The Old Man and the Ski

updated 02/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT IS 9 IN THE MORNING IN MAINE'S Carrabassett Valley, and the temperature at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is 15 degrees below zero—not counting the bone-chilling wind. Only a few crazed skiers have braved the cold as Paul Schipper, 73, hops off a chairlift, tugs on his goggles and hurtles down a trail for the first of three frigid runs. "My thumbs froze," says Schipper afterward. "The weather gets to me more than it used to."

Not that it gets to him enough to keep him from skiing—ever. As of the end of January, he had hit the slopes for his 2,628th consecutive ski day—that's 17 years of skiing in a season stretching from September to May. Schipper's streak began in 1980, one year after the retired airline pilot had bought a ski lodge near Sugarloaf. "I said to myself, 'I'm going to ski every day,' " he recalls. "Other locals would miss a day because of a wedding or something, but I never did."

Not when his son Jeff graduated from a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., culinary school in 1986: Schipper skied at midnight—by the lights of a snow grooming machine—then drove eight hours to make the 10 a.m. ceremony. Not when his doctor discovered a cancerous spot on one of his kidneys in 1991: Schipper put off surgery until after the season. During a nasty bout of pneumonia? He got out of bed, skied, got back in bed. "It's stubbornness," he explains. "I want to see how long I can go. Right now I'm going for 3,000."

Few are betting against the wiry Michigan native, who, after a stint as a World War II fighter pilot, dreamed of a life built around skiing. He pulled it off by moving to Maine and buying the Lumberjack Lodge (which he sold last year). Schipper's wife, Chris, 62, son Jeff, 36, and daughter Kibby, 39, have seen the streak make him a celebrity. "I'll feel bad for him," says Chris, "when he has to stop." Not that she should hold her frosty breath. "Some days I don't feel like going," says Schipper. "But I can always get up there and stagger down one trail."

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