The next generation going downhill and loving it
November 17, 2005
Ski areas and equipment makers have gone to great lengths to appeal to a generation that has added 78 million people to the planet.
Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, represent a large market to ski areas trying to accommodate more than youngsters having fun on the slopes.
The National Ski Areas Association released results of a survey showing the percentage of skiers 45 or older has climbed from 21 percent to 31 percent in the last eight years. There are reasons for this. American boomers have made the case they’re more fit – but they also don’t want to wreck their knees or other joints.
Lake Tahoe-area resorts have responded with more groomed runs and upgraded snowmaking equipment. Every major resort includes a variety of ski runs – beginner, intermediate and expert, with some also offering extreme terrain that’s particularly steep.
With its high-angle grooming, Kirkwood Mountain Resort looked high and low to cater to the aging demographic still in love with skiing and boarding. In the last few years, the Alpine County resort smooths out those nooks and crannies thought to be unheard of as groomed runs a decade ago.
This year, Kirkwood plans to expand the popular program – with grooming possibilities off Thunder Saddle and The Wall runs. The resort received a lot of requests to post or notify homeowners or out-of-town guests of grooming the steeps. Many of these requests come from the older set.
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“Being out there keeps them younger,” Kirkwood spokeswoman Tracy Miller said.
Sierra-at-Tahoe picked up on the demand for expanded grooming three years ago and hasn’t looked back. The ski area is known for split grooming, doing half the run and leaving the other part untouched.
“It’s a great way to ease (boomers) into the powder conditions. Believe it or not, we’ll have people say there’s too much powder, so we try to satisfy both groups,” Sierra spokeswoman Nicole Belt said.
It’s critical to Sierra-at-Tahoe, which has used the grooming amenity to accommodate family members who may not ski together on the same run because some may want a challenge while others want to cruise.
Terrain and snow conditions lead service and amenities as top priorities mentioned in Sierra’s customer service surveys. The resort has found that 20 percent of its ski and boarding population over the last three seasons are older than 45. The majority of the population is between 45 and 54.
Some aging skiers have even made the case that having lower season-pass rates allows them to go out for a few hours instead of feeling committed to be outside for eight. It’s difficult to justify paying more than $60 and not using it for the full day.
“I used to be first on, last off,” Barrie Betschart, 57, said. “As long as they keep the $299 pass, I’m fine.”
Betschart, who started skiing at age 3, grew up in the world of skiing from Europe to New England to the West Coast. The longtime South Lake Tahoe resident remembered how excited her father was at her age about nearing the time when he qualified for senior citizen status. The resorts used to offer free skiing.
She passed down the love to the next generation. Her two boys also love to ski. One of them, Wisi, was a member of the U.S. Ski Team for more than 10 years.
“I still do tree skiing. But I used to do Gunbarrel. I’ve noticed the shorter skis and snowboards have really chopped up the moguls. That helps,” she said. “I’m not as crazy as I used to be when I followed my kids. I value my bones a little more than I used to.”
That’s just the kind of sentiment South Shore physical therapist Jenny Cooper has heard from her aging clients over the years.
“We’d see those who use moderation do better than people who are less consistent (on the mountain) but are younger,” she said.
She cited a recent physical therapy study in which 40-year-old males represent the highest risk group for injuries because they have the desire to take more risks “but their joints won’t keep up.”
House of Ski owner Curt Barnes, 77 – who started skiing 60 years ago, knows all about the need to play in the later years. Barnes is beyond the boomer age, but some may argue he and his wife, Hillis, 71, don’t act that way. They trot outside their Stagecoach-area home in ski boots over half the week. They ski Heavenly in the mornings four times a week, then meet up with the gang at East Peak Lodge.
He believes many aging boomers have mellowed out, going in for lunch and other breaks. They’re now enjoying the complete ski resort experience with lodge improvements, food variety, season-pass and lift-ticket discounts, forgiving flexible and softer skis and boots as well as more grooming options.
“Grooming has been a tremendous boon for the ski industry,” he said.
Then the equipment he sells and rents caters to this trend, with the latter making up a growing segment of those on the slopes.
Much the same way shaped skis can make boomers better skiers, Barnes has discovered most aging riders have gravitated toward the equipment that saves their joints and bones.
New bindings now have plates that break off the ice that can collect on the boots, thus contributing to more leg breaks when the devices don’t release.
“I’d say this causes 95 percent of the leg breaks,” he said.
He also pointed out how older skiers seek more comfortable, softer boots such as what Dalbello has to offer as well as skis that are shorter and more flexible like the Volant Vertex.
“Forgiving – that’s a good word,” he said. “But they need to be tuned. You can be the best skier in the world, but it won’t make a bit of difference if (the equipment) isn’t tuned properly.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.