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Within 15 minutes of my friend’s fall, she had been pumped full of the kind of Dr Feelgood drugs that can attract a jail sentence when bought or sold in London’s cooler districts. Ten minutes after that, she was ascending into the skies above Zermatt’s sunny slopes in a red helicopter, accompanied by three professional and really rather gorgeous rescuers.
She is fine — apart from a meniscus or ligament injury — but her unfortunate accident gave a glimpse into the economy of the ski slopes. The jaw-droppingly smooth and efficient rescue brought instant relief to my friend, but it also gave another twirl to Switzerland’s money-go-round, in this case through the insurance companies, rescue teams, hospital staff, taxi drivers and all the attendant costs around anyone who needs hospital attention while on holiday.
My friend’s injury was a fluke because she is a stunningly fit 62-year-old, but it made me think about Ancient People (AP) and high-risk sport — all the more so because the six of us taking a snowy break from London ranged in age from 61 to 71.
In theory at least, APs appear to be ideal consumers of high-risk sports from a resort perspective. They are less likely to have the stamina, knees or fitness to spend too much time on the slopes, paragliding or deep sea diving. Presumably, this means they are a captive audience for spending on entertainments over and above high-risk sport.
As it happens, my husband, who is 71, and our host, who is 64, have apparently irrepressible energy. They skied black, blue and anything in sight from the moment the lifts opened until they closed.
I take a more restrained (indolent) approach which gives time in mountainside bars to note the demographics of the place. Multinational, certainly. About 40 nationalities come to stay in Zermatt during the ski season according to the tourist board. No figures about age but it looked like a rough 50:50 split between under-60s and over 60-year-olds.
So does being over 60 make an accident more likely?
According the Swiss insurer SUVA, “ski accidents mainly affect people aged 40-59, who are less in shape”. Are our ages so far up the Richter scale of winter sports danger that they don’t even merit a mention?
Even if they are, my friend’s accident continued to contribute to the local economy with expensive taxi rides from “our” chalet (it belongs to a friend of our host) in the hamlet of Winkelmatten, which outclasses even Zermatt, into Zermatt central. She used her convalescence to shop and cook for the rest of us. On crutches.
For those with less altruistic urges, time spent away from the slopes means spending money on beauty treatments, massage, spa, clothes, clubbing, cocktails, and meals. Expect to pay CHF 480 (£368) for a modest fondue with wine for six. At the more upscale Le Cervin grill, the main courses hover around CHF 100. We also spotted some lavishly-appointed souvenirs — CHF 13,000 for a 1.5m high wooden carving of a boy in lederhosen holding an edelweiss flower.
Could this be the reason that some ski resorts, from the US to the EU, offer free ski passes to the over 70s? Apart from the possibility of a wealthy captive audience for the town’s economy, other APs were in charge of succession planning for dangerous sports.
The place was littered with doting grandparents of disparate nationalities but uniformly robust bank balances, pushing Bugatti-style prams about while their sons and daughters were either slaving to make yet more money, or bashing the slopes in person.
The Noughties acronym “Ski-ing” as in “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance” could apply if it weren’t for the fact that, in Zermatt, the main concern of the seriously well heeled is how to dispose of vast wealth without unbalancing the global economy. That and Brexit — one German snowboarder nearly fell off the chair lift we were sharing in his attempt to share his anguish about Brexit and, as he saw it, the EU’s lamentable failure to prevent it.
But I digress. AP skiers should be rewarded by more than the odd free ski pass. As a less than brilliant skier, I want my age to be noticed (for once) in order that snowboarders and skiers keep their distance. I do not want to be passing on my children's inheritance any earlier than I need to — or using vast chunks of it to pay medical evacuation bills.
But in goggles, helmet, and ski suit it is difficult to detect someone’s gender, let alone their age. As I tried to solve this conundrum a skier came to sit beside me in an open air bar under the Matterhorn. He was wearing what appeared to be a body-shaped yoga mat strapped to his back.
“Do you mind my asking what you are wearing?” I asked, pointing to the yoga mat thing.
“It is so that I am not wounded if people crash into me,” he said, unsmilingly.
In other words, in the 20 years since I last skied, the slopes have moved from being a playground for the inane to a war zone for the insane. We are paying thousands of pounds per person to indulge in a bit of R & R which risks death, requires helmets, body armour and (in my case) regular moments of heart-palpitating terror.
So I propose to follow my grandmother’s example. She wasn’t a skier, but lived to a grand old age and wore her age as a badge of honour.
“I’m 92 you know,” she would boom at intransigent porters, stagnant queues and miscreant vicars. They usually came to heel.
It would be extravagant with the truth, to turn Edmund Burke’s aphorism on its head, to use my grandmother’s phrase verbatim. Like my injured friend, I am only 62. Instead, ski-challenged APs like me should wear specially made gilets jaunes inscribed with something along the lines of: “ANCIENT PERSON. DANGER. DO NOT APPROACH”.
You can find more articles for readers in later life on FT.com/nextact our free content hub.
Using The Voice
Thanks for your many emails about my last Old Money column about age-related invisibility. Here are a couple that made me smile.
William Harbig, 71, writes: “As an opera singer, I usually deal with this problem by putting on The Voice, which can give the impression it is moving the walls back, and asking loudly whether anyone is helping the customers. Aside from the fun of watching them jump as the blast hits them, it usually brings quick service.”
Susan Conway, 75, emailed to say: “I teach monks in the hills behind Taunggyi in Shan State, Myanmar. Young men with beards in bars do not intimidate me — only terrifying ladies on make-up counters in posh department stores can do that.”
Should the over-60s should be encouraged to do dangerous sports? Drop me a line: oldmoney@FT.com
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