You're never too old to ski

When it comes to getting down the hill, you're never really over the hill.

At least, that seems to be the case at ski resorts across the country, where increasing numbers of first-time 50-plussers are making their way down the slopes.

A recent demographic study by the National Ski Areas Association found in the last decade the proportion of visitors aged 45 to 54 had increased by more than a third. It has doubled for skiers 55 to 64 and risen more than 50 percent for visitors 65 and over.

Some of that, of course, is the simple aging of longtime snow-sport enthusiasts. But there are increasing numbers of first-time schussers who are eligible for senior discounts.

The Cascadians, Yakima's largest outdoor-recreation club, boasts numerous members who are downhill skiers well into their 70s and 80s. White Pass has 71- and 66-year-old ski instructors.

Steve Hausmann of Yakima is 59 and only took up alpine skiing with his wife in the last few years, but he isn't too impressed with himself. After all, he has a friend who recently took up the sport at the age of 79.

Diana (Comini) Hillis, 62, hadn't been a regular downhill skier for four decades until taking it up after retiring two years ago as principal of Lince Elementary School in Selah.

"I was scared as hell to fall because I didn't want to break anything," Hillis says about her return to skiing. Now she's a season-pass holder at White Pass and loving it.

Mel Goudge of Ellensburg became a National Ski Patrol member at 59 and now, as a 66-year-old retired high school counselor, he and his wife spend nearly every winter weekend at Snoqualmie Pass, sleeping in an old pickup camper so Mel can be up on the hill at first light.

"Skiing has always been there for me, always," says Goudge, who considers ski patrolling "a noble service."

At White Pass, the adults-only Top of the Hill program has students ranging in age from their 40s into their 70s, including the Hausmanns. And the range of skiing experience is just as broad.

"My dentist does it, and he's 72 -- and a good skier," says Terry Critchlow, who oversees the learning center at White Pass. "It's not just for beginners. Some of these people have skied all their lives, but as you get older, your body just doesn't perform like it did when you were younger."

The industry's technological advancements, though -- shaped, shorter skis, better boots -- can offset that.

"It's so much easier," says Hillis. "Us geriatrics, our knees and ankles get kind of worn out, and now it's wonderful, instead of all that grunting and oofing.

"I love the way the boots fit ... having boots that fit my feet and don't hurt was amazing. And just being able to move, having the lightweight (ski clothing) fabric that keeps out the cold to me is really amazing. Unless you have good, loose clothing, my God, if you fall down you'll never get up."

Hausmann has found that falling on downhill skis is much less of a concern than it was for years as a telemarking Nordic skier.

"With the new gear and the technology they've got in skis nowadays, if you take a lesson or two you can be having fun in no time at all," Hausmann says. "You're going to fall occasionally, sure. On telemark gear you're going to fall alot. With the alpine gear, I rarely fall. It's all about control. If you stay under control on alpine gear and take lessons, you're just not going to fall that often."

Part of that, though, is learning to relax and not be afraid -- in essence, to be more like kids, says D.K. Watson, a 71-year-old ski instructor at White Pass.

"Kids have no fear," says Watson, and after two or three turns "their eyes just light up. It's like Christmas all over again. Adults tend to be far more analytical."

And more afraid.

"They bring a lot more fear with them," says Irv Sonker of Selah, 66, another instructor at White Pass. "If we can alleviate their level of fear down to a real acceptable level, then they enjoy their outing. I think they're very receptive when the fear is eliminated."

Sometimes a simple tumble can eliminate the fear, provided the older skier's fear doesn't exacerbate the fall itself.

"The pain in the fall comes from tensing everything up before you hit the ground," Watson says.

"If you literally relax and just roll with it, you might get a little bruised, or a little torn muscle -- when you're 50, 60 or 70 years old and fall over, the muscles may not like that -- but if you just relax, it's really no big thing."

Except, of course, for what an older skier must do after falling.

"Getting up is more of a pain in the butt," Comini says. "You don't want to fall down."

But, of course, that's going to happen, especially for skiers who, like Comini, want to be able to ski every run on the hill -- though perhaps not with the singlemindedness of a competitive 20-year-old.

"It was really hard for me because as a younger person, I figured no effort, no pain, no gain," she says. "Somehow that was in my head, and it doesn't have to be. I made it more difficult. Now it just seems like it should be easier; when I start grunting and tightening up, I'm going back to the old habits."