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Prime Timers ski groups get together for fun, fitness

Carol Castor, right, chats with other members of the Prime Timers ski club during a group meal in the lodge at Lookout Pass Ski Area Friday, Jan. 3, 2014.  The 55-and-over group skis every Monday and gathers twice a month for a meal. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Carol Castor, right, chats with other members of the Prime Timers ski club during a group meal in the lodge at Lookout Pass Ski Area Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. The 55-and-over group skis every Monday and gathers twice a month for a meal. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Every Monday in the winter, Suzie Ferguson and her girlfriends spend the day skiing at Lookout Pass. They grab lunch and a beer — or two — with their other ski-bum buddies then make a few more turns before heading home to Coeur d’Alene.

These ladies are members of a special social club growing in popularity at most local ski resorts: Prime Timers. Ski groups specifically for skiers age 55 and older with no agenda other than having fun and enjoying the slopes during the “prime time” of the week when there are fewer tourists, children and skiers in general. It’s a great way for seniors to make friends and stay active in the winter. Most resorts offer discount tickets and passes for seniors and even better deals for Prime Timers in addition to specials on food and drink.

Older skiers are an important demographic for ski hills because seniors ski more than the younger folks.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, while young people make up the majority on the slopes – the average skier is 38.5 years old – the person who skis more often in a given year is 65 or older.

An Associated Press report says we can credit advances in artificial hips and knees that make it possible for skiers to continue enjoying the sport; shaped skis, along with better snowmaking and grooming that make skiing easier; and high-speed lifts and luxury touches such as ski valets that make it more pleasant. And retirees have a lot more free time to ski in the middle of the week to avoid the crowds.

Skiers age 68 and older averaged 9.5 days of skiing last season. And, according to an NSAA survey released in August, boomers skied more than the national average of five times a year.

“We had a little gal who came up the other day from Kellogg and wanted to join,” said Ferguson, who helped start Lookout’s Prime Timers six years ago. “She just wanted someone to ski with and take lessons.”

Ferguson, 64, didn’t start skiing until she divorced at age 38. She also takes a workshop Mondays with some of the other Prime Timers taught by 82-year-old instructor Hans Reifer, a well-known figure on the mountain and in the Silver Valley. All skill levels, including a few snowboarders, Nordic skiers and snowshoers, comprise the Prime Timers. The only requirement is a desire to have fun.

Mt. Spokane has the largest and longest-running Prime Timers club with about 700 members. It started 14 seasons ago with about 40 members and has grown each year.

“We’re just a bunch of goof offs,” said Gail Harris, who organizes the club that’s having its first official lunch of the season Wednesday.

Harris doesn’t have enough cartilage left in her knee to ski, but she enjoys socializing while her husband cruises the mountain. They are also members of the 49 Degrees North Prime Timers, which starts its season Tuesday at lunch.

Unlike the other resorts, the Schweitzer Prime Timers meet for an après ski cocktail hour instead of lunch on Thursdays.

John and JoAnn Rohyans retired and moved full-time to Schweitzer three years ago. Coming from Ohio, the couple knew no one. They attended their first Prime Timers gathering in the Lakeview Lodge after seeing a poster stapled to a pole.

“It looked like we walked into a room full of mirrors,” John Rohyans said. “They all looked like us. People of our age. Probably the best part was it was people with similar interests not just a ski group but a group where we met all our best friends.”

Unlike the other area clubs, the Schweitzer Prime Timers are struggling to grow membership.

“People just get set in their ways,” Rohyans said. “They aren’t joiners like they used to be.”

Yet he and the other members are working to get the word out and the mountain is offering more incentives like upgrading the 65 and older pass from six days to seven days.

“We are a big demographic for the mountain industry,” Rohyans said.

Most of the local Prime Timers clubs also keep active and socially connected in the summer months.

“We even did fly-fishing this year,” Ferguson said, adding a guide from Montana gave lessons.

Similar clubs have emerged all over ski country. The Colorado Springs-based Over the Hill Gang International has 3,000 members, offering camaraderie, discounted tickets and ski trips near and far.

A 70-plus club in North Kingstown, R.I., claims more than 4,000 members. According to the AP, even Florida, a state where retirees move to get away from the snow and cold, has 17 clubs and at least one trip going every week of the ski season.

“You don’t want to sit in your rocking chair and look at the view,” 70-year-old Billy Kidd, who won a silver medal in the slalom at the 1964 Olympics, told the AP. “You want to remember your days of youth and you love that feeling of adrenaline and dealing with the variables of skiing.”

Kidd, known for his iconic cowboy hat, said one thing that has changed as he’s gotten older is his gear.

His skis and poles are lightweight carbon fiber. His Osbe helmet does away with goggles and replaces them with a built-in visor that provides better peripheral vision. He traded in traditional ski boots for soft Apex boots, which provide support through an external frame. (For putting on traditional ski boots, many older skiers swear by the Ski and Snowboard Boot Horn.)

Information from The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) was used in this story.