Harvey Simpson skied roughly 30 days last season. It was a fraction of the 100-day winters the Vail resident enjoyed a few years ago, but it was, of course, an abbreviated season.
Also, Simpson is now 94 years old.
“I’m looking forward to next season,” he said. “Getting back up to 75 days again.”
For Simpson, skiing is the activity that keeps him young. And skiing is often times considered a young person’s sport, which no doubt helps Simpson feel young while he’s doing it. But the fact that he has some kind of activity keeping him going is the more important part, said Gini Patterson with Timberline Adult Day Services in Frisco.
“Whether you have a history of a physical impairment — we’ll call that a total joint replacement — or a mental issue like memory loss, it’s so important to stay active, mentally and physically,” she said.
Simpson has had two joint replacements, one on each hip. He said he wouldn’t be skiing without them.
“The pain was just too great,” he said.
Following his second hip replacement, Simpson took a hard look at his technique. Now that he was skiing pain-free, would it be possible to be a better skier at 90 than he was a 80? It was indeed possible, said his coach, Gunnar Moberg. With a renewed focus on technique, Simpson hit the slopes with a new passion.
His advice to aging skiers: “Improve your technique, and don’t fall.”
Ski racing at 85
Total joint replacement technology has made masters ski racing more competitive than ever in the older age categories.
Eagle resident Charlie Hauser, who was bored with traditional skiing, took up the competitive side of the sport in his 70s.
Now 85, he is preparing to enter a new age category as a downhill ski racer after competing in his last race in the 80-84 division in February. He said there’s more ski racers competing into their 80s than you might think.
“We’ve got all sorts of people with a couple of (replaced) knees or a couple of hips or all four of them,” Hauser said. “These people just keep going.
“One of the greatest things that has happened is total joint replacements. It has taken people who would have been absolute cripples and restored them to functionality. These people that have had total joints would not be competing otherwise — none of them.”
Hauser, himself a former surgeon, said the culture in the High Country of Colorado is different when it comes to being active.
“The orthopedists here are replacing joints because they want their patients to go back to skiing and go back to their other activities,” Hauser said. “In other parts of the country, which aren’t as familiar with this, they’ll say, ‘We’re replacing this, but you can’t ski anymore.’”
Dr. Ray Kim, an orthopedic surgeon who replaces hips and knees at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, said the expectations placed on orthopedists across Colorado’s High Country are more than you’ll find in other areas of the country or even the state.
Kim worked in Denver before moving to Vail.
“The patients that I took care of in Denver were different compared to our patients up here in the mountains,” Kim said. “Not that the folks in Denver are not active. I think, in general, people from Colorado enjoy recreation and are active, but I do think the activity expectations and demands of our community up here in the mountains is at a higher level. We just have a very high percentage of people who are aggressive skiers, aggressive hikers, aggressive cyclists. It’s just part of the thread of our community here. People just really worship recreation.”
Kim said that when patients visit him from outside of the community, often times it is because they are aware of that culture.
“We have folks that have flown in from other parts of the country and even from outside the country that understand the recreational culture here in Vail and seek out having a knee or hip replaced because of our understanding of that philosophy,” Kim said.
Kim said that was also what attracted him to The Steadman Clinic.
“Richard Steadman’s vision of keeping people active … his whole goal was to get them back on the ski mountain,” Kim said. “And we’ve kept that tradition going over the years in multiple different disciplines. His specialty was obviously knee preservation, but the clinic has expanded that to include everything from spines to hands to foot and ankle.”
‘Keeping people active’
The Steadman Clinic still uses the slogan “keeping people active,” which was based on Steadman’s philosophy.
“We know there’s huge advantages to keeping people active,” Kim said. “There’s a lot of benefits from a cardiac standpoint, from a bone-density standpoint, from a fitness and weight loss standpoint, and now there’s recent studies looking at behavioral health advantages to staying active.”
Patterson said for some aging people, a big knee or hip replacement surgery might not be possible. That’s why she embraces a philosophy based on Olympic silver medalist skier Jimmy Heuga’s “can do” effort to stay active following his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.
“Do what you can do to stay active,” Patterson said. “That philosophy applies whether you’re in your 20s and diagnosed with MS, or you’re in your 90s and your mind is not working as sharply as it used to. What can you do?”
Patterson is currently caring for a 97-year-old woman.
“She is still physically active and still walks,” Patterson said.
Kim said he believes that the longevity people enjoy in the mountains is directly linked to the dedication people in the High Country of Colorado have to staying active.
“The higher activity level drives better health and longevity,” he said. “I just can’t find any other explanation.”
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a four-part series on longevity in the High Country. The series is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Summit Daily News and Steamboat Pilot. Read more at vaildaily.com/longevity.
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“There are parts of (Grizzly Creek Fire) that got 8 inches of snow in the recent weeks, but we still have activity on warm days,” a Forest Service spokesman said. “We’ll probably need some kind of season-ending weather event, like a big rain or snow to put it completely out.”