Plenty of winter athletes in the Tetons refused to be slowed down by the risk of COVID-19 this ski season. But not all of those athletes fall into a high-risk category of getting seriously ill or dying from the virus because of their age. That didn’t stop the so-called “Targheezers” from meeting most mornings at the base of Grand Targhee Resort, where the group is hard to miss in matching, bright orange Helly Hansen ski suits.
“So, there’s Roland and Dr. Bill, Larry, Philip, Roy and Bob,” explained a woman named Jan, the partner of Philip Reed, on a sunny Wednesday morning in late March.
“I’m the baby of the crew, and I’m only 70,” Reed chimed in. “I’m honored to be able to hang out with these dudes.”
Some of the Targheezers have been skiing together for going on two decades. As for the perfectly-punned group name, no one seems to remember exactly when that was coined.
“It’s been at least 10 years,” said Dr. Bill Belk, an 83-year-old former Air Force physician and the main organizer of the group. “We got outfits that were the same and stuff the year that I had broken my humerus but I can’t remember how many years ago that was.”
Belk said the pandemic has definitely impacted the group’s activities over the past year, including forcing them to cut back on overall skiing time and visiting each other’s houses, but the informal group has remained an integral part of the members’ lives.
“If we weren’t skiing, you know, we really wouldn’t be the same and the enjoyment of life that keeps us going would be greatly lessened.”
Larry Slotta also spoke up during a group interview with KHOL at the base of the mountain. “We started in 2000 and we aren’t leaving. We’re not going to senior housing, are we?” he posed to the group with a laugh.
At 86, Slotta still isn’t the senior senior of the group—that honor belongs to Bob Engstrom.
“I’m 88 and I have the privilege of being the oldest of these codgers,” Engstrom said, to a hearty round of chuckles. “I also ski the slowest of them. That’s my claim to fame, so I’ve kept out of hospitals pretty much.”
“But he skis extremely well!” Belk added.
In fact, all of the Targheezers ski well. Skiing with an audio recorder and camera in tow, this reporter was just trying to keep up—and not drop my microphone off the chairlift. But the group’s friendly chatter and clear joy at being out on the slopes on a decent powder day made it all easier.
“Yeehaw!” exclaimed Belk as the group steered toward a black diamond run on the northern end of the mountain. “Whose bright idea was this?” shot back Engstrom, who prefers to stick to the blues.
While the pandemic didn’t stop the Targheezers from skiing this season, it did change many aspects of their routine.
“You can see the old doctor has still got double masks, and we’ve been that way pretty much together and out—we haven’t been over to each other’s houses,” Belk said. “So, it’s been a real challenge.”
“We don’t go in for lunch anymore,” added Roy Walters, 79. “We used to have lunchtime and then ski a few more runs—no.”
Another gheezer, 78-year-old Roland Schuler, said the group also had to make changes to their social activities in the off season.
“During the summer months, we went on trips, sightseeing trips—everyone in their own car—and we kept our social distances but we explored the sights of Idaho, which we hadn’t seen before,” Schuler said. “So, it was enjoyable but we were careful about it.”
These days, though, that’s starting to change. Now that all of the group members have been able to get both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and have waited the required two weeks after the second shot in order to reach full immunity, the friends are starting to venture out to dinner together again and resuming social visits at their houses around Teton Valley.
Richard Berg, 75, paused for a moment after being asked what it means to be fully vaccinated against the virus that’s killed more than 555,000 Americans as of press time. And 80% of those deaths have been people over the age of 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It means that I feel more comfortable getting out here and mixing with people, and it means that we guys can all get together for dinner now, because we’ve been kind of lonesome and been socially distancing when we’ve been seeing each other,” Berg said. “We’ve been doing what you’re supposed to do because when you’re 75 and you come down with COVID, the end result could be bad.”
Still, members like Walters and Reed—the baby of the group—said it’s been a lifesaver to have something to get up and do every day during the pandemic.
“[It] keeps me going,” said Walters during a chairlift ride with KHOL. “As they say, when you get old, keep moving. And these guys keep me moving.”
“Here’s a whole group of guys who are all retired and all trying to figure out what we want to do when we grow up,” Reed said. “And I think we’re grown and we figured out what we want to do, which for many of us is to ski as many times in the year as we possibly can and enjoy the bit of life that we have left.”
This Sunday, April 11, marks the last day of the ski season at Targhee. The Targheezers, though, are sure to remain a staple on the mountain for many non-pandemic years to come.