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Adventurers Know Few Limits

For some local 55-plussers their sense of adventure seems to know no age or altitude limits — they still actively ski, climb mountains and icy waterfalls and hike

Mary Beth Roach

Pompei resident Jim Lawyer, 58, has been climbing since the 1980s. Today, he likes to climb frozen terrain. He is shown at Tinkers’ Falls in Tully.

Mary Ann Zeppetello, now 93, was skiing well into her 80s when she decided to give up the sport due to health reasons.

Neville Sachs, at 81, not only skis for enjoyment with his wife, Carol Adamec, 77, but also volunteers one day a week with the Labrador Ski Patrol.

And Richard Frio, 72, Jim Lawyer, 58, and Terri and Keith Murray, in their 70s — all love to climb. Lawyer’s terrain of choice being ice.

The number of senior skiers nationally is at an all-time high, according to a 2022 article in Ski Magazine.

Experts have suggested several reasons. Improved equipment and better grooming have made the sport safer and many baby boomer skiers are still enjoying the sport they learned during their days in high school when school ski clubs were especially popular.

At 81, Neville Sachs, a Camillus resident, not only skis for enjoyment, but also volunteers one day a week with the Labrador Ski Patrol. He is shown at a ski facility in Taos, New Mexico.

While the Onondaga Ski Club doesn’t ask members’ ages, it estimates based on past surveys that about 75% of its 800-plus members would be older than 55.

At Greek Peak in Cortland, about 15% of its 2022-23 season passholders were over 60 years of age this past season, which is up about 1% or 2% higher than the previous year, according to Jon Spaulding, director of marketing.

At Labrador Mountain in Truxton, there are several skiers who are in their 90s, according to Sheila Larkin, inside operations manager for SkiCNY, which operates both Labrador and Song mountains.

Though one might think there would be some apprehension among seniors to continue high-intensity sports as they age, many have a completely different perspective.

“Skiing is dancing with the mountains,” said Zeppetello. A skier for decades, the East Syracuse resident was still taking part in the sport until she was 88.

Zeppetello recalled that one of her friends would announce to other nearby skiers, ‘Look at my friend. She’s 85. Look at how she can ski.’

Her skiing adventures and her need for speed took her around the world to locations in eastern and western United States, Canada, Austria and New Zealand, to name a few. One spot she didn’t get to was Chile. She said, “I can live with that. I had the best of times.”

Skiing for those older than 55 is easy and fun because, for most, they started as young people, according to Chris Keller, 75, an Onondaga Ski Club member and a former resident of Baldwinsville who relocated to Massachusetts several years ago to be closer to family. “We can all ski as easily as we can walk now, because we took all our spills at a young age,” he explained.

While most of the long-time skiers are as sharp and skilled as ever, Keller added, “we get tired sooner and so have shorter days on the slopes.”

He further pointed out that because most of the senior skiers are retired, they can choose the days when the conditions are best.

“When you’re skiing down the hill and the conditions are halfway decent, you’re just floating,” Neville Sachs said.

He has been skiing for more than 70 years. His wife took up the sport about 30 years ago, he added.

He said that he and his wife have slowed down a bit. But consider his idea of slowing down: The Camillus couple exercises daily, they kayak, bike, snowshoe and cross-country ski. They also help with trail maintenance at the Camillus Unique Area. In addition, Sachs conducts training sessions throughout the country and Canada on ski lift maintenance, mixing his background in engineering with some skiing.

Sense of Adventure
Keith Murray of Tully at the Via Ferritas trail system of the Dolomites in Italy. Inset: his wife, Terri.

Conditioning, ski lessons, the ability to learn, an affinity for the cold, proper nutrition and hydration to maintain energy levels, warm attire, a helmet and that sense of adventure are all key to safe skiing, according to Steve Wechsler, a chiropractor for over 35 years who is with Network Healing Arts in the Syracuse area. He is a skier and a member of the Greek Peak Ski Patrol.

“You have to start with lessons,” he said. “If you think you’re going to strap them on and go down the hill, that’s not happening at any age.”

To that end, Labrador Mountain offers Masters in Motion, a six-week program for skiers and boarders aged 25 and up. At Song, in Tully, there is a women’s program led by expert female ski coaches. Among the ski lesson packages offered at Greek Peak is Master Trax, for skiers 50 or older. It is typically an eight-week program on Thursdays at 10 a.m. during the season and includes a special rate for a lift ticket and 90 minutes of instruction, according to Spaulding.

Underscoring the need for conditioning is David Holloway, 69, of Clay. He is a member of the Ski Patrol at Labrador.

The work of ski patrol members requires them to be in good physical shape. As Holloway explained, they are responsible for assessing a skier’s injuries or medical emergency, loading them onto a sled, and transporting them to the patrol room or a waiting ambulance, depending on the nature of the injury. The ski patrol also takes care of skiers in case of a chairlift breakdown, he added, evacuating them using ropes, harnesses and carabiners.

“It’s a never-ending objective to stay in shape to maintain fitness and ability to ski and operate equipment,” Holloway said.

He does stretching exercises, weights, elliptical, rowing, lunges and squats. He visits a gym two to three times a week and does cross-training and non-impact cardio.

Training and keeping in shape is key, too, for Sandy Kirnan, who turned 65 in January.  She does the Peloton, leg exercises and upper body conditioning.  Another incentive to keeping in shape, she joked, is that she has invested in expensive ski suits, so she can’t gain weight.

Onward and upward
Neville Sachs and his wife, Carol Adamec, 77, pause for photos at Lake Tahoe in California. They live in Camillus

But there are also many seniors who opt to go up mountains for their adventures.

Richard Frio said that he and some of his friends are “kind of” peakbaggers, which is defined as those whose main goal is to reach the summit.

“It’s just so cool up there,” he said. “I think what drives me is the excitement and the achievement and goal. Once we get to the top, we high-five each other, jump around and act like teenagers.”

He and his friends have reached more than a few summits in both the winter and summer months. Although he’s only been hiking since he was about 65, today, the 72-year-old Liverpool resident is an Adirondack46er, having climbed the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks; a member of Catskill Mountain 3500 Club; and an aspiring winter 46er, winter Catskill 3500 and winter Fire Tower Challenge. He’s also completed the Lake Placid Niner, the Fulton Chain Trifecta Ultra and the Tupper Lake Triad Ultra. In the summer of 2022, his group hiked Alta Via 1 Trail which he said, was 72 miles with an elevation gain of 24,015 feet over 10 days through the Dolomites in Italy. Three years prior, he and his friends did a 10-day trek around Mont Blanc.

Pompei resident Jim Lawyer. climbs at Fox Mountain in the Adirondacks.

He joked that he likes winter hiking because there are no bugs — but there can be ice, feet of snow and very cold temperatures. And because more gear and apparel are required, the backpacks can be heavy. It is important, Frio said, that those endeavoring to hike peaks get training, travel in a group and have the right clothing and equipment.

He was adamant about the training, crediting the Adirondack Mountain Club, specifically the Onondaga Chapter, for developing his hiking skills.

Lawyer has been climbing since the 1980s. Today, at age 58, the Pompey resident likes to climb frozen terrain. He said he first started taking on this activity as a way to enjoy climbing during the winter.

“There’s an aesthetic appeal,” he said. “The purity of movement, of moving on ice and it’s really, really pretty. You really become immersed into the ice.”

He realizes that there is what he calls an objective danger to the sport, adding there used to be a saying in ice climbing — ‘you just don’t fall.’ It seems easier said than done. But he explained that the advances in equipment and apparel have helped to mitigate those hazards.

While he does a lot of his climbing in the Adirondacks and Salmon River Falls, he has also traveled out west, Switzerland, Scotland and Italy.

For Terri Murray, it’s a love of adventure, she said, when explaining her interest in climbing. She and her husband enjoy downhill skiing, but they also love rock and mountain climbing and heading to a local rock-climbing gym.

The Tully couple, in their 70s, is already Adirondack 46ers, but most recently they took their love for adventure to Europe to experience the Via Ferritas trail system in the Dolomites. On their first day there they hiked to San Marco at 6,000 feet and once acclimated, they climbed the via ferrata systems to the top of Mount Nuvolau at 8,500 feet and Ra Bujela at 7,400 feet.

It’s more than the climbs themselves that the Murrays appreciate on their treks. They, too, enjoy the sense of achievement in setting and attaining a goal and in sharing their experiences and stories with others they meet on the trails. And they will sometimes hike the same peaks more than once, finding each climb to be a different experience, with “different people, different dynamics, different weather,” she said.

One mountain on their bucket list is Mount Whitney, which at 14,505 feet, is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

And when not pursuing mountain trails in hiking boots, she and Keith will continue to ski in season as members of the Onondaga Ski Club.

Seeing members in their 80s still skiing is inspiring, she said. “That’s what we want to be as well. We want to take care of ourselves and look forward to that.”


On the cover: Climbing the Salmon River Falls

For Tom Yandon, 78, of E. Amherst, one of the reasons he enjoys the ice is that he  can “demonstrate one of my cherished beliefs that age need not be a deterrent to pursuing one’s talents.”

Yandon has been ice climbing since the early 1970s and learned to enjoy the practice while growing up in the Adirondacks.

Where one might see a treacherous icy landscapes, Yandon sees it quite differently. He calls them “random arrangements of pillars, hanging chandeliers, and colorful smears join there with the power of the wind combining both peace and solitude with the rugged beauty of a wild energy of movement and action.”

For Yandon, the experience of ice climbing is utter bliss.

He explains:

“Have you ever been to a magical place and involved in a pursuit where the entirety of your body, mind and spirit have been so intensely focused that your body knows no weakness, your mind replaces all confusion, doubt, fear and frustration with such a clarity of thought and certainty of direction , that you are enabled in the very midst of pain and struggling to call upon your highest faculties to answer a call to action which becomes so right that you are flooded with a peace and calmness that can only be described as complete and utter joy?”

He was 59 when this photo of him climbing the Salmon River Falls was taken. (Mary Beth Roach)