By Grace Lichtenstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Playing in the snow with people your own age can be fun. I learned this last winter when I went on an Elderhostel package ski trip for the first time.
I was searching for reasonably priced trips to Western resorts and came across several run by the well-known travel and education outfit. Who, me? Elder? Okay, I am of a certain age. Still, at first I worried about finding myself among a troupe of white-haired grannies and gramps shuffling toward a lift line, barely able to heft their skis onto their shoulders. Surely an old-folks ski trip would feature slow folks -- the kind of people who took forever to make it down the mountain, with nap time before dinner built into the schedule.
But the price was right, so I signed on for an excursion to Winter Park, Colo., along with a friend, figuring that since we had skied there before, we could always go off on our own if the pace was too sluggish for us.
My concerns proved to be unwarranted. I had a terrific vacation with a group that was as diverse as any I have experienced: couples and singles, men and women, from as far away as Hawaii, England and Dubai. As a bonus, the package included two age-appropriate guides who knew the resort so well that we did not need to spend time peering through our trifocals at trail maps.
I arrived on a gorgeous January Sunday and caught the airport van for Winter Park, a 90-minute ride from the airport west into the mountains. Winter Park is not too far from one entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and near the town of Fraser, which calls itself the "Icebox of the Nation." (More about global cooling later.) The scenery changed from brown plains to glistening white peaks as we climbed over Berthoud Pass on a recently widened road known to be closed periodically by avalanches. While the landscape is not Jackson Hole-beautiful, Winter Park's four mountains looked impressively vast against a cobalt blue sky. At the Elderhostel's hotel, an older property that was a short bus ride from the lifts, we gathered in a private dining room the first night for a meal and introductions.
There were 20 of us, including three married pairs. A 70-year-old named Fred introduced himself jokingly as "Mary's wife." They were from Madison, Wis. Fred announced that this was his 54th year on skis. "The body does go south," he acknowledged, "but I still have the same zest as I did in college."
Jan and Bob Stratton of Muncie, Ind., were also a couple who, like Mary and Fred, had returned after a good first Elderhostel ski experience. "Last year, we looked at all these faces and wondered, 'What's it going to be like?' " Jan Stratton said. "We enjoyed it so much we signed up as soon as the catalogue came out for this year."
I was a bit surprised to learn that several married women were onboard without their husbands. "He's a non-skier," said Naomi Eckhaus, a grandmother from Chapel Hill, N.C., who started to ski at age 47, "so God bless Elderhostel." With her was a high school friend from Massachusetts.
One woman from Ohio boasted that she was in her 45th year of skiing -- now with one artificial knee. "I don't do moguls or black diamonds anymore, but I love skiing and I don't want to stop." Four people had flown to Colorado from England (including a professor from North Carolina on a visiting professorship to Dubai). A youthful Virginia fellow had come with his stepfather.
When we gathered the next morning at a fire pit at the base of the ski area, Gary and Dan, the two leaders, handed out orange streamers for us to tie to our ski poles, so we could easily spot our new pals. They explained that we could ski by ourselves or follow them -- one would lead a faster group, the other a slower one.
Almost immediately, my friend Evelyn and I (both of us 60-plus) were pleased to see that the faster group would be sailing along the cruising runs at a good clip. We followed behind Gary, a 64-year-old West Point grad who had retired from a career in the telecom industry. He had been both a ski instructor and a patroller in earlier years, as his precise form made evident.
Since I don't often go on a package tour, I didn't expect the camaraderie that develops as strangers eat dinners together almost every night, stay in the same hotel, and ski the slopes in groups. After exploring mostly intermediate runs on the main mountain, we all reconvened for lunch at Snoasis, one of the on-mountain restaurants. We had been given $12 meal vouchers; with a soup-and-salad combo costing $16, I was quickly learning how handy a package price can be.
One of the women who had come from the Southeast asked Gary: "Do you have any recommendations for breathing?"
"Do it!" he replied.
The one caveat regarding Winter Park is the elevation. The village itself is at 9,000 feet, a thousand feet higher than Aspen and Vail and roughly 2,000 higher than Park City and Steamboat. (One member of the Elderhostel corps had to quit early in the week because he showed signs of altitude sickness.)
Among the runs we sampled on the front side of the mountain was Cranmer. A main drag was named after George E. Cranmer, a Denver parks official in the 1930s who is regarded as the father of Winter Park. The ski area's history is entwined with the history of railroads and recreation in Colorado.
In the 1920s, builders punched a hole through the mountains to forge a route for a narrow-gauge railway. Known as the Moffat Tunnel, its west portal opened up the Fraser Valley to travelers from Denver.
The farsighted Cranmer envisioned the hills facing the west portal as the ideal place for a winter recreation facility where Denverites could learn the relatively new sport of skiing. He obtained the necessary leases, raised money for construction, and in 1940 Winter Park, with three runs and a rope tow, opened for business.
Today it is the largest municipally owned ski area in the country, although operations are handled by Intrawest, the resort behemoth that has begun an ambitious course of improvements to the base area and lifts. Many skiers arrive on weekends via the Ski Train, which is about to begin its 68th year of operation. Unfortunately, I would have had to spend an extra night in Denver itself to take the train, since it leaves Union Station at 7:15 a.m., but it sounds like a wonderful alternative to driving.
The Elders and I spent that first afternoon exploring Mary Jane, a second mountain linked to the Winter Park trails. Although it is considered one of Colorado's finest pieces of mogul-filled real estate, I stuck to its long, thigh-burning, groomed runs. I had a hard enough workout that before dinner I availed myself of the hotel's hot tub. A half-dozen of my new cohorts did, too. Bob Stratton, an octogenarian, mentioned his recent cataract surgery: "I could finally see the whole mountain," he declared.
The next three days sped by. No one hurried me out the hotel door in the morning, but by sticking to the faster group I logged far more mileage than usual on a four-day ski trip, and I enjoyed every turn. One day, catching up to Mary and Fred, I wondered why I had not seen much of them. "I hate all that standing around," said Fred, who took Mary to learn to ski on their honeymoon 47 years earlier. Instead of meeting the group at 9:30 each morning, he and Mary caught the first chairlift at 9. "There's no one there and there's fresh corduroy!" he explained.
Part of the fun was discovering sections of Winter Park I had never ventured into before, such as Parsenn Bowl, a parcel of mostly ungroomed runs served by a lift that deposited us above 12,000 feet, above the tree line. Swooping downhill at a relatively gentle angle, we could gulp the thin air and then warm up in the increasingly chilly temperatures as we dropped into thick glades of trees that eventually led us back into the paths that fed into the main Mary Jane lifts. (This year, Parsenn Bowl is likely to have many more visitors, thanks to a new six-passenger high-speed lift.)
We spent one evening watching members of the Grand County Historical Association reenact the region's pioneer days. At Cozens Ranch, on the highway between Winter Park and Fraser, a local piano tuner dressed in morning coat, bowler hat and string bow tie impersonated David Moffat, an important early Colorado financier. He described how Moffat's bank had been robbed in 1889 by none other than Butch Cassidy. I also learned something I had never known when I was the New York Times correspondent in the region: that a camp for prisoners captured at Anzio in Italy during World War II existed in Fraser for two years.
Another evening program was devoted to a slide show and demonstration of ice climbing (indoors, thankfully) by Dan, the Elderhostel guide, who, at 51, said he was growing more careful as he aged. Why? "There are old climbers and bold climbers, but no old and bold climbers."
Winter Park lived up to its "icebox" tag as our week progressed. By Thursday, the thermometer at the top of Parsenn Bowl was said to register negative double digits, and it was a tribute to my new friends and our leaders that I skied at all that day -- decked out in a face mask and every piece of outerwear I had packed.
Still, on Friday I was sorry to leave. I appreciated these mates, who had proved to be hearty athletes and fine companions. Some had skied my buns off, and there was not a whiner in the pack. Older skiers are like Winter Park itself -- seasoned but not tired, feeling like they're just coming into their prime.
Grace Lichtenstein last wrote for Travel about Staten Island, N.Y.