 10 years. She remembered Vail fondly, though, and wanted to spend her 80th birthday here with her family.

“I remember skiing Born Free like I skied it this morning,” she says, referring to her trips to Vail with her husband in the 1970s.

Those memories, plus the less-than-impressive hills available back East, motivated the wide-eyed McLaren to test her abilities on Vail’s lengthy runs this year. With three of her five children and their spouses, and three grandchildren along for the celebration, McLaren called her 80th birthday on Vail Mountain “so special.”

Her grandchildren also saw the family gathering as something special, but it was their grandmother’s vivacity that really got them smiling.

“She’s pretty good for an old lady … I mean for an 80-year-old, I hope I can do that at 80,” says Pat McLaren, one of Betty’s grandchildren, who’s in his 20s.

Paul Johnston, the owner of the Christiania Lodge in Vail, has continued to ski while in his 70s, even after having to go on oxygen 24 hours a day. He’s not logging in 100-plus days on the hill, but he says he goes as often as the snow is good.

“That’s the beauty of living right at the bottom of the hill,” he says.

Skiing and snowboarding are sports that older folks can do without exhausting all of their energy, as long as they’ve already been doing it for a while, Eck says.

“It’s tougher for older people who are just learning; it’s strenuous to keep pulling yourself up (from falling) all the time,” he says.

The people that grew up in McLaren’s generation walked and rode bikes to get around, she says. Being active and outside was part of the culture.

She has stayed active throughout her life, which is why skiing at 80 is a piece of cake.

For Adelle Picking, a local 69-year-old skier, skiing is what energizes her. Picking says it’s more fun now than it’s ever been.

“In the older years, because I can ski so much better (from all the experience), you feel a lot more relaxed on the skis,” Picking says. “It’s because you just kind of know how to do it and you know what you’re supposed to do.”

There are some other concerns for older skiers besides fatigue, Eck says. A person with any stage of osteoporosis ” a disease that weakens bones, making them more prone to fractures ” should be extremely careful not to fall. If reaction time has deteriorated with age, seniors can be more vulnerable to collisions, he says.

Some seniors have problems tolerating the cold weather, so extra layering might be necessary, Eck says.

Emphysema and the altitude don’t mix well, but Eck says a lot of seniors use lightweight oxygen tanks while skiing.

Johnston, of the Christiania Lodge, uses liquid oxygen instead of compressed oxygen. It’s light and out of the way. He has to rig it for skiing, but says it’s pretty easy to do.

While there are more physical and health risks for older skiers, McLaren believes it keeps her young.

Picking says skiing all winter motivates her to stay in shape the rest of the year.

“It keeps you healthy. … The better shape you’re in, the better you feel when you’re skiing. It translates into your life,” says Picking, who is also a member of the local group for active people over 50, Vail Club 50.

Eck says seniors who keep their weight down, stay fit and eat healthy diets can feel great on the slopes. There are no age limits for the sport.

“It just feels good,” McLaren says. “If you’re blessed in having good health and you keep in shape, you can ski for I don’t know how long.”

Lauren Glendenning can be reached for comment at 970.748.2983 or Lglendenning@vailtrail.com.


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