Vail’s Iron Seniors Rock the Mountain


If you sit and watch the world go by in Vail, Avon, Edwards or Eagle, or pop into one of our supermarkets, you will see valley locals, definitely of a certain age, going about their lives. You’ll notice the athletic spring in their step and that they are dressed to move. A high heel is a pretty rare sight. And don’t even try to find a tie. In warm weather, you will see lots of biking kits, hiking boots, tennis and golf outfits, and in the winter, out comes the gear for skiing and snowboarding. And, yes they do board. You have come to the land where seventy is definitely the new fifty.

These are Vail’s fabulous seniors. We would like to introduce you to a few who have made remaining active in body and mind a high art. Their lives are full of adventure and thrills and we think that they are extraordinary. But try telling them that, and they will respond, “Who, me?”

When Dick Patriacca moved to Vail 22 years ago, he was 48 and ready to begin a new life. Dick was an early aficionado of two of today’s hottest sports, downhill biking and snowboarding. Think of downhill biking as mountain biking’s much, much bigger brother. First, there is the bike. It weighs 53 pounds (its limited gear selection makes it almost impossible to ride uphill), has 3.0 burly tires, 10-inches of suspension travel on the front and back shocks and a bottom bracket with exceptionally high clearance. Next comes the body armor. Shoulders, arms, chest, hips and legs are protected, along with a full-face helmet that conforms to Department of Transportation specifications.


Once he’s kitted out, Darth Vader has nothing on him. So now that he’s ready, where does Dick go?  Dick explains very carefully not to just take off into the wilderness. Vail, like other resorts that welcome downhill bikers, has a very specific network of dedicated trails. These are laid out to take bikers over extremely demanding terrain, at speeds which can often over 50 miles an hour. The trails consist of man-made rock gardens and natural rock formations, steeply banked sections and significant drops. They often go through water. The trailheads are clearly marked “Experts Only – Downhill Equipment Recommended – Ride with a Partner.”  Not surprisingly, the only partners Dick can ride with are half his age. Dick says, “When you are going down a trail, you are 100-percent focused. Your mind is totally engaged.” We are not knocking crossword puzzles, but there seem to be other ways to keep those brain cells from going stale.

For the past two decades, Dick also has been an avid snowboarder, and for many years was a part-time instructor at Beaver Creek. Today, at 70, he is a dedicated advocate for both sports. He readily shares his enthusiasm with novices and is determined to help them succeed safely and responsibly.

“Whenever I take someone out, on a board or a bike, I explain that first we will learn to be safe and then we will start having fun,” he says. Somehow, Dick also finds time for paddleboarding on the Colorado River, another sport dominated by the young and the fearless. It seems, at heart, Dick is both!


How many kids can say that their grandmother skied two million seven hundred thousand vertical feet last year?  Well, there are two little Vailites who can. They are the grandchildren of Mary “Scooter” Hathorn who, for the past four years, has been the number-one woman on Vail Mountain as measured by EpicMix, the ski app that tracks vertical feet. In fact, over the past five years, she has clocked 10-million vertical.

Scooter skis with her husband, Byron, and they both figure on the EpicMix All Time Leaderboard. Scooter and Byron live in the house built by Scooter’s father. He was one of Vail’s early settlers, hitting the slopes until he was 82. His motto was, “A family that skis together stays together.”

Every day, Scooter and Byron leave their West Vail home around 8:30 a.m., walk up the road and ski down to Chair 8. “The EpicMix challenges us and defines our day,” says Scooter. “We don’t ski fast, but we don’t stop; and we stay out till about 1:30 in the afternoon, usually covering 20- to 30- thousand vertical.”  Each year they also tackle some pretty daunting one-day challenges, including “The Conqueror”, which entails skiing every lift in Vail, and the “Day Tripper”, in which they rush from resort to resort to ski Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone in the same day.

Last year, Scooter, now 65, celebrated her fiftieth Christmas in Vail. She holds a degree from the University of Denver Law School, and practiced for ten years. Then, responding to the demands of a growing family, she became a super-volunteer, using her legal expertise on the boards of nonprofits. Today, she continues her volunteerism as a “Red Jacket” on Vail Mountain. As you were skiing, you may have seen those women and men in red, and one of them may have helped you out of a tight spot. They are the mountain’s first responders. “We are a team of locals who love Vail. We donate our time and share our professionalism, enthusiasm and knowledge with the guests,” she explains. “We have Red Cross training, and we carry radios, so that we can summon help for people in distress as we patrol the slopes.”

Red Jackets also provide welcome succor to skiers who have lost their way or need support getting down a difficult run, and they are general purveyors of information and good cheer. Needless to say, there is no idleness for Scooter in the summers. She is as assiduous on the golf course as she is on the slopes.

An Oldie but Goodie

Still skiing at 86? You bet, and there are no bunny hills for Dr. Fred Distelhorst. He reckons to do 100 to 120 days a year on the mountain, and he likes to finish up with three of Vail’s most demanding runs, Prima, Pronto and Log Chute. You have to like steep mogul fields to attempt these, and Fred does. Just to add some extra panache, he sometimes ends the day with a daffy, which describes as “an aerial stunt in which the skier takes a jump and, while in midair, points one ski forward and up and the other ski backward and down, bringing them together before landing.”

It is safe to say that skiing has been Fred’s lifelong passion. When he graduated from high school, he had every intention of being a ski bum; but instead he headed for college and then dental school. For over twenty years, Fred practiced general dentistry and orthodontics in the U.S. Army. So, where does a man who loves to ski and has lots of working life ahead of him go from there?  Fred happened to see an article in Holiday Magazine about a new resort called Vail. In 1965, he climbed into his father’s Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and drove to take a look. As a result, he purchased the land on Gore Creek in East Vail where he still lives and where he practiced orthodontics as Vail’s beloved “Dr. D.” until he was 80.

A man as active as Fred has to keep busy in the summer, too. So every day, he climbs on his bicycle and rides five miles up Vail Pass, where he stops to do stomach crunches and other exercises, and then rides back home. And heaven forbid life should be all play. Fred still does the lab work for his daughter Dorothy, who practices general dentistry in his old office. Are there any special secrets to his extraordinary fitness?  Fred, who is a strong advocate for the prevention of heart disease, would certainly give credit to the plant-based diet he adopted several years ago. And, being quite the cook, he describes the mouth-watering dishes he prepares. Vegan or not, you’d want an invitation to dinner.


For Marlin Smickley, life is all about nature, and what better place to live it than the Vail Valley? “Nature,” he says, “brings me peace, joy, happiness and harmony. I believe strongly in the power of the mind to use the energy of being in nature. It propels me on. And, here in Vail, all that I have to do is look out of my window to feel that good karma.”

When Marlin was close to retirement, he came to Vail on a visit and promptly fell in love with the valley. It had the natural beauty which he craved and was the perfect place to pursue an active outdoor life. In Pennsylvania, Marlin had hiked, biked and skied. In Colorado, his activities took on a competitive edge. At 76, he races big time, trail running in the warm months and snowshoeing in the winter. He is a regular contender in the Valley’s many running race events, and he competes each year in Denver’s Cherry Creek Sneak and the BolderBoulder. He regularly finishes first in his class, often besting younger contenders. He also loves to snowboard. When his daughter decided to take up the sport, they took lessons together. At that point, he was 60!

How does Marlin do it?  “I am blessed with a healthy body,” he says “and I work at keeping it that way.” This entails weekly interval training and Pilates, monthly maintenance visits to the physical therapist and acupuncturist and eating right.

Community involvement is also key. He continues his lifelong commitment to young people, volunteering in the Vail Recreation District’s youth programs. “I love high school sports,” he says. “The energy these kids put forth is tremendous and interacting with them keeps me young.” So does Vail’s sports-centered social life. “People here go all out for each other,” he says. “I belong to Vail Club 50 and the Colorado Mountain Club, and I am surrounded by friends with whom I can do the things I love.”


“Skiing and dancing go together,” says Kitty Gwathmey, and she should know because she is a wiz at both. Kitty has loved to dance since childhood. She started at the age of two in Wilmington, Delaware, and continued till she was fifteen in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She wanted to be a Rockette, and got a scholarship to Radio City Music Hall in tap and ballet; but at the time (she is now 75), her very proper background made taking it up impossible.

It is in Vail that dancing and skiing really came together for her. A natural on skis, she was soon instructing, and says that she could always tell when one of her students was a good dancer. For six years, she conducted the “Welcome to Vail” tour. “I love Vail, and I thoroughly enjoyed showing visitors how to get around this beautiful mountain,” she says, beaming. Her 31 years as an instructor have earned her a lifetime ski pass, which she uses regularly.

And what about dance? Every Tuesday morning at 8:30, Kitty teaches a one-hour tap class under the auspices of Colorado Mountain College. “Tap is as good for the mind as it is for the body,” she says. “I have people of all ages in my class, from seniors to college students home on break. We tap non-stop for an hour as I take them through 22 different routines. I see them get better and better; and for older people, there is no question that the tap class encourages a positive attitude.”

Of course, skiing and dancing are not the only strings to Kitty’s bow. She is a tennis player of note, who organizes ladies’ tennis day at Vail’s Cascade Resort, and a volunteer extraordinaire, who contributed eighty hours of her time to making the 2015 World Ski Championships held in Vail a success.

At Vail Valley Magazine, we think that Dick, Scooter, Fred, Marlin and Kitty are an inspiration.  So if you are one of the millions of Americans trying to figure out how to stay young as you age, come and join us. Glory in our views, breathe our air, live our lifestyle. We can’t promise that you will be doing a daffy jump at 86, but we can guarantee that you will be surrounded by the lust for life of this very special place; and believe us, it rubs off.