As pure as snowflakes drifting through the sky, each winter represents a clean slate—an opportunity to meet new people, accomplish new goals, learn lessons about yourself and nature, and be reborn as you fly through deep powder snow. What happens when you can experience this every season throughout a lifetime? What lessons do you learn? What can you accomplish when you ski not just for years, but decades?
For a handful of old timers, the annual return of winter gives them the means to influence everyone around them. Season after season, storm after storm, they see things differently than everyone else, and they keep at it long after others slow down or simply give up. They are the pioneers, visionaries, innovators, artists, and warriors who are fully committed. Eventually, their accomplishments help define an entire sport.
Today, these skiers remind us where we came from and what lessons we can learn in order to follow in their tracks.
Klaus Obermeyer has been skiing for 90 years. A few years ago, at the age of 91, he broke his femur after skiing into a boundary rope at his home hill, Aspen Mountain. It was his fault, he claims, and he was back on skis the next year.
"The secret is to stay in shape," he says in a thick German accent. "If you don't use your muscles or bones, nature will take it away because she will think you don't need it anymore."
As a child in Nazi Germany, he took to skiing as a source of freedom to get outside during winter. "The beauty of nature in winter, it's like a fairy tale," he says. "The other part is that you are connecting back with speed and zero-G and weightlessness. It gives you a natural high somehow. And to be able to enjoy that speed coming down after climbing the mountain is absolutely marvelous."
With his background as an aeronautical engineer, he obtained a permanent U.S. visa in 1947 and boarded a ship bound for America. After arriving, the absence of work on the East Coast and his love of skiing took him to Sun Valley, Idaho, and, shortly thereafter, Aspen, where they hired him as a ski instructor. He soon noticed that tourists were ill-equipped to handle wintry weather. Since cold tourists meant no work for ski instructors, Obermeyer began designing ski-specific products. Among the many items credited to him is the first quilted down parka, the first seamless turtleneck, the first two-pronged ski brake, and even the first silicon-based sunscreen. "The aim was always to make skiing more fun," he says.
Designing clothes, skiing every day, and enjoying life in the mountains has made Obermeyer a happy man who's always quick with a joke.
"We had a time in 1948-49, where 90 percent of the people who came to Aspen took ski lessons," he remembers. "It was a good time. We would be nice to them, dance with them in the evening, and make them happy so they would come back the next year with their friends. Gary Cooper took lessons from me, and I taught Ingrid Bergman how to ski. She was very talented but then her husband was so jealous that he would watch us from behind the trees so nothing would happen. Ski instructors, you know, you can't trust them."