ROGER COX Gallery images


Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 17 April 2010

HOW old is too old to ski? Or snowboard? Or ride a snow bike? It’s not something I’ve ever given much thought to. Ask most snow-addicts how long they plan to keep sliding and, more likely than not, they’ll simply say “until I die”. That’s the default response. It’s probably what I would’ve said myself if you’d asked me that question a week ago. Deep down, though, I don’t think I’d have believed my own answer. Somewhere in the murky depths of my subconscious, I think I’ve always assumed that I’d hang up my boots and turn my snowboard into a bit of a novelty garden furniture somewhere between the ages of 50 and 60. But that was before I’d met Ray Heid, Olympic ski jummper-turned-ranch-owner-turned-living-legend. Now I’ve met Ray I have an age to aime for. My target snow age, and that age is 72.

Ray Heid is 72 years old and still skiing. Not just cruising the blues, either. A few days ago he took me for a snowy horse ride around his 208-acre ranch about half an hour north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado – a place also known as Ski Town USA, on account of the phenomenal number of winter Olympians it’s produced.

As we emerged from a stand of aspens, Ray’s horse tip-toeing expertly between the trees, mine dragging me head-first through the spiky lower branches, he twisted around in his saddle, pointed to a distinctive, steep-sided peak in the distance and called out:

“That one’s called The Horn of the Saddle.”

Ironic, I remember thinking, as it was only by clinging like a limpet to the horn of my own saddle that I was managing to remain upright on my horse.

“I’ve wanted to ski off the horn since I was a little kid,” Ray continued, “and finally this year I saw an avalanche come down right off the top. So I told my son, I said, ‘If I can find that avalanche chute it’ll be solid – I’m gonna go ski the Horn.’ So he came over with me and we spent all day there. We found the chute and where the avalanche had been it was hard snow so it was safe for skiing.

“And how was it?” I asked.

“Oh awesome, awesome,” Ray said, half-closing his eyes and almost whispering the word when he said it for the second time. “The snow was sliding all around us though. If you just went a couple of yards off to the side of the avalanche track all you had to do was stamp with your ski and it would start to slide. We’ve had a real funny year this year – we had a lot of early snow and then 20-something days when it got down real cold and it just took all the moisture out. Worst avalanche conditions I’ve seen in my life.”

When Ray Heid says “worst avalanche conditions I’ve seen in my life” it really means something, too – the man grew up on skis.

“There’s a picture of all the Steamboat Olympians in the gondola building and my picture is there, and on the back of that picture my mother wrote, ‘Ray’s first ski jumping tournament, two and a half years old’.”

At school in Steamboat in the late 1940s and early 1950s, skiing was part of the curriculum. Alpine classes were held on Mondays and Wednesdays, jumping classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Hardly surprising, then, that as part of a gang of local skiing greats that included Buddy Werner and Billy Kidd, Ray went on to gain a full ski scholarship at the University of Wyoming before representing the US at the 1960 Olympics.

The only thing Ray loves as much as skiing is horse-riding and these days, when the conditions are right, he combines his passions.

Towards the end of our ride he pointed out another hill. “That’s Sand Mountain,” he told me. “We ski it in the spring. We go up with the horses as far as we can and then climb the rest. It’s a six-hour horseback ride, two hours of climbing and then five minutes of skiing. There’s a run on the north side, right under those cliffs there, that goes down a narrow chute for about 400 yards before opening out. The hardest part is getting your skis on because it’s so steep, but at least once a year I make sure I ski the chute.”

I’m no Olympian, but, inspired by Ray, I’ve set myself a challenge: if he’s still skiing Sand Mountain at 72, then if and when I make it to that age I’m going to make sure I’m still snow-sliding in some form or other as well, even if it’s just scraping down the bunny slopes at walking pace. Then, when I get to 73, I can turn my snowboard into a bench and retire.

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