Michael Kelly: I’ll continue sloping off for a ski

Is 73 the age at which a body should eschew the risks of slalom for the safer thrills of the golf course? Not according to daring Michael Kelly
Picture: ContributedPicture: Contributed
Picture: Contributed

I’m sorry. I am not doing it. I am not giving up skiing. It’s never even been a question previously. Every winter I just strap on the boots, click-click into the skis and throw myself off the nearest mountain for a week of excitement.

But this year, as the snow season approached, the query moved from the back of my mind to the front. When should I give up skiing? Seventy-three seems to me a tender age at which to abandon a favourite pastime. Yet, this year when I announced my intention of flying off to the French Alps, there was a significant rise in the number of friends who asked, “Oh, do you still ski?”, in prophetic tones.

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This from friends who habitually settle for places pedestrian, like Tenerife, or eating their way from one dull Caribbean island to the next on a Norwegian pleasure palace, or, God forbid, being isolated in a Scottish hydro without Sky Sports in your room.

The doubt that these Job’s comforters evoked was further reinforced when one of our party broke her hip.

But that was from tripping on the front step of a neighbour’s house. What did that have to do with my skiing? Well, a genetic connection and ageing bones, perhaps? But I fell off my bike in November trying to bump up the kerb and did not break my shoulder – though it did put paid to the golf for a month.

Although I am resisting it, there is a dilemma here. There is a balance sensibly to be struck between acting young in order to stay young …and breaking your neck. Skiing is dangerous. As my first instructor warned when he himself took a spill in front of the class: “If you ski, you fall.” I’ve been proving the accuracy of that aphorism for 30 years. Fortunately, although I have had many a spectacular fall, I’ve never suffered more than the odd hip bruise. I would never claim to be a good skier. I only took it up in my mid-forties – far too late to acquire the smooth technique that youngsters adapt to so easily.

But I have skied a lot, with more foolhardiness than talent. The highlight was competing in the Inferno downhill from Murren to Lauterbrunnen against guys in skin-tight catsuits and my daughter. My certificate, in formal German, reads “ran through to the finish” which is all I could claim from a stumbling, fall-infested, exhausting run. But I’ve got the bib to prove I did it. I have also picked up a wheen of medals from those American resorts which, for a dollar, allow you to match your speed against the professional forerunner who sets the target for the day. I have, however, never parodied skiing in the rain of the Cairngorms.

So, it’s been great fun. But should it continue? I could opt to concentrate on preventing the further decline in my golf game. But the courses are getting longer and the putts more tricky. Indeed, the stresses of club competition may be more wearing on the hardening arteries than the exertions of the slalom.

And you have more chance of catching pneumonia playing to winter greens in Glasgow than wrapped up in all the latest insulated gear 3,000 metres up. Bowls? Surely a game designed by old men for old men. The fact that you can play it on a carpet sums it up.

Skiing is totally healthy. To enjoy six days on the slopes requires fitness. And that demands year-round preparation. Let us face the truth: only the brain dead can enjoy jogging. The rest of us need diversion when we exercise. Hence TVs and piped music and headphone plugs in gyms. A diversion or an incentive. Skiing offers that carrot. On the day when it is too wet to go out; in the moment when you decide to turn for home rather than suffer another circuit; facing that last set on the weights: at these times, remembering the joy of speeding down that long red run on strong legs keeps you going.

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There are problems with age. The body is not as flexible and cannot as quickly adjust to variations in terrain. The eyes are not as sharp and bumps ten yards ahead which were once easy to build into calculations of line are only apparent in hindsight. The speed of eager youth has to throttle back to the more leisurely pace of the experienced.

But it is still wonderful. Blue skies, towering white mountains majestic in their covering – this is a heart-lifting holiday. Humble man overwhelmed by awful nature inspires the most philosophic of thoughts.

And then there are the ski lunches – rosti mit ei is my favourite. Your effort has justified the calorie intake and the meal is twice as nice without the guilt.

No. I shall continue skiing. It is the first battle in the fight against the dying of the light. I will never turn to wearing purple. But I always was one to “run a stick along public railings”. Ski poles trailing in the snow will be my defiance. And at 75 I shall qualify for a free ski pass. Although this horizon has been consistently receding over the last ten years as demographics change, it is still the holy grail of veterans.

I will brave the falls, defy the Postes de Secours, the covered stretchers waiting to lift you off the piste. I will confront the unsteady snowboarders, the racing saisonniere on their day off, the crocodiles of children weaving their way down. I am a sans assurance skier.

Buying insurance against the risks will simply bring them closer.

One thing makes it all worthwhile. Watching my grandchildren make their way up the hierarchy of Ecole de Ski classes, as my children did before them, cannot be done from a chalet window.

I will never walk uphill to their medal presentations. Racing against the youngest while never letting them win reinforces my weakening paternal dominance.

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In those occasional moments when I swoop down an empty piste fast on perfect snow, every move co-ordinated, I am forever young. And the exhilaration on clattering into the car park at the end of the last run of the last day means, “Yes! I’ve triumphed again.”

“Survived”, the kids think.