Prime Timers ski Mount Spokane

SUNDAY, FEB. 8, 2009

There’s nothing over-the-hill about this downhill skiing group

“If this is what it means to be an old fart, sign me up,” a 40-something skier said. He’d been advised he was too young to join a boisterous group that had taken over the lodge lunchroom’s top floor during happy hour. But he left with a smile and something to look forward to – when he’s at least 55.

It was Prime Timers Wednesday at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. The most active group on the mountain was celebrating the upside of going downhill.

Discounts on season passes and ski lessons plus cheap food and drink are part of the deal.

“Prime Timers have been all over this mountain,” said group founder, Donna Larson, noting the members’ skills range from novice to national-class. “Some of them stick to the groomed slopes and others will do the trees or go off the back side.”

“This is a very sociable group of great skiers,” said Sue Blatt, who described herself as “more of a spectator, rather than a skier, who just loves to be around such a healthy group of seniors. They’re very much in shape.”

Indeed, as many of them swooped down to the lower runs and put their skis in the racks outside the lodge, advancing age wasn’t apparent until they took off their helmets or caps.

Clearly there’s a lot of gray area for skiers between retirement and the rest home.

Just 11 years after the social skiing group was organized with 39 charter members, the Mt. Spokane Prime Timers’ roster has ballooned to nearly 600.

Smaller Prime Timer groups are active at Schweitzer and 49 Degrees North, plus a new group that started this season at Lookout Pass.

“We had 276 pre-registered for lunch today and we signed up 10 new members,” said Larson, who’d arrived at Mount Spokane State Park with her husband, Roy, around 8 a.m. to meet two other couples just to prepare the lodge for the weekday blitz of seniors.

A total of 36 people were taking their turns as servers and helpers to make the day of skiing, lunch, more skiing and happy hour flow like an Olympian through grand slalom gates.

“Donna was the one who got us all up and out of our rocking chairs,” said Jackie Crowe, another charter member.

Joking aside, Prime Timers seem to break all stereotypes. Despite ages ranging from 55 to over 90, about 93 percent of the Prime Times are computer savvy and getting the group information by e-mail.

“We have only 41 members who need a paper copy of the newsletter,” Larson said.

Skiing is not the only attraction to Prime Timers. Photo albums on a lunch table illustrate a history of fun, inside and out, and a sense of service.

“We can make a social event out of cutting brush on the ski trails in September before the snow falls,” Larson said.

The group has raised money to install clocks at the top of the chairlifts and help with other improvements on the mountain. They meet weekly to ski at Mount Spokane while planning occasional group trips to other areas, such as Fernie and Kimberly.

A quick count found about 135 couples in the Prime Timers roster and 310 singles.

“We’ve had at least three marriages with couples who met in this group,” Larson said.

Hanging out with this much collective history and life experience could never be mundane. Every person has a story.

“Bruce Crowe is a beautiful skier,” one lady remarked. “You’d never know he was legally blind.”

Wilma Canter, 88, comes up to watch her son, Jerry Canter, as he skis with his wife and friends.

“She still wants to tie his shoelaces,” one friend joked.

Canter said her husband helped build the lovely stone Vista House at the top of Chair 1 with the Civilian Conservation Corps starting in 1936.

Tom Kimbrell, was out skiing with two new hips plus recent surgeries on each shoulder. The former Army Ranger, who reenlisted for a second tour in Vietnam, has a long background in backcountry skiing and bicycle racing. “A day of skiing gives me one more thing to look forward to,” he said. “Next is the hot tub.”

Like many of the Prime Timers, Jack and Edna Fruit have a solid place in Mt. Spokane ski area history. They were instrumental in starting the Ski Patrol’s annual Ski Swap in 1965.

“We had a new patrol member from Colorado who told us how it worked as a fundraiser over there, so we put together the first Ski Swap here in three weeks,” Edna said. “We made $200 profit. Now the swap has grown to be a huge financial success.”

Jack was in the Ski Patrol for 30 years. “I taught Edna to ski before we were married,” he said. “Edna became the first woman in the National Ski Patrol in this region.”

Joan Jackson, on the other hand, is more of a newcomer. “I wouldn’t be skiing if it weren’t for Prime Timers,” she said.

“It’s great for a single person to have a group. You figure out who skis like you ski and enjoy their company. You can work out carpools.”

The Shanks brothers, Bill and Mike, have been following their older sister to the slopes since they were little boys. Pat Shanks still meets them for Prime Timers 46 years later.

“She’s 78 and she still skis better than I do,” Bill said, noting proudly that his sis had been a national-class ski racer.

“Having been here for so many years, we really appreciate the recent improvements at Mount Spokane’s operation, and this group is frosting on the cake for us,” he said.

Dave Ozuna, 88, was the oldest Prime Timer on the slopes last Wednesday, as well as one of the most inspiring.

After flying 300 combat transport missions in World War II, and returning to action as a reservist for the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, the former Texan and Spanish teacher didn’t learn to ski until he was 55.

The pilot found a new passion for flying down the mountain slopes. He’s in his 22nd year as an active skiing instructor.

“Dave is standout, but it’s not unusual to have older people taking up the sport,” said Ron Vierra, another Prime Timer and ski instructor who’s been teaching classes for 40 years. “I recently taught a session with a ranching couple ages 76 and 72. They simply wanted a way to be active during winter.”

While Ozuna and Vierra worked their way across the mountain to the bigger routes off Chair 1, several Prime Timer ladies seemed content to ski short distances and regroup to socialize in the cold air and brilliant sunshine on the slopes.

“We usually don’t have much oomph after lunch, so we try to do our hard skiing in the morning,” said Wende Barker, nodding to her skiing partner, Kathy Williams.

“Sometimes we ski with our husbands, sometimes we don’t. But we’re always happy when we’re skiing, even before happy hour. “

Back in the lodge as the sun dropped behind the mountain, Prime Timers took over the top floor of the lunch room for well-deserved and much anticipated après-ski refreshments and camaraderie.

“This is one of our big days,” Larson said, “But the last Wednesday of the season is so big the resort lets us take over all of Lodge 1.”

Last year the members of German ancestry cooked a big meal of bratwurst, sauerkraut, German potatoes and rolled in a few kegs while the rest of the group planned fun races, costumes and skits.

“Most of us never would have met all these great people if weren’t for Prime Timers,” said Linda Pendleton, a charter member who was helping serve popcorn to the happy hour gathering.

“I’m just glad this group is here to make skiing affordable for me,” said Jeanell Malone, who joined four years ago after hearing about the advantages and discounts.

“I’m still learning to ski, but I have this part down pretty well,” she added, lifting a glass of wine in a toast with her table mates.

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