96-year-old Frank Walter skis his final run of the season at Keystone Resort
For 24-year-old Steven Kennedy, the final touch of his ski preparation on Thursday at Keystone Sports was to tie the knot around his neck of his beloved red Superman cape. Like he does on most any other ski day, the Summit County Special Olympian Kennedy, who has Down syndrome, will have the cape flap in the wind behind him on this cloudy, slushy Thursday as he shreds from top to bottom at Keystone Resort.
“I hope I can keep up,” says Julia Aaronson, an intern with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center who will ski with Kennedy as part of Timberline Adult Day Services’ annual ski day with BOEC. “I heard you’re a pretty good skier. Don’t leave us in the dust.”
But it’s the man sitting next to Kennedy in the ski shop within Keystone Resort’s River Run Village, a man 72 years his senior, who is also regarded as a superman of skiing for so many Summit County locals.
That man, a friend of Kennedy’s through Timberline, is Frank Walter of Copper Mountain. And, in recent years, Walter has inspired many transient Summit County visitors and longtime residents alike because he’s continued his lifelong passion for skiing despite his age and despite his reduced mobility.
Thursday at Keystone Resort was only Walter’s third day skiing this season, after a couple days skiing with his son and nephew at Copper Mountain Resort over the holidays. Three ski days — it’s far from the numbers the longtime Copper Mountain resident used to register when he was younger. These days he can’t run and walks gingerly with a cane. Still, Walter was there in November at Copper’s opening day to press the button to start up the Super Bee lift, long his favorite chair to ride off of.
“I got the chance to grab the hands of all of the memories, the people that I’ve met over the years,” Walter said of opening day while riding up the River Run Gondola on Thursday, his ski poles in hand.
“I used to average 151 (days). That’s all they were open,” Walter said. “And then, I just ran out of gas.”
Walter will run out of gas on this day too. After just two runs down Keystone Resort’s short, beginner Scout trail at the top of Dercum Mountain, he will download the gondola to return to his home at Copper Mountain. That’s where the remnants of March’s epic snowfall still rise above his first-floor windows. It’s at his home in Copper Mountain where Olya Alden of Frisco has lived with Walter for the past three months. Alden, who also works as Timberline’s activity coordinator, moved in with Walter full-time in January to aid in helping to keep him as independent in his daily life as possible, though that’s proved a test.
Though rewarding, Alden said living with a 96-year-old can prove trying at times. For example, in more serious situations, she is there to help him when he is confused. She’s also there to help with less pressing matters, such as putting the milk back in the refrigerator when Walter’s forgotten.
“But he has a lot of stories,” Alden said.
Along with keeping pace with those tangential stories, Alden has also experienced situations she’s found rewarding, such as last month, when Walter looked outside his condo with excitement. A major snowstorm dumped nearly 2 feet of snow at Copper.
“He loved all of the snow that we’ve gotten,” said Timberline’s Gini Patterson, one of Walter’s longtime caretakers, “and not every 96-year-old can say that. They want to move to Florida.”
“I was even getting sick of it,” Alden said, “and he was like, ‘Yes! It’s snowing again! And I was like, ‘Yay, more snow.’”
On that snow day, Alden and Walter remained inside his condo at Copper as the body-width tunnel through the snow leading to his door was flanked by walls taller than him.
On Thursday though, he was out of the house, back on a ski hill. And though this ski day will prove to be a short one, Patterson is just happy he’s here. She’s happy he’s ready to ski, seemingly, like he’s always been.
“I’m just glad he’s here,” Patterson said once at the top of Dercum Mountain. “And I think he is too.”
Patterson’s glad he still has that glimmer in his eyes when riding the gondola. She’s glad he’s so eager while riding the gondola that he begins to stand up at Keystone’s mid-mountain gondola stop.
“Not here! Not yet!” Patterson says, as Walter sits back down as the gondola doors open.
Just a few minutes later, Patterson and registered nurse Libby Popkova help Walter depart the gondola at the top of Keystone’s 11,640-foot Dercum Mountain. When they do, a passerby notices the black number “96” on Walter’s ski coat.
“Is he really going skiing?” Scott Holloway of Boulder asks in an excited voice. “Because, if he is, that’s amazing. I love to see older people still engaged in skiing. That’s great. I hope I’m still doing it at 96.”
As Kennedy and his fellow Timberline program participant Lonnie Sullivan ski down the Scout run, Frank and the group helping him, led by BOEC volunteer Lance Glaser, remain about 100 yards uphill behind them. Kennedy and Sullivan ultimately proceed to ski down to the bottom of Dercum Mountain while Walter sticks to the beginner slope.
This moment, Patterson says, is Walter’s last ski day of the year. Skiing in front and showing him the way, Glaser is sure to lead Walter, primarily, by using his voice.
“The main thing was I’m giving him direction,” Glaser said. “I’m in front of him, almost like how I ski with a blind skier, you know? ‘OK, Frank, let’s make a turn downhill. Turn, turn, keep turning. Good. Alright, let’s make another turn downhill.’ Just giving him direction.”
Though Frank struggles with his vision in the dim, flat-light conditions, taking minutes to descend a 200-yard slope, Glaser is impressed with his balance and actual skiing.
“He’d get off and you’d see him correct,” Glaser said. “Muscle memory with Frank is alive and well! I didn’t have to do any of that. I just have to get him directions that he understood. He knows how to stop. He knows how to turn, stand up. It’s there. It’s built in.”
As he takes his skis off, the only known entity is that this was Walter’s last ski day of the season. But, as he downloads the gondola, the reality is there is no guarantee for the future. This may not be the final ski of his lifetime, but it also may ultimately go down as that.
That said, skiing isn’t all that has made Frank Walter Frank Walter. He’s long been a painter, something he continues to do at Timberline. He’s also been up to outdoor adventures outside of skiing. In fact, this past summer, Walter participated in BOEC’s high ropes program at Breckenridge Ski Resort. Fully harnessed, he traversed the course high above the ski hill.
For Walter, after all these years at ski resorts, it was truly something new for one of Summit County’s supermen.
“It’s never too late to do something you’ve never done,” Patterson said. “And to learn.”