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Still Thrilled to Go Downhill
Alan Shipnuck
April 01, 1996
At 81, the author's grandfather is happiest when he's carving up a mountain
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April 01, 1996

Still Thrilled To Go Downhill

At 81, the author's grandfather is happiest when he's carving up a mountain

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"Let's go, baby," said my 81-year-old grandfather, Barney Shipnuck. "I'm not getting any younger standing here."

With that, Grandpa slid on a sporty wool cap, rocked forward on his skis and blasted into his 58th winter on the slopes. This was not some ceremonial run, a lark on a par with Bob Hope's playing a hole of golf. No, Grandpa can still carve up a mountain. On this January day at Northstar, on Lake Tahoe's north shore, he skied black diamond runs on fast snow, the way he likes it. "I don't want to ski diddly," says the old man. "I wanna go!"

Grandpa skied for the first time in December 1937, coughing up three dollars to ride the rope tows and a one-person chair lift at the Sugar Bowl, in Norden, Calif. He was so smitten that upon returning home to the Richmond district of San Francisc, he bought himself new skis ($25), boots ($20) and poles ($10). After that, nothing could keep him off the slopes, including gasoline rationing during World War II. Grandpa would ride the bus to Sausalito, Calif., where he worked as a shipbuilder, and squirrel away his gas coupons for weekend drives to the mountains.

My grandmother, the former Ethel Gottstein, grew up in Chicago and could not fathom why people would seek out snow for recreation. Grandma, who passed away in 1989 after a 52-year romance with Grandpa, saved her enthusiasm for exotic destinations. Over the years Grandpa skied in six foreign countries while his bride enjoyed the nations' cultural attractions.

Grandpa passed on his skiing jones to both of his boys. My 55-year-old father, David, is celebrating his 50th year on skis. When he was 25 and in possession of a master's degree in economics from the University of California, Dad spent the winter as a ski bum in Aspen, Colo., before starting his teaching career. Grandpa was so proud that Dad had his priorities straight that he bought his eldest son a new pair of skis.

How important is skiing in my family? When my Uncle Les, four years younger than Dad, was a senior at Sonoma High, he was suspended for a week for drinking beer during lunch hour. Upon hearing the news, Grandpa responded, "Well, I think we should go skiing. There's a lot of snow right now."

Some of my earliest memories are of learning to ski with Grandpa. "You're starting to look like a skier," he said after I executed my first parallel turn as a kid. It wasn't uncommon, though, for those early sessions to end with me in tears, since Grandpa was an exacting teacher who said there was only one way to ski: the right way.

That zeal has kept him on the mountain all these years. Every winter he looks a little more gaunt, yet he still gets stoked for a ski trip. Using a StairMaster has helped Grandpa maintain his muscle mass, and this season he switched to shorter skis. He is also picky about snow conditions. If the cover is too crunchy or slushy, thin or thick, he'll kick off his skis and grumble, "I've had too many years of skiing to waste my time on this crap." The only skiing injury he ever suffered was in 1960, when he slipped on some icy stairs during a lunch stop and busted a rib on the handrail. While Grandpa and I have always been close, in recent years he has become one of my best friends. Sharing long drives to the mountains, and chilly rides on a chair lift, is a big reason why.

I told Grandpa all of this in a Father's Day card a few years ago, and he wrote back, "As much as you enjoy our time together in the mountains, it means even more to me." Before he got too mushy, he concluded, "How about we continue this conversation on a chair lift sometime?"

Happily, we have.