The "Wild Old Bunch" just keep on skiing

ALTA, Utah — Dick Arner hopped on his bicycle early one day last summer and rode 18 miles to Alta. Uphill. Pedaling high into the oxygen-thin air of Utah's Wasatch Mountains, he arrived at the ski resort village, 8,500 feet above sea level, and purchased his season ski pass.

Not bad for a guy who's 71.

But it's par for the course for Arner, who's been picking up his annual pass that way for 12 years now. In fact, among his longtime skiing buddies — and growing ranks of senior skiers nationwide — Arner is a spring chicken.

"People think when you get older, you have to slow down," Arner said. "Yeah, maybe that's true. But a lot people my age are dead too."

Here, every day at 11 a.m. through ski season, Arner and other members of the Wild Old Bunch meet at Alf's Restaurant, a slope-side eatery reachable only by skis. The group bills itself as a "a happily disorganized collection of senior Alta regulars readily dispensing hospitality, youthful enthusiasm and sage advice."

Rush Spedman, 89, with two practically brand-new artificial knees, was the most senior skier on a recent day. Last season, he skied 38 days.

But Spedman scoffs at any special mention. The club includes active members into their early 90s. Alta allows anyone 80 or older to ski for free. And so far this season, at least 118 octogenarians have taken up the offer.

What's happening at Alta isn't unique. Skiers are getting older.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, 31 percent of downhill skiers in the United States were older than 45 in the 2004-05 season; the figure was 21 percent seven years earlier. Last year, 7.1 percent of skiers were 55 and older. Statistics aren't kept on those 65 and older, but anecdotally, industry observers report a steady increase.

Keeping them on the slopes is critical in the sport, where nationwide skier days last year were 1.2 percent below the record 2002-03 season.

Michael Berry, president of the NSAA, credits the increase in older skiers to a general rise nationally in healthier seniors who stay fit and active well into retirement. Improved equipment — especially a new generation of shorter, shaped skis that make turning easier on aging muscles and creaky joints — also helps keep skiers on the slopes longer.

"Ten, 20 years ago, if you saw someone on the slopes who was 70, it was a pretty big deal," Berry said. "Now, it's nothing out of the ordinary." It's not that senior skiers are taking up the sport for the first time, but that longtime skiers are, well, true die-hards these days.

"It helps keep you young," said Bob Murdoch, 81, who began skiing at Alta in 1938. "Without sounding corny about it, when you're skiing through fresh powder and the trees, there's almost a spiritual quality to it. It's something special that keeps us coming back year after year. And you never want to lose that."

Another member of the Wild Old Bunch, George Jedenoff, 88, is an anomaly: He started skiing at the tender age of 40. He bought a lifetime pass to Alta in 1968, and hasn't stopped skiing since. "I drop about 10 years in age when I ski with these guys," said Jedenoff, who travels from his home in Orinda, Calif., to spend weeks at a time at Alta.

Mostly men, the two dozen or so Wild Old Bunch members who congregate at Alf's every morning sound and look like schoolboys, with ruddy, frost-nipped cheeks, sparkling eyes and plenty of good-natured, mischievous banter over cups of hot cocoa.

"We may look mild, but we're wild," said Bruce Sherman, 75.

Later, they prove it on the slopes, forgoing easier runs for expert terrain and deep powder. An ideal day, Sherman says, is filled with top-to-bottom runs through untracked powder. Several times during the season, more hardy members will pass up chairlifts altogether and hike high into the mountains to find virgin snow away from groomed trails. At the top of one such peak last winter, Sherman delighted in surprising some young skiers, no older than 40.

"You can just tell from the look in their eyes," Sherman said, laughing. "They're looking at us and thinking, 'What the hell are you old guys doing up here?!' "

Savvy resorts are picking up on the trend. Seniors, they say, have even more spending money than 20- and 30-somethings, and resort developers recognize they are critical to supporting slope-side amenities such as vacation homes, posh restaurants and resort shopping centers. Many resorts also nurture active year-round retirement communities, offering skiing in winter and golf, hiking and boating in summer.

"Any time you see a base village go up at a mountain in response to the aging baby boomer generation, it's generally something that's catering to the older, more affluent skier," Berry said. The increase in older skiers is so sharp that some resorts are scaling back on discounts for seniors. This year, Park City Mountain Resort in Utah stopped handing out free tickets to those 70 and over, and offered them season passes for $249, still a 75 percent discount.

One benefit of attracting seniors skiers, resort representatives say, is that they also tend to bring their children and grandchildren along, not just to the slopes, but to second homes, restaurants and other attractions.

"They are a viable, vibrant market and we definitely are paying attention to them," said Katie Eldridge, spokeswoman at The Canyons in Park City.