Born Again by the Schussmeter
Outside magazine, November 1995
Born Again by the Schussmeter
If you can get the turns down on the slopes, they say, you can get the turns down elsewhere. In the cradle of alpine skiing, a fool can always hope.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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 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
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
“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
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,
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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,
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
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
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.