The ever-inspiring Tony Chiariello.
One of the great questions in life, for those of us who love the outdoors, is the amount of time we will be able to keep going. How long will we preserve our bodies, push through aches and pains, and maintain our ability to head into the mountains to do what we love? There are those whose time gets cut short by injury or ill-fated surprise, and others who are fortunate to extend their horizons well past what their age suggests. For Tony Chiariello, longtime Bozemanite and Bridger Bowl luminary, skiing into his 80s constitutes a career that’s still not complete. In fact, Tony says he’s got 16 years left to go.
On a cold, sunny day in March, I meet Tony at the hill, along with our fellow Bridger Bowl crony, Simon. At 10am, the snowpack is bulletproof, and is likely to remain so for the day. Tony doesn’t seem to mind, though; we’ll just stick to the easier slopes off Bridger lift. On the ride up, he tells me how he landed in Bozeman, and he starts from the beginning.
When Tony first told me about his goal to ski at 100 years old, we both chuckled. But then he said it again in a more deliberate tone, his smile still cracked, a twinkle in his eye.
Tony was born and raised in the Bronx at the tail end of the Great Depression. In 1959, he was drafted into the Army to eventually serve two years at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. When he returned to Syracuse, New York in the early ’60s, he went to school and started a career in electronics, working alongside the engineers who developed the first computers. He tells me about some of the weapons he helped build for the military during the Cold War era, but before we even get to his life of skiing, it’s time to get off the chairlift.
I tell him to show us the way and he chooses the groomer under Bridger. Linking turns between hard patches, Tony appears light and delicate on his feet. He’s not leaning over like a 20-year-old hotshot, but he knows his inside edge very well. At 84, he has the poise of someone who’s been on the slopes for a long time. It isn’t but a couple minutes of carving and we’re loading back up again.
Tony is five-foot-four, 145 pounds, and built like a running back. He’s sharp, with light in his eyes and a broad, charming smile that his face curls into often. A lot of the people he encounters know him, even if he doesn’t recognize them, he tells me. As if on cue to confirm this celebrity status, someone hollers from below. “Hey Tony!” It’s Rob Wales, Bridger’s daily video and snow-report man. He wants to link up for some turns, so we get off at Midway and meet him at the bottom.
The first time Tony skied was near Bavaria, Germany when he was 22. He was hooked immediately and made a decision to prioritize staying in shape so he could ski for the rest of his life, a choice that would ultimately lead him to Bozeman. His career as a computer technician allowed him to live in and travel around Germany, Spain, England, Italy, and Greece for six years. But life on the road had its downsides. “I had a mid-life crisis,” he says. “When I came back from Europe, I had a pain in my chest, and it wouldn’t go away.” Tony tells me about the stress of the rat-race combined with raising three kids as a single parent. “But when I go skiing, my blood pressure goes down, my cholesterol goes down. It’s a very healthy state to be in. I knew what I needed to do.” To combat the trauma that doctors urged him to address, Tony became a lift operator.
From 2002 (the year he moved to Bozeman) to 2017, Tony helped man the lifts at Bridger, hence the hordes of people that recognize him. He was mostly a “top guy” on the Bridger and Slushman’s lifts, but his last year on the job was spent at Alpine. During these 15 years, when he wasn’t working, he was skiing. Between breaks, off-days, weekends, weekdays, you name it, he was on the mountain. It didn’t take long for him to become a Bridger Bowl regular. He immersed himself deep in the ski community, becoming popular with people both on and off the hill. “I am really grateful to have the friends I’ve met at Bridger Bowl,” he says. “It seems there isn’t a guy or gal out there who knows me that wouldn’t ski with me, even if I can’t keep up.” Many of his partners are half his age or younger. “I ski a lot with women these days,” he says. “They make smoother turns than the guys, plus they wait for me.”
When Tony first told me about his goal to ski at 100 years old, we both chuckled. But then he said it again in a more deliberate tone, his smile still cracked, a twinkle in his eye. After a pause of seriousness, he continued in a manner so light and optimistic that he made the aging process sound refreshing. “Ya know, I kinda decided that 122 is a good age to live to. Why not?”
After our third lap on Bridger, Tony is warmed up and in his groove. I ask him about his approach to skiing. “I can’t go every day anymore,” he admits. “It used to be that I could start training in late summer and fall for ski season, but now I have to start my exercises in April, as soon as the season ends.”
When I go skiing, my blood pressure goes down, my cholesterol goes down. It’s a very healthy state to be in. I knew what I needed to do.” To combat the trauma that doctors urged him to address, Tony became a lift operator.
To prepare for his days on the mountain, Tony rides his bike up Sourdough, performs high-intensity-interval-training, and does tai chi every morning. He has always prioritized staying healthy, but when the pandemic hit, his training regimen suffered. It was the first year since he moved to Bozeman that he didn’t ski regularly. On top of that, in the summer of 2021, his gall bladder had to be removed. He spent five days in the ICU undergoing critical blood analysis every few hours. “My sodium got down to a dangerously low level and I lost lucidity,” he says. “If my daughters weren’t there for me, I wouldn’t be here.”
By the time he was released from the hospital, he had lost 20 pounds. With the upcoming season only four months away, Tony hired a personal trainer and got to work. By opening day of 2021, he had regained all of his muscle.
Our last run is down North Bowl. Together with Simon and Rob, we leisurely make our way down to a nice stopping point on the road above the moguls. It’s still hard-pack conditions, which is why Tony wants to stay on the lower mountain for the day. He doesn’t find his way up to the Ridge that much anymore, but on the right day you can find him on Slushman’s skiing the lift line, one of his favorite runs on the mountain.
We soak in the view of the Crazies before dropping in. First Simon, then Rob, then Tony. The scene brings to life something he said to me on the chairlift. “I don’t follow any religion, but I live under the construct that if you have faith and you believe, things work out. Like the saying goes: if you think you can, you’re right. If you think you can’t, you’re right. And I believe that I am going to ski until I’m 100 years old.”
As I watch him follow his two friends through the moguls, carefully picking his way between the icy troughs with delicacy, I find myself believing that he will, too.