Outside magazine, November 1995
You start out sitting backward on the train from Zurich, watching the world recede in the window, thinking how appropriate it is after a year of heartache and turmoil to be glimpsing only evanescent vignettes of life along the rails, how appropriate that everything is rushing away. And then it dawns on you that the train has changed directions and that you are in the same seat but now meeting the sights of the country face on, the world rushing toward you, pastureland, tidy homes, cow-faced boys, dour men. How did it come about, this turnaround? And when? Not to have noticed seems a sign itself, a sign not of chronic inattention but of the imperceptible nature of most transitions. So heartbreak relents. So after a bad patch, a mood lifts, and focus shifts from past to future.
Well, a fool en route to ski in Austria can hope.
The valley grew narrow and dark. Snow began to fall from a leaden sky, bolting so thickly that it soon blanketed the threadbare woods. The drifts were hip-deep at Langen am Arlberg, where we disembarked in city shoes to make the final leg by bus up to Lech. It was only midday, but we could go no farther. Conditions were too dangerous. Flexen Pass was closed.
We scared up a room, Herr Clark and I, and killed the rest of the afternoon in the station café, drinking steins of local beer and eating pork slathered in a saccharine pink sauce. Men threw darts. Snow ticked at the windows. It seemed we might have to sit forever in limbo, unable to pick the lock on the mountain gate.
I was up early the next morning. The dining room was empty. The proprietor, a sturdy burgher, poked his head in.
"Die strasse ist offen," he said.
He seemed to be waiting for a response.
"Two--two for breakfast," I said, and even held up a couple of fingers.
"Die...STRASSE...ist...OFFEN!" he said again, hoping to holler the meaning home.
In a manner of speaking, he was right. Cars with chains were whizzing by. The road was open--a nice concept, I thought, as we boarded the bus for Lech.
Surely the allure of controlling lickety-split slats of laminated fiberglass along a plunging fall line is related to the lack of control we have on so many other fronts. Peering into whiteout from a window of the bus, I found myself in the sway of the hope I often feel at the outset of a ski trip, which is not simply that the snow will be good and the weather fair and that my joints will hold up, but that my disappointments away from the slopes--love forfeited heedlessly, turns of the heart never mastered, jump shots that never find net--might somehow be redeemed in the world of snow and steeps. There is always the touch of a pilgrimage about a ski trip. Skiing, like golf, is one of the last bastions of faith in the perfectibility of man. In the hope for mastery lies the promise of renewal and a kind of transcendence, as if happiness were the inevitable outcome of practice and right technique--as if one could, in the act of setting an edge, find and keep some other kind of edge.
It's a peculiar religion, this faith, and the part of western Austria known as the Arlberg is perhaps its most sacred site. The road was switchbacking up into what is known as the Cradle of Alpine Skiing, where the sport's creed of perfectibility and renewal was born, where it evolved, where it achieved its highest expression in the feats of legendary adepts such as master instructor Hannes Schneider and Toni Matt and Karl Schranz. Arlberg ski schools are widely considered the best in the world, veritable shrines of technique. Their instructors are high priests of form and style; even the man who oversees their training--the instructor's instructor--is known by the imposingly ecclesiastical title the Pope of Skiing.
We passed through the village of Stuben, the birthplace of Schneider, who is as responsible for the fame of the Arlberg as anyone. Discoverer of the stem christie turn, founder of the St. Anton ski school, star with Leni Riefenstahl in the classic 1931 ski movie Der weisse Rausch ("The White Thrill"), Schneider became one of the young sport's foremost emissaries and teachers, carrying the "Arlberg technique" to Japan and America.
St. Christoph and St. Anton lay to the east on the Flexen Pass road on the far side of the divide; Zürs and Lech lay to the west. Zürs was hardly visible in the whiteout, a stretch of mist-ensconced hotels and restaurants at the road's edge. Guests such as the queen of the Netherlands and the king of Jordan have made Zürs and Lech jet-set playgrounds for decades. The resorts are, as Herr Clark put it, aswim in "dial and superdial": svelte fräuleins, stretch-pantsed princesses, heiresses in wraparound shades--women whom men are so eager to "dial in" that they often find themselves skiing a slalom course of philandering sheiks, financiers, and creeps, not to mention the occasional emotionally resurgent journalist from America.
Farther on, in Lech, a town that takes its name from the stony river that runs along the main street, plows were fighting the blizzard to a draw. The village was founded in the twelfth century by Swiss herders in search of high summer pasture for their dairy cows. Its old church, with the onion-domed bell tower dimly visible this morning, was built on top of a Roman apse. Snow was piled high on the famous covered bridge, the carriage lamps, and the roofs of the four-story hotels, many named for and still owned by the first families of the valley.
Herr Clark and I had rooms at the Hotel Berghof, a four-star establishment on a hill above the town center with a view of the 7,200-foot Kriegerhorn, a cabinet full of Bordeaux, and cushions that softened the front of the wooden bar at just that point where you were liable to whack yourself in the knee. The hotel had been in the family of Herr Peter Burger for 40 years. From its windows we could keep an eye on the Hotel Arlberg, across the river, where Princess Di--"superdial," in the estimation of Herr Clark--was billeted with princes William and Harry and her security detail. It had been reported all over the world that Princess Di was aggrieved by the paparazzi chasing her around Lech. A few of the weasels were lurking out front at the moment, brushing snow off their unchivalrous lenses.
When we had settled our luggage and gone to have our skis tuned, I mentioned to Herr Clark that the decent thing might be to invite the princess to tea that afternoon. Buck up her spirits. Improve her view of the press.
"No need," he said, "I'm seeing her for dinner tonight." Some kind of old school connection maybe? The technician setting the bindings asked what level he skied.
"And you?" he said to me.
Strictly speaking, I ski only slightly better than I speak German, but a strasse of competition had suddenly opened.
Herr Clark and I took to the slopes on our inaugural afternoon to romp in two feet of new powder. The blizzard had obliterated the buckel-piste (as moguls are called), giving a self-appointed expert something to work with. I felt the genie come out of the bottle. We gamboled together, the genie and I, down a black-diamond trail on the flanks of the Kriegerhorn. The weather kept the crowds away. There were no lines, no waits, nothing to impede a speedy return to the hillside other than the little turnstiles at the lift entrances, which could give your shinbones a nasty crack if you went through too fast. It was the sort of skiing day where what counted was your feeling of freedom, not your form. The grooming machines had not got to much of the mountain, and there was no clear line between piste and off-piste, nor any need for one. This snow was all the technique anybody could ever need. The snow was perfection's distillate. Go where you will. Now and then a skier would shout gleefully in German as he lifted off from some cornice with an air of abandon. Many of the European skiers were wearing parkas that looked like they had been painted by Jackson Pollock, hideous as fashion but strangely apt if one is hurling oneself like a bucket of paint across a trackless canvas of alps. Go where you will. Die strasse ist offen.
That night we ironed out the aches in the Berghof sauna. I've seen more free-spirited people than the German and Austrian clientele in the hotel, but they were strangely uninhibited in the coed sauna. Fat-ringed men and women planted themselves on the cedar bench without a trace of self-consciousness. Patrons were required to shower before entering, and the protocol was enforced with Teutonic efficiency by a middle-aged woman who seemed almost vengefully devoted to her position as saunameister. When I went directly from the steam bath to the dry cedar benches, she barged in fully dressed and scolded me for the infraction, and then spoke sharply to some German sot who had neglected to get a towel under the full acreage of his fanny.
The next day the weather had cleared. We rode the Mohnenfluhbahn, a small cable car strung between the summit of the Kriegerhorn and the distant peak Zuger Hochlicht, 650 feet higher. The cable car cast a tiny shadow on the ski slopes below. When I glanced at it from the ground, gliding hundreds of yards up in the air, I mistook it for a passing airplane. It seemed impossible that cables could span such an enormous abyss, that engineers would erect such a monument to audacity.
When we stepped off at the summit the panorama of the Austrian alps unfolded: blanketed dells, ridges, limestone cirques, the 8,359-foot bulk of Widderstein to the north toward Germany, the sharp ridgelines and summits ringing Zürs to the east. The landscape had a fierceness that made the Rockies look tame. Its pistes wound over undulant, treeless country, past little exitless dales where the snow was not broken, where no one had cause to go. We skied that day till our faces were burned and our legs throbbed. The bells of the old church in Lech marked the hours. We stopped for lunch at Oberlech, the high mountain village where those Eurodarlings who weren't trying to look seductively bored were refueling with large helpings of strudel and boisterously knocking back glasses of glühwein and pilsner at an outdoor bar.
In the afternoon, a seven-year-old English towhead joined Herr Clark and me on a chairlift. Under the "kinder-link" policy at Lech, adults are supposed to help young children, but this little fellow didn't need any help. He had Lech wired.
"You're English!" he said, in the crusty tones of the haute class. He inquired as to where we were staying. "Oh, yes, the Berghof," he sniffed. "We sometimes go there for chocolate cake." Going there for anything else was clearly beneath him. I had half a mind to kinder-unlink the five-star child in the middle of the ride, but Herr Clark intervened.
"Please," he said, "I promised Di I'd look after him."
It was late in the afternoon when Herr Clark discovered the chute under the Weibermahd lift where you could ski past a photoelectric eye and clock your speed. In the time I've known him, he has always insisted that he doesn't have a competitive bone in his body, that he cares not at all who wins or who loses, etc., etc. But this time he launched himself into the chute and tucked into his best Arlberg-style crouch, like Hannes Schneider, official founder of the hunkered-down position. He whizzed past the photoelectric eye, his speed flashing on a monitor at the finish: 68 kilometers per hour.
I jumped in, crouched, gained speed, flashed through, and then nearly bought it trying to stop. I turned around to find...a 71! Just a few minutes earlier Herr Clark had been intimating that he was tired. He was ready for a beer at the outdoor bar at the Pfefferkorn. He was ready for chocolate cake at the Berghof. Or maybe some cucumber badinage with Princess Di. But now something had stirred in his physiology. We boarded the lift, rode up, and once again skied down to the start of the timed course. The schussmeter, Herr Clark had dubbed it.
On his second run, he threw down the gauntlet, clocking in at 71.17. I raised my game, edging him out with a 72.6. Another round, he cried. Once more into the breach. We could think of nothing but the schussmeter. We were drunk on the schussmeter. Neither of us cared a whit for the rose light burnishing the mountains, or the still air of evening coming on, or the rising eggshell moon that seemed a mirror of the white earth.
"This time you go first," Herr Clark said. It was only fair. I skated up some speed, felt the acceleration, the peripheral blur, and a bolt of fear at the prospect of wiping out. Then I shot past the timers, turned around, and knew the elation that only Karl Schranz or Toni Matt or the Austrians who garnered five medals at Lillehammer can know: 74.27!
How much sweeter it was when Herr Clark, mighty dreadnought of downhill prowess, rumbled down and wiped out in the runout trying to stop short of the ropes. He had to look up from his digger in the snow to see the board registering...a wussy 66 and change!
It must have been all those midnight snacks with Princess Di.
He was disconsolate, so much so that he decided to forgo his usual schnapps-fired roistering with the Eurotrash that evening and pay a visit to the church at Lech. Its fourteenth-century bell tower was speaking to him of the verities of life far from the fray of competition. I gave up my long-lensed Di vigil outside the Hotel Arlberg and tagged along, just to make sure that in the depths of his depression he didn't do anything foolish.
The names of war casualties were commemorated on the outer wall of the church; most of the town's families had lost someone--Wolfs, Beisers, Pfefferkorns, Schneiders. The interior had recently been refurbished. It was chilly inside, but the freshly gilded altarpieces, the bright ceiling frescoes, the rough-hewn pews that practically pitched pilgrims to their knees conveyed a brand of exuberant, homespun Catholicism that seemed almost Latin American.
The church was empty except for the pew up front, where a young, pretty, dark-haired German woman was kneeling in fervent prayer. She wore a parka oddly emblazoned with the word VISION on the back. A strange word to find on the back of a coat, stenciled in capital letters like those special-agent jackets on TV cop shows that say DEA or FBI. She seemed lost to the world. Lost in solitude. Wholly indifferent to whatever intrusion our presence presented. It seemed some crisis had brought her to the church. What could it be? Had she been left at the altar by a fiancé? Was a relative gravely ill?
"She probably pulled a 66 on the schussmeter," said Herr Clark.
After two days on the slopes, contending with naked buckel-piste and heavy off-trail snow that exposed the manifold flaws in my technique, it was clear that the genie had rebottled himself. I arranged to spend a day with a Lech instructor. Herr Clark, who had scrupulously avoided the schussmeter since his debacle, came along too. Maybe the world's greatest ski school could help us both.
Instruction at Lech and the other Arlberg ski areas is based on the system developed by Schneider, who opened his St. Anton ski school in 1907. It's hard to imagine how young the sport was then. The Arlberg Ski Club had been founded six years earlier at the Hospiz Hotel in St. Christoph. There were no lifts, no groomed trails; you walked up for two hours carrying heavy, unwieldy skis that were much longer than a skier was tall, and you skied down in two minutes.
Schneider pioneered the idea of teaching skiing in classes. His students learned first to balance and then to make a good snowplow, a good stem turn, and finally a stem christie, the precursor of the modern parallel turn. Since there were no Sno-Cats breaking trails, it was vital that students master turning in deep snow and controlling speed. Schneider himself was out on the edge in those days; many of his innovations were born of necessity. He ushered out the age of upright skiing by chance, happening upon his "Arlberg crouch" because he wanted to get home after some hard falls without bruising himself further. He hit upon the stem christie turn while struggling to ski crust in St. Anton in 1909. At the time, racers were using the telemark turn to get through slalom courses; Schneider took the new turn, faster than a simple stem, to the Swiss ski championships at Grindelwald in 1910. Even though he'd never competed in such a race, he beat the top slalom time by several seconds. His fame as a teacher and champion racer grew with his daredevil penchant for leaping off cliffs. As a teacher he was something of a taskmaster, always dressed for the slopes in a coat and tie. Show up late for class and you were told to come back tomorrow. His ski school grew as European nobility and wealthy Americans discovered the sport. His arrest after the Nazis took over Austria was a cause célèbre. Imprisoned for two months he was released on the condition that he leave the country. He emigrated to the United States and helped trigger the postwar diaspora of Arlberg ski-instructors who carried the gospel around the world.
Today the training of Austrian skiers, guides, and instructors is carried out at the Austrian Federal Sports Center in St. Christoph under the supervision of Professor Franz Hoppichler, the aforementioned Pope of Skiing. I struck up a conversation with Maris Vagners, a young American skier from Seattle, who was a student in the program and was hoping to graduate even though more than 80 percent of the students washed out. He'd been learning Italian and German and skiing with every bit of talent he had.
"I thought I was a good skier before I got here," he said, marveling at his youthful presumptuousness. "But this is the best ski school in the world. There are about ten ex-World Cup racers here, and five ex-pro racers. There are guys here who can ski 3,000 vertical feet without stopping--200 turns, nonstop."
He was impressed, and it was clear I ought to be too. The next day I decided to count my turns at the start of a steep run. I pulled up after 12, wheezing like an emphysema patient.
There is no form of skier vanity or self-delusion that Arlberg instructors have not seen. They indulge precious little of it. If you're not making the grade, you will be demoted to an easier class. If you're that rare bird who has underestimated his skills, you'll be bumped forward for the afternoon session. Under the Arlberg system, skiers are rated one of 12 grades, from 6b to 1a. A 6b is that greenhorn who needs help with his snowplow and probably his boots. A 1a is the adept who needs an instructor only to guide him to the premium snow or the off-piste terrain or maybe to comb out a few of the hairs that were disheveled the day before when he binged on the glühwein or drank off three pots of Earl Grey waiting for the princess.
At 9:30 sharp Herr Clark and I reported to the base of the mountain, where the Lech ski school congresses each morning, and met our savant, Gunter Stecher, a rugged 43-year-old professional instructor and guide who'd been making a financially meager but emotionally rich living in the Arlberg snows for 21 seasons. Like all instructors at Lech, he was required to speak German and a third language to go with his English.
The sun had come out and the snow was promising to be a bit slushy, so we headed for the cable car that takes skiers up and over the mountains to Zürs, which is 900 feet higher and where morning conditions promised to be better.
The ride up was daunting enough. Once we loaded, the clouds closed in. Breaths of fog invaded the car. We rose over cliffs on an angle of ascent similar to that at which the soul is said to depart the body.
We unloaded at the top of 7,818-foot Rüfikopf. The whiteout was so thick that it was hard to see the tips of your skis; people were stumbling around like moles. It was good to have Gunter on hand. In a series of lazy, S-shaped turns, he swung down a gently groomed slope set off from the deep off-piste by phosphorescent orange stakes. We followed. Whether you are in a class of two or the more normal eight or ten, the teaching method in the Arlberg is the same. The instructor leads the way down. The students follow in his tracks, turning where he turns and maintaining the speed he sets. Arlberg instructors seem to have eyes in the back of their heads and a knack for looking back at your progress at precisely the moment when you screw up. Maybe it was the pressure of being assessed or the difficulty of skiing with no depth perception--one after another, orange stakes loomed suddenly out of the mist--but the bold paraexpert verve I'd felt the first day at Lech was utterly gone.
It quickly became apparent to Gunter that his client could go to his left fine but was having trouble going to the right. And didn't that figure.
"Everybody has a sweet side," said Gunter. "We call it the chocolate side. Yours is your left."
On the turns to the right, he said, I sat back, my hands flew up, my edges weren't set. Lean out from the hill, he said. "Pretend you are carrying a suitcase with your left hand."
We skied toward Zürs, hopped a rope tow to carry a ridge, and then boarded a short chair that took us to the upper Hexenboden lift. Hexenboden means "witches' hill." We took several pedagogical runs through a weird, enchanted landscape of white hillocks and snowy sinkholes. Fettered by the concern with doing it right, I felt the enchantment of skiing begin to pale. Trying to follow Gunter seemed to entail a different part of the brain; it was as different in its way as sight-reading piano music is from improvising. Ach, this is an old tension. You need training to do a thing well, but to do a thing well you must forget the training. It was inhibiting to worry about being wrong--to be preoccupied with weight shifts and edge sets and the configuration of the body and to blindly follow like a mule in a furrow of soybeans.
We broke for lunch at the Hirlanda, a hotel bar where beautiful blonds in Ray-Bans and wolf-trim parkas were spooning up an otherworldly bouillabaisse and sinking their dazzling teeth into veal sausage. Gunter described the training he'd gone through to get his state diploma under Professor Hoppichler's supervision, the exhaustive courses in rescue work, climbing, guiding.
"The first seven years," he said, "I had all the theory in my head, but a feeling for the snow is something you get with experience. It's like a knowledge of the sea. It has to grow."
The salary that instructors made was a pittance--$13,000 to $15,000 a year, plus tips--but there were many Arlberg guides whose love of the job kept them at it well into their sixties, some even into their seventies and eighties.
I pressed Gunter for our grades. Herr Clark, he said, was a solid intermediate, a 3a. Owing largely to my slovenly right turns, he pegged me a notch lower at 3b. So the word from on high was that there were problems with my skiing, and truth be told, my skiing defects seemed painfully congruent with defects in other areas, as if what afflicted one's skiing--delusions of grandeur, declining skills, impatience with technique--afflicted everything else too. This difficulty with the turn to the right was starting to seem emblematic. If I could get the turn down on the slopes, maybe I could get the turns down elsewhere. Herr Clark had chocolate on both sides. He could go to the right. He knew enough to eat right, think right, fly right. He'd recently married Miss Right. Well, at least I still was the champion of the schussmeter.
We crossed the Flexen Pass road after lunch to ski the south side of Zürs. The sun was ripening the snow into spring form. If the avalanche danger was cleared, we planned to conclude the day with one of the great ski circuits in the Arlberg: the Madloch traverse, which describes a magnificent circle from Lech to Zürs to the small village of Zug and back to Lech. So we rode the Seekopf up, skied into a lake basin, and boarded the Madloch lift. The chairs skimmed over the snow, past avalanche-bomb craters 15 feet across and four feet deep and past several slides made up of piano-size blocks of snow. We disembarked at the top of what Gunter said would be a long 90-kilometers-per-hour schuss to a saddle about a third of a mile away. If you didn't keep your speed, it would be an even longer walk.
"Let's go!" Gunter cried and hunkered down in the Arlberg crouch.
The speed was truly frightening; one false twitch of a hamstring and you'd be keistered into Wiener schnitzel. Smooth groomed patches suddenly turned into skier-chowdered washboard.
As I came hurtling over the upswell of ground on the far side, my knees nearly caved in under the g-force. "Feel it in your knees, yah?" Gunter said. "We call that alpenglow."
It seemed to take forever to wind around the shoulder of the mountain and descend the choppy piste across the face of Madloch-Joch. The scale was so big you'd pull up winded and sweaty without seeming to have gained any ground. Blinding sun-dazzle, vast slopes, unbroken snow. A lone 1a skier traversed out and then scalloped a lovely bric-a-brac of first tracks. Down and down and down and finally we could smell the white spruce and river water, sweet relief from a scentless world. We poled across a snowy bridge to the Zugerberg chairlift, which took skiers up to the top of the Kriegerhorn. Familiar ground.
We could have picked our way down to the base and closed the circle, but the siren song of the schussmeter had dialed Herr Clark, and we swerved off, and now the three of us were standing at the top of the speed course once again. I went first and pulled a disappointing 72 kilometers per hour and then suffered the painful indignity of a major digger in the moguly runout. I was still removing snow from my pants when Herr Clark flashed by at 75-plus. A dazzling triumph. Despite the drag of his guide's knapsack, Gunter posted a 78.
Back at the Pfefferkorn, Herr Clark and Gunter hoisted glasses of beer and toasted the adventure of the day. But I was in a 3b funk and couldn't shake it. When is it not painful to confront your own mediocrity? The religion of skiing survives on its promise of transcendence now, not later, and here it had repaid my faith not with triumph, but with loss and a sense of limits, with intimations of mortality, not timeless life. The catechism had been dropped on my head: You cannot ski your way out from the self.
The Pope of Skiing said as much. Professor Hoppichler proved to be a cheerful ski historian secularly garbed in a maroon sweater and a green Lacoste shirt. He was a professor of physical education, 64 years old, with a heart condition, and, alas, his expertise in the science of schussology notwithstanding, he had no divine wisdom to impart, at least none that was going to solve my mediocrity. He didn't ski much anymore, he said, and when I asked why, he seized my notebook and wrote down the number 64 and circled it. He referred to it several times. Being 64 seemed to explain most of the deficits and limitations in his life now, and he certainly hadn't found a technique to conquer it. He fingered a bunch of keys and greeted the constant stream of skiers who passed in and out of the tomato-red Bundessportheim building. The seat of the Holy See in St. Christoph had the feel of a junior college student center. The Pope's upstairs room looked out on the slopes, and sometimes he watched his pupils from his window. Once, after he'd given some of them a particularly sharp piece of advice, they painted over the glass.
It was later one night after my 3b folly and my visit with the Pope that I went out for a walk, wandering along the stony river, past the houses and hotels. Princess Di had gone, and her retinue of merry jackals too, and Lech was suddenly as lifeless as a fairy tale without a princess. The night was still, something almost creepy hovered about the motionless lifts, their motionless chairs hanging like chandeliers over a deserted ballroom. No music, only the occasional car whisking down the wet road. The bell tower tolled the half hour, and then the hour, and then the half again. And I found myself thinking of the young woman who'd been in the church, praying alone in her vision parka. Maybe she had been praying not for her deserts alone, but for mine too, for our mutual enlightenment. Maybe she'd embodied the form that transcendent figures assume these days. I stood until another bell tolled under the Austrian stars and the winter moon and the monumental silhouette of the mountains, and I felt unaccountably cheered by the idea that the young woman had been a sort of postmodern angel, complete with caption for people too dense to know a vision when they see one. Could she still be inside? The pews were empty. Of course. How could it be otherwise? Matter is broken, defeated, obstructed, but for a spirit the road is never closed.
I carried that notion around for the rest of my skiing days in Lech. Carried it right onto the station platform at Langen am Arlberg. It may indeed be the nature of transitions that they are imperceptible until after the fact, but on that Disorient Express back to Zurich I knew I could mark one moment when everything had turned around.
Chip Brown, a longtime contributor to Outside, could still use help with his jump shot.