Carrabassett Valley, Maine Paul Schipper has skied through rain, ice and blizzards. He has skied through sickness, pain and injury. Whatever the cost, he has skied every single day that Sugarloaf USA has been open since 1981.
Schipper, age 80, admits that it is not always fun. But with a streak of more than 3,600 days, he is not about to stop now. So every day, he drives the two miles to Sugarloaf, tugs on ski boots and carves his way down the slope.
"I've always said if I quit, I'll be sorry," the retired airline pilot said. "I don't want to have any regrets."
Schipper's eyesight is not as good as it used to be, so he wears prescription goggles to compensate. At an age when other skiers have abandoned the slopes for fear of breaking bones, Schipper adjusts by wearing a helmet and slowing down a little to avoid spills.
"He's a tough old bugger," said Richard "Crusher" Wilkinson, vice president of mountain operations at Sugarloaf, Maine's tallest ski mountain.
Wilkinson came to work at Sugarloaf in 1981, the year Schipper's streak began.
"He's a good example. He sets a goal and sets his mind on something and he doesn't give, no matter what the weather," Wilkinson said. "He doesn't let up."
How it started
Schipper started his streak after retiring and buying the Lumberjack Lodge, a stone's throw from Sugarloaf. His passion was skiing, and he wanted to do it as much as possible.
In 1981, he and some buddies were relaxing in the ski lodge, recounting how many days they had hit the slopes. Schipper vowed to try to ski every day, and the others said they would try it, too.
A year later, Schipper was the only one to keep his promise, having skied all 174 days in the 1981-82 season.
"In those days, it was easy," Schipper said. "These days, it's not so easy."
Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname "Iron Man."
It's no surprise that family and friends describe Schipper as goal-oriented, fiercely determined and full of energy. His wife, Chris, calls him "bullheaded."
Schipper skied whenever and wherever he could, and he taught his children how to ski while working as an Eastern Airlines pilot based in New York City.
Skiing through it all
He continued skiing after breaking his ribs, wrists and several vertebrae in 1969, when he was injured jumping to safety after his airliner caught fire and its landing gear collapsed on a runway in New York.
He continued to ski after breaking his leg in 10 places, the result of hitting a rock on a ski slope in upstate New York.
Keeping the streak going may be his toughest challenge ever, though.
One day last season, he didn't feel well but tried to ski, anyway. Before he could get on the lift, he was doubled over, retching in the snow. He managed to ski down to the parking lot and was taken to the hospital, where he spent the day in the emergency room being treated for pneumonia.
The next day, he was back skiing.
Perhaps the best story is how he managed to attend his son's wedding in 1987. His solution: He skied at midnight, drove 7 1/2 hours to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for the wedding, and was back on the slopes the next day.
In 1993, he delayed surgery for removal of a cancerous kidney for a few weeks so he could keep skiing until the season ended.
In 1995, he underwent bypass heart surgery during the offseason. The surgeon also replaced one of his heart valves with a valve from a pig. He was back on the slopes in the fall.
In 1997, Schipper broke a thumb when he was hit by a snowboarder. He brought the handle of his ski pole to the doctor's office so he could be fitted with a special cast that let him keep skiing.
Getting to 4,000
These days, Schipper's eyesight is his biggest worry. Glaucoma and macular degeneration have left him almost blind in one eye, so his depth perception has suffered. He no longer skis the expert slopes.
"He knows better than anyone when it's time to stop," Wilkinson said. "But he's not going to sit around and watch 'Oprah."'
Schipper knows he can't go on forever. One target he mentions is reaching 4,000, which would mean another two years of skiing every day.
A few years ago, Schipper didn't think that would be a big deal. He said he knew of plenty of people who skied into their 80s. Now, he notices that many of them aren't around anymore.
Taking a break before skiing down the Skidder trail, he said he wants to keep going, even though it's getting harder.
"I'd like to keep the streak going. I'm hanging in there," he said before kicking off and gliding down the trail.
Wife Chris, a Tennessee native who doesn't ski, knows her husband won't stop. She doesn't really want him to, either. It gives him purpose, and it's good exercise.
"He'll make the 4,000th," she said, "even if I have to take him up the mountain on a gurney."