Seven Springs' ski group isn't over the hill yet
Franz Stehr wears hearing aids in both ears and has two bad knees that keep him off his skis most days except when conditions are just right.
Ice is no good, and Stehr prefers it sunny. Clouds can mean flat light and more difficulty seeing subtle features in the terrain, which means it's more likely he could fall. Stehr is 82 years old and a widower who lives alone in Glenshaw. His children no longer live in Pittsburgh. He can't afford to get hurt.
But just because Stehr has to exercise more caution than when he was a younger man doesn't mean he is ready to live out his days in a rocking chair in Florida.
“I don't like that,” said Stehr, who was born in Germany. “My son took me there once, and I said that's enough for a lifetime.”
He shares that attitude with the other 15-plus men and women who skied Thursday at Seven Springs with the Over the Hill Gang, a group for skiers 55 and older. The former ski school director is one of the organizers, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays he sits in the lodge signing people in and passing out coupons for a 50-percent discount on lift tickets, except to those 80 and over. They ski for free.
The average age, Stehr guesses, is between 68 and 72. Many skiers arrive alone. It isn't uncommon for people to come for three or four years before reaching a point where they simply can't do it anymore, Stehr said. Those who come don't generally discuss the reality that as they age, the number of their peers shrinks.
“People here don't want to talk about the people who say, ‘I can't do it anymore,' ” Stehr said. “They want to be positive when they come here. They'll ski a little bit, then come in and say, ‘It's been better, but this is pretty good.' I know they're having a little bit of a hard time. Like Tuesday, it was icy. But that's the way it gets here.”
John Smith, 76, of Swissvale, wears a red helmet with a heart drawn on the front, inside of which is written “Age 75+.” He started skiing with the Over the Hill Gang this year but first learned the sport at Boyce Park after he returned home from serving in Vietnam in 1966.
“It's so much fun,” Smith said. “I had a fall the same day as, what's her name? Lindsey Vonn. I went flying forward, but I got up laughing. (Vonn) was going much faster than me. I don't ski very fast anymore. But it's so much fun.”
As the larger crowd split into fast, intermediate and slow groups, Smith skated off to join the intermediates. Ruth Corrin, 84, of Charleroi, stayed with the slower group. Very little stops her from coming each week, but very little stops Corrin, period. The retired health and physical education teacher is a volunteer coach for the Special Olympics in skiing and golf.
“Even when the gang is done we'll keep coming up until the snow melts,” she said about the Over the Hill Gang's season, which ended Thursday. “But this gang here, we've been skiing together for years.”
Stehr pointed to Corrin.
“You want to know about skiing?” he said. “She knows.”
Corrin smiled, and said that when they were younger skiers, she would stay behind Stehr and watch. That's how she knew she was doing it correctly.
Stehr vividly remembers the first time he skied. He was a little boy in Germany, about 4 or 5 years old, he guesses, and he took his brother's skis, put them on the snow, stepped in and was off. He's been doing it ever since, and he can't — won't, perhaps — imagine stopping.
“Skiing is a sport unto its own,” he said. “Anything that you learn on skis, that's your accomplishment. … I could (get hurt). But I could go out in the parking lot and fall and break my leg. That's the way I look at the situation. I was out last week skiing and it was wonderful.”
Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at email@example.com.