Saas-Fee's golden oldie
Saas-Fee is home to a 79-year-old ski instructor. As Sally Mules found, Arnold Andenmatten is living - and skiing - proof of the benefits of pure mountain air.
The traditional image of a ski instructor is of a young, nubile male, who skis hard during the day and plays even harder at night. But Arnold Andenmatten has completely broken the mould, in fact many in Saas-Fee would say he comes from a different mould altogether.
First and foremost, Andenmatten loves the mountains and at 79 years of age he is a living endorsement of the benefits of alpine life. He is remarkably active and keeps himself busy with skiing every day in the winter and mountain climbing in the summer.
"I've always been outside, I cannot stay inside," he told me. "In the winter I ski, in the summer I climb. I do something every day."
Olympic gold medal
Andenmatten's love of the outdoors has also brought him fame. In 1948 he came home with a gold medal from the Olympic Games in St Moritz. He was one of four men, all from Saas-Fee, who made up the winning team in the military patrol - a demonstration event which was the precursor to the biathlon.
He returned to a hero's welcome, and his affinity with the mountains deepened.
"In our village there was a great party" he beams, "we didn't have a car, so we had to walk up from the valley. When we got to the church, there were lots of people saying that we have the best skiers in Saas-Fee"
As a proud Olympian, Andenmatten's achievement is on show for all to see in Saas-Fee. The prized gold nugget is displayed in a special iron mount in the entrance porch of the Restaurant zur Mühle restaurant, which is run by his family.
Skiing with Arnold
After Andenmatten hung up his competitor's skis, he set his sights on a new challenge and took up the reins at Saas-Fee's ski school. He has been on the payroll every since but recently he decided to take a back seat and hand it over to one of his younger charges.
It's easy to spot Andenmatten because no one expects to see an old man, no matter how sprightly, kitted out in full instructor gear. Somehow a red skiing ensemble, state-of-the art boots and top of the range skis are not associated with a white-haired (near) octogenarian.
When he meets clients for the first time, their reactions are mixed. They range from thinking it is "amazing" and are eager to learn from his skiing wisdom to thinking a mistake has been made.
"People look and stare and say that's an old man who can't ski," he says. "But on the second day they are interested and they say I was with Arnold in ski school and it was very good."
Andenmatten's teaching methods have not changed over the years, but the same cannot be said for skiing techniques. Andenmatten has had to move with the times and adapt to the needs of the latest ski technology, but he remains emphatic that he will never turn his hand to snowboarding.
"I'm too old for that", he says, "but I don't think it's difficult. The first two days are hard ...but by the third day you can turn. It's so easy. It's easier than skiing."
No patience for kids
For the most part, he now only teaches adults in private lessons, and has cut back on instructing children. Andenmatten says he no longer has the patience or energy for the younger students. Instead he leaves the challenges of the smaller skiers to his fellow instructors.
His younger colleagues say they can learn from the veteran and believe he is still a valuable member of the crew.
"Sometimes my colleagues say he is too old," say Dario Andenmatten, Arnold's nephew and fellow ski instructor. "But we need this old ski instructor because he knows so many important things and he skis so well. For me, it's something special."
Even though Andenmatten is the eldest instructor in Saas-Fee, he is not alone in terms of being over retirement age. The ski school has three other instructors, all in their seventies.
On the question of whether he is the eldest instructor in Switzerland, Andenmatten is positive there is an 83-year-old still working in neighbouring Zermatt.
He says there is no great secret to his youthful energy and excellent health. It is simply a result of the pure mountain air and an outdoor lifestyle.
by Sally Mules
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