VAIL - Carl Kotkowski clicks into his eye-catchingly short skis, which the retired Colorado Springs man finds better for maneuvering.

"Also, they're easier on my knees," he says, readying for a cruise down a blue run at Vail Resort in his club's first trip of the season. "I hurt a knee last year, so I'll start slower."

But among the aging Sno-Jets, conversations about injuries or health in general don't last long. At the start of his 30th season with the group, said to be the oldest nonprofit ski club in southern Colorado, Kotkowski quickly glides over to Geoff Brown.

"Ready to go, Carl?" the club's president asks.

"Right behind you!" Kotkowski responds. And off they go with three others to the lift line, kicking off the weekend for which 31 signed up. The others will arrive later to share condos for two nights of eating and drinking, and they'll raise their glasses to this 65th year of the Sno-Jets.

"There's actually been some back and forth recently about a proper name," Brown had said on the gondola ride, reflecting on the choice by speed-racing flyboys stationed at the former Ent Air Force Base. "Are we a ski and adventure club, or are we a ski, adventure and social club? Really, we're all three."

The Sno-Jets continue the year-round traditions that started in the 1950s. Hikes and bike rides are regular. So are the happy hour get-togethers and Wednesday potlucks, which commonly bring 30 or 40 people to a fellow Sno-Jet's house.

Once again in March, the club will meet in Breckenridge with the Schussbaumer Ski Club for the annual competition in which participants dress as chickens and race down the NASTAR course.

But things have changed. That race, for one, is not nearly as heated as it was in the '70s, when the Sno-Jets were a bunch of rowdy 20- and 30-somethings vying for a trophy. When Kotkowski joined in 1988, he remembers, the average age being around his at the time, 35 or so. Now it's about 50, organizers say.

Membership has fluctuated from 700 to the current 136, says Kotkowski, one of the club's longest-continuing skiers and proud ambassadors.

The club's board might be down two volunteers at the moment, "but we've always had people to come and pick up the reins," he says.

Which is a pleasant surprise to Niles Whalen. "It's kind of amazing really that it's held together this long," says the club's president in the mid-'70s, who was active a decade prior and remained so through the '90s.

He keeps a bulky album of grainy photos and newspaper clippings - reminders of when the Sno-Jets had a prominent place in the community. They sponsored an annual race on Pikes Peak, which notably in 1960 was won by Colorado's Olympic legend Buddy Werner.

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Back then, the peak's chutes were a prime draw for the thrill-seeking Sno-Jets. A club yearbook details the 1975 Pikes Peak Fun Race - "a bust of sorts. A busted leg that is," reads the account of a member being airlifted from the mountain.

Those years "were full of drinking," Whalen says with a chuckle. He recalls beer-chugging contests using baby bottles. The St. Patrick's Day and Halloween parties never seemed to have enough kegs. Also on the year's schedule were drink-mixing contests, pie-eating contests and fashion shows that tended to be risqué.

In his '72 Ford Bronco, Whalen led four-wheeling trips in the Rockies during summer. Also in the warm months, the club had soccer and softball teams that are no more. Save for flights to Canada for heli-skiing, the Sno-Jets used to travel by bus almost exclusively.

Nowadays the club aims for one bus trip every winter; it's set for Copper Mountain next month. "If we can't fill it, we may not be able to do it," says Laurel LaRose, the club's trip organizer, who finds bus rentals increasingly becoming cost-prohibitive.

Lift tickets aren't getting any cheaper either - a reason, LaRose thinks, for the Sno-Jets' struggle to attract young people.

"The group is getting considerably older," Whalen says. "I don't know if it will go on. It may just be a social club eventually."

But by pooling money for overnights, food and booze, the club always has been a way for local skiers to more affordably travel. That's why Jeff Miller joined.

"I had just left my day job, and I was asking people, 'If you were to go on a vacation as a single person, where would you go?'" he says. "When I saw the Sno-Jets, I thought: Rather than do one big vacation, I could do a bunch of little ones throughout the year."

He was recently divorced and "looking to fill a void in life" when he found the club. It's done that for a lot of people," says Kotkowski, who credits the Sno-Jets for "maintaining my sanity" during his stressful days as a tax collector.

He's a proud ambassador because he wants the club to last, so others can always find it. In Vail, he was happy to greet Michael King, the group's newest and youngest member at 25.

He'd met Kotkowski and other Sno-Jets during a happy hour months ago.

"I was about to leave. I figured they didn't want some kid hanging around," King recalls, before he was waved over. "Everyone was just awesome. They were all just a bunch of fun people."

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