Blasting Over the Hill

Freida Johnson is proof that it’s never too late to learn something new and even excel at it. She began Nordic skiing in her late thirties alongside her teenage son Greg (who went on to race for MSU, then coached the MSU girls’ Nordic ski racing team), taking him to his high school races and signing up to race in her age group as well.

I first became aware of Freida during the Bridger Mountain Tour four years ago. There was something both embarrassing and motivating about being passed by a fifty-nine-year-old woman chugging uphill on classic skis. She was undoubtedly in prime shape, because that year, 1999, she went on to win three gold medals at the Masters World Cup in Grindelwald, Switzerland. They hang unobtrusively from a nail on her dining room wall, amidst a clanging collection from other races, including Masters World Cup races held in Canada, Alaska, Norway, Italy, and Sweden.

Age: 64

Number of years skiing: Twenty-seven. My son Greg got into Nordic racing when he was thirteen; that’s when I really got involved.

Ski gear, then and now: I first started with wooden skis, then went to Adidas. It was strictly classic back then. Then when people started skating in the '80s I used a pair of Greg’s old classic skis and boots for skating. They were the worst, no support at all, but they built strong ankles. I just bought a new pair of Fischer skate skis at the Olympics last year and use a pair of Madhus for classic.

Number of ski days per week: Five, on average.

Off-season training: Running, yoga, and biking. I did the Tour de Lacs bike tour out of Spokane in September; we rode 85 miles the first day, 75 miles the next. I also did the Helena Double Divide bike tour last August. The ride crosses two divides over 75 miles the first day, then 55 miles the second.

Ski goals for the upcoming season: Next March I’ll probably do the Rendezvous ski race in West Yellowstone.

Recent injuries or setbacks: None besides the ligament I tore and had surgery on back when I was sixty. I was running, stepped on a wet log, and fell. I had to hobble back to the car using a stick.

Is skiing more difficult for you today than it was a decade or two ago? I don’t think so. I’m still learning technique, so that keeps improving. My race times might be a bit slower, but I feel like I’m still in good shape.

Do you ski more now than you did then? About the same.

Mary Ball skis places many of us will only experience through photos in ski magazines. (Look closely at photo credits in Ski or Powder and you may recognize her husband Lonnie’s name.) That’s because she and Lonnie divide their time between skiing for photos and working as powder guides for their twenty-year-old family business, Montana Powder Guides. Their work involves hiking and riding snowmobiles, trams, helicopters, and snowcats to access vast powder slopes and gnarly chutes. At sixty, an average day might find Mary jumping into a 45-degree couloir—the approximate slope limit that holds snow—in subzero temps. She is humble about her existence on winterscapes that make most people want to curl up by a warm fire. But Lonnie will tell you that she is the one with less fear of heights than he, and that since 1965, she is the woman who has pressed the limits with him and come out smiling, always ready for the next run.

Age: 60

Number of years skiing: Forty. I wanted to learn to ski and some friends told me the best way was to work at a ski resort. So I moved to Alta, Utah, when I was twenty-one and worked at the Peruvian Lodge managing the waitresses and housekeepers. I skied every day, between lunch and dinner shifts on the days I worked.

Ski gear, then and now: When I first started skiing it was with leather boots. My first pair of skis were old wooden army skis from my uncle—they broke after three or four days at Alta. Then I got a pair of Head GS racing skis, then Head standards, which is what everyone was using for powder back then. Now I ski on shaped Atomic 1120s with Atomic bindings.

Number of ski days per week: Five to six.

Favorite Run: The right shoulder of Marx’s, a double-black diamond run off Lone Peak at Big Sky.

Off-season training: Mountain biking and some weight training.

Ski goals for the upcoming season: I don’t really set any goals. Of course I want to stay healthy, and at my age I try to ski smart. I can do a lot of things, but some things, like skiing moguls, I opt not to do to avoid injury.

Recent injuries or setbacks: None. Though we ski with a lot of young skiers in gnarly places, so I don’t think I’m infallible. Having good, well-tuned equipment helps—Lonnie tunes our equipment practically every night.

Is skiing more difficult for you today than it was a decade or two ago? Doesn’t seem to be, no. I think I’ve continued to improve over the years. Of course the new ski technology always helps.

Do you ski more now than you did then? About the same. Back when my kids started grade school, I began skiing a lot more. Then when they left home, we started going other places to ski.