He was trained as a clinical psychologist. And for most of his professional life, that’s the path he pursued. He worked with inner-city college kids in the 1960s in New York. Taught behavioural sciences to med students in New Zealand in the 1970s and ’80s. But one morning Jules Older woke up and realized he wanted something different from life. “When I discovered on that happy day 20 years ago that that there was such a thing as a ‘ski writer’,” says the 67 year old, barely suppressing a grin, “I vowed to myself that this is what I would become.”
Wishful thinking? Maybe. A romantic dream? Probably for most people. But the long-time editor of Ski Press is no ordinary person. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” says Older. “I’m from Baltimore originally. Where I grew up, nobody skied. Didn’t even see my first pair until I became a student at the University of Vermont.” But that first look was enough. For though he didn’t know it at the time, the 18 year old was about to embark on a lifelong love affair with the sport. “It was as if I’d fallen into a magic place,” he explains. “And it felt pretty damn good to be there.”
His voice hums with pleasure as he recalls those early ski experiences. “I still remember my first outing to the Laurentians with the UVM Ski Club,” he says. Picture it if you can — late 1950s, a posse of American students in button-downs and chinos with too-long skis and too-soft boots flinging their college French at unsuspecting locals. “Being in Quebec didn’t hurt, of course,” he says. “But it was the whole package that was so attractive. Sun, snow, horse-drawn sleighs and girls in ski pants and cashmere sweaters: I was enchanted.”
An unabashed fan of Whistler, Older says he feels that same enchantment today when he comes north for his annual trip to the WSSF. “I always visit at the same time of the year,” he says. “So maybe my view is skewed a bit. But what I see at Whistler is a thriving community with a shared vision and amazingly talented residents. It really turns me on.”
He was having lunch recently with a writer from Hawaii who told him people who live in beautiful places are dumb. Says Older; “He used the example that in Hawaii you either surf, or else you get high and surf. That’s about it. He said it was the same at ski towns. I wanted to tell him that I knew at least one beautiful place that wasn’t like that. I find Whistler highly stimulating. Writers, artists, athletes, musicians, actors: you have a very diverse culture here.”
He smiles. “You know — a lot of people like to complain that Whistler Village has this artificial Disney-like quality to it. But I don’t really see that as a concern. I mean, if you’re creating a beautiful environment for tourists and visitors, what’s the problem?”
He says he particularly likes the social buzz of the village on a busy day. “I’m super-impressed by the thoughtfulness — and smarts — of how the town was put together,” he explains. “I really love the way it’s ‘Euro-confined.’ I love the sense of people swirling around each other here; fun, vibrant, active people moving through narrow streets and finding their way around. That’s very appealing to me…”
But then, he admits he’s always had a soft spot for carnival-like surroundings. “I love visiting places like Waikiki or Las Vegas,” he says. “All that hype and glitz that everyone objects to: well, I find that quite stimulating.”
And then he puts his finger straight on the issue. “The reason I like these places is that they are so different from my normal, everyday existence. Would I feel the same way about this place if I were a resident here? I don’t know. What I do know is that as a visitor I like the feeling of Whistler — and I particularly like the feeling here during the festival…”
But he also acknowledges how recent developments at Whistler are subtly shifting the town’s raison d’être from being “a place where you play on the mountain to a place where you live near the mountain”. And that, he says, is more indicative of global tastes than a local shift in priorities. “It’s simple: if tourism entrepreneurs could figure out how to produce a NASCAR race on the beach in the Bahamas next to a giant shopping mall, we’d all be out of business.” And then he laughs. “We might still all go out of business anyway.” Why? Because, in Older’s estimation, the global snowsports business is about to be hit by its very own version of the Perfect Storm.
“People in the ski business have been panicking about the greying of the population for years,” he says. “But that’s nothing compared to the three horsemen of the skiing apocalypse: global warming, global fattening and global slothing.” He laughs again but there’s not much humour there. “I’m not trying to be clever or anything,” he says, “for this is the reality we are all going to have to face whether we like it or not.” He cites recent cases of Canadian school kids too obese to be able to get up by themselves when they fall. “Do you think we’ll ever see them on the ski slope? I don’t think so…”
And the problem is much more profound than most people would like to believe. “North American culture has a growing aversion to discomfort,” he explains. “And if you don’t like discomfort, chances are you’re not going to like playing in the snow in wintertime…”
Which, in itself, is not at all assured anymore — even for the keenest among us. “With the onslaught of global warming, it’s not unreasonable to imagine a future where we will lose our ability to actually play on the mountain,” says Older. “After all, what are ski resorts going to do when they only get a few weeks of snow a year?”
Given this perspective, capital investment in projects like the Peak to Peak gondola make all the sense in the world. “As the population fattens and becomes less and less active, and the climate warms to the point where we don’t get reliable snow anymore,” he explains, “the sales pitch for towns like Whistler will increasingly focus on the idea of mountain living rather than on mountain playing.” In other words, terms like comfort and luxury and exclusivity will eventually come to supplant words like adventure and sport and physical fitness.
Older adds, “It’s important to come to terms with the fact that our world is going to change dramatically in the coming years.”
And according to Older, the snowsport industry isn’t doing much to prepare itself for the looming storm. “For sure there is a drop in passion for skiing among the general population,” he says. “But who can blame them? For the last 10 years we’ve been selling skiing as a death sport…”
Death sport? “You know what I mean,” he says. “It started happening 10 or 15 years ago. As soon as the industry realized that the skiing population was ageing — and ageing fast — there was a panic to bring teenage boys back to the sport. And that’s when we started seeing ad copy like: ‘If you make a mistake here, you don’t need a lawyer, you need an undertaker.’”
He pauses. Then laughs. “Look — I’ve got nothing against teenaged boys. I just think we got confused. We thought the 714 boys who responded positively to these ads would translate into significant growth. But that’s wrong. The fact is it’s generally their mothers who make the decisions. And we lost most of them…”
And how’s that? “We have this wonderful, magical, friendly, exciting, healthy family activity, and yet we limit ourselves to promoting what’s most dangerous about the sport. Do you really think pictures of young men and women risking their lives appeals to parents? Let’s be honest. Most people don’t use the word ‘huck’ in their everyday lives. In fact, were I not in the ski business myself, I wouldn’t know anyone who had ever ‘hucked’ a cliff on skis.” He sighs. “It’s pretty straightforward, really. If you want people to love mountains and sliding on snow, you can’t just sell death.”
Indeed. It’s an image problem that is sure to haunt us in coming years. So what’s the solution?
Just go out and do it, he says. Don’t worry about hucking or jumping or risking your life trying something you have no business trying. Just strap on your skis and get out and have fun. “I still love to play in the snow in wintertime — probably more than I ever did,” he insists. “I love skiing with friends. And I love sitting around and swapping ski stories with those same friends at the end of the day. To me, that’s what counts. That’s where the magic of skiing really resides. Our job — all of us — is to make sure we get that message out to the public…”