U.S. students have Cancún and sunburns. The British university elite have Austria and tingling buttocks.
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“I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT'S GOING ON!”
It echoed through the quiet lanes and down the valley, through the falling snow and into the houses where Austrian babies in Austrian cribs sleeping peacefully to a soundtrack of Schubert and Kraftwerk were awakened by a boisterous English shout.
Snow-induced giddiness. It was the only explanation for the procession of jubilantly blurred forms cascading down this steep, snow-blanketed road near a hotel in Austria, each on an improvised “sled” more ill-suited to the task than the last. They rode pots and they rode pans, skidded on sofa cushions and raced on yellow kiddie tricycles. They tobogganed on an upside-down coffee table, enlisted an upright vacuum cleaner, and even commandeered a baby's crib. They vaguely resembled the Oxford and Cambridge students with whom I had decamped to Hinterglemm, Austria, two days prior for some pre-Christmas fun, but their intelligence seemed to have yielded to the corrupting influence of fresh powder and bibulously liquid dinners. The various household items they employed testified to a fundamental misunderstanding of the physics of sledding, as well as to the overpowering novelty of snow for a bunch of 20-year-olds reared on a dismal isle in the North Atlantic where an inch of slush can shut down the national infrastructure.
Finally, having emptied the hotel's closets and found their contents insufficient to the task, they did what so many before them have done: They threw snowballs, tackled one another, and tumbled down the hill on their asses.
“You've got to understand,” the vacuum rider told me. “We don't see snow or sunshine that often in England, so when it happens, the whole world goes mad.”
THESE MAD DOGS and Englishmen, all 770 of them, had descended on the town of Hinterglemm in mid-December for the 81st Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Ski Trip, a two-week homage to youth centered on the longest-running team ski races in the world. Held annually since 1912, except for hiatuses during the world wars, the trip was conceived by the universities' skiing clubs so that Oxford and Cambridge men could compete in slalom and giant-slalom events, but has since grown to include women's teams, as well as snowboard races, a “big air” competition, and a preponderance of international students ascending the podiums. (With few mountains and even less snow, England has never been known as a skiing powerhouse.) The most important change is the hundreds of nonracers who now tag along to blow off some end-of-term steam, creating a distinctly festive atmosphere. Students of England's most venerable universities like to have as much fun as their Cancúe;n-bound American counterparts, and this yearly snow pilgrimage has become a spring-break-on-skis rite of passage.
Though the races remain the trip's ostensible raison d'ê;tre—and an important battleground for bragging rights in the schools' ancient rivalry—the balance in recent years has tipped toward an elaborate schedule of social bloodletting: There's a snow carnival, sled races, a “Bling-Bling Party,” a beach party, an endless stream of flügerl (a potent mix of Red Bull and Austrian cherry vodka), and infinite attempts to “pull” or “snog” (a.k.a. make out with) students from the opposing university. And some inventive thrill seeking is to be expected, given a pedigree that includes night ascents of buildings by members of the Cambridge Mountaineering Club and slalom races run on a ski-mounted baby carriage by Oxford's Dangerous Sports Club, which also pioneered bungee jumping in 1979.
Hinterglemm and its sister village, Saalbach—combined population 2,959—sit in a valley in central Austria's Kitzbühler Alps, near the edge of the Tyrol. The trip's organizers usually pick a different resort each year—residents of Tignes, France, are being overrun with British students as you read this—and Hinterglemm's combination of ample intermediate terrain and blissful isolation allowed the students to have their fun without disturbing too many civilians.
When the Brits arrived, most having endured 24 hours of the butt-numbing torture known as crossing Western Europe by bus, they were greeted by the trip's two authority figures: Tim Holmes, 28, an affable former financial trader who was the field coordinator for Skiworld, the trip's London-based outfitter; and Cambridge's George Herd, 22, the lanky president of the student-run Varsity Trip Committee, whose peroxide-striped hair lent him an air of perpetual motion. Tim, George, and their assistants doled out maps and plastic bracelets with emergency phone numbers on them and directed the students to their hotels.
Still dazed from the bus ride, the students found themselves in a peaceful Austrian valley framed on every side by steep, grassy hills straight out of The Sound of Music, a few grazing sheep providing the only whiteness on a pristinely green backdrop. The thought broke like a wave over all of them at once: Snow is not green. These hills are green. Green means no snow. Bloody hell.
And so it was. Hardly a flake to be found.
THE NEXT MORNING, we stumbled onto buses at 8 a.m. for a trip to the Kitzsteinhorn glacier, about an hour southeast of Hinterglemm, where, we had been promised, we would see snow. The group I found myself with were not the types to let things like hangovers stand in the way of their skiing. The main co-conspirators were Hannah Durden, 21, an energetic Cambridge second-year with a devious smile, and Adam Gilbert, 20, an ebullient mountain of a man given to spontaneous bouts of rugby-inspired song.
“I think the Hotel Adler might be rethinking the all-you-can-drink buffet after last night,” Gilbert noted, as Hannah nodded in agreement.
“I was at the bar until four and still got up this morning,” Hannah half-whined. Gilbert would abide no excuses.
“Do you want a prize? A medal? A commendation? A small certificate?” he taunted. “Less chat, more skiing.”
The students had girded themselves for the slopes in three distinct modes. There were the X Games–inspired extremoids, swaddled in Gore-Tex and evincing an Oedipal attachment to their CamelBak hoses. Then there was a group happily attired in whatever they'd had close at hand, from track suits to hoodies to headbands. The third group had donned an assortment of Tina Turner wigs and gorilla masks, feather boas and bikinis, and included a team of men in one-piece circa-1985 neon snowsuits staring down another team in dark pinstriped business suits and Halloween masks of Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush. The teams and the outfits signified participation in the Valley Rally, a contest involving the completion of various tasks around the glacier, with few rules and little in the way of reward, beyond a high probability of nudity.
After a morning of skiing, Hannah and Gilbert were plotting Rally strategy over lunch in the midmountain Alpincenter. It had begun snowing ferociously that morning, and as the near-whiteout drove people inside, it turned the Rally into a spectator sport, the Alpincenter's glass-walled bar filling with Austrians and students seeking liquid warmth. Hannah and a teammate, Chris Scott, 20, were headed out into the blizzard, naked except for hats, boots, and gloves, each employing a strategically positioned cafeteria tray to partly cover up as they ascended the 50-foot hill outside the bar. Their face-first descent culminated in a naked mass of tangled limbs and elicited rousing cheers from the bar crowd.
“My thighs and my right buttock are tingling,” reported Chris, once inside.
“No more naked excursions,” Hannah said after she'd gotten her clothes back on. Not to say there was any shame or regret. “Your university years are the one time in your life when you're allowed to do anything you want,” she told me, unabashed, on the bus ride back to Hinterglemm. “Why not make the most of it?”
IT KEPT SNOWING for three days, dropping more than two feet of fresh powder and opening up the entire valley. But two feet of unpacked snow sitting atop grass, rocks, dirt, and small trees proved both blessing and curse for the eager packs of beginner skiers and snowboarders as they waded waist-deep into it.
It was still snowing Tuesday when I caught up with the group of Cambridge night-sledders on the slopes, recounting their rapid advancement from beginner to “über-extreme” boarders. They'd spent their morning riding blindly into streams, embracing trees, and running aground on rocks—and had loved every minute. Back out on the hill, they were ecstatic, their faces transfigured by huge, permanent smiles. Powder smiles.
“I love snowboarding, I love it,” panted Leonard Picardo, a.k.a. Lenny, 21, a third-year engineering student then in the middle of his fourth day, ever, of snowboarding. Lenny was decked out in a Jaguar Racing windbreaker—his career ambition is to work as a Formula One engineer—Nike basketball wristbands, a headband emblazoned with the Superman S, and a mismatched pair of gloves: one plain black, the other with the words EVEREST EXTREME strewn across the knuckles in neon green.
“I'm feeling quite bullish today,” he said, referring to the damn-the-torpedoes riding style that the group had adopted. They had, collectively, no fear. Their face plants were epic and frequent, but they would get up and go in search of more big air, dumping themselves off ten-foot drops, only to wind up buried in the powder, laughing. Every time Lenny felt himself headed for a wipeout, he could be heard giddily shouting, “Über-extreme!” or “Über-fun!” or “Fantastich!” as he generated another explosion of powder and enthusiasm. “We need to get James a beer,” Lenny continued, “to get him more bullish.”
James Smith, 20, a tall, quiet computer science student, was standing nearby in enormous white mittens and a canvas parka that absorbed water at every chance and then froze, stiff as a board, giving him the air of a deranged Tin Man. This group, which lived together in Cambridge and was sharing a suite on the trip, also included Chris Dibben, 21, a rugby player new to snowboarding and trying to live down the shame of being tackled in the snow the night before by two women; James Paget, 22, a lacrosse-playing medical student known universally as Chaps, thanks to a predilection for overusing the word; and Gareth Roberts, 20, known as Gaz, a big, hilarious guy with dark hair and a nearly manic smile. Gaz was the only one on skis, and he maintained an antagonistic relationship with turning.
“It looks so much easier on a snowboard,” he complained, half covered in snow after taking a fall to avoid a clump of trees. He'd already broken the display on his cell phone with one tumble, and he'd had some bad luck with his skis. After blowing out an edge on the first pair he was issued (“I have no idea how that happened,” he said afterwards), he had lost a ski completely in deep powder the following afternoon, at the other end of the valley, and had to walk back.
“But it was such a good day up to that point,” he reported, “that it was worth it.” He and the others had discovered the joy of snow sports, and with it the joy of rental equipment.
“The good thing about not having your own board,” Lenny deduced after a particularly spectacular wipeout, “is that you don't have to worry about messing it up. Breaking stuff is always so much more fun when it's not yours.”
They skied until the lifts closed, pushing one another onto terrain far beyond what their skills could handle, and then crawled back to their hotel for a session in the sauna and the pool. We were meant to reconvene later for dinner, but when I showed up at their room, they were all passed out, and the only words I could get out of them were Britspeak synonyms for exhaustion: “knackered”…”shattered”…”gutted.”
“No going out on a powder day,” Chaps mumbled. “No dinner, either.”
Three hours later, I spotted Chaps, James, and Chris at a corner table in the busiest bar in town, holding an impromptu war room, ski map spread out on the sticky, Red Bull–covered table in front of them, all their energy focused on plotting the most efficient route to cover the entire valley the next day.
THE FIRST NIGHT after the snow started, Gilbert had made a bold prediction: “If the sun comes out,” he'd said, “that snow is going to be sexual. Very erotic.”
Wednesday dawned with pristinely blue skies, and with fresh tracks to be had, the Varsity races became little more than a footnote—only half of the 80 skiers who'd signed up for the trials showed. With all the snow-inspired goodwill, the anticipated rivalry never materialized beyond a few good-natured barbs, and the snowboarding squads went so far as to cancel their races in favor of a unified freeriding session.
“We English like to work ourselves up into a big fuss about nothing every now and then,” one Oxford skier confided to me, “but it's not like it's a boat race. That's important, but this is just a piss-up ski holiday.” (Oxford won the bulk of the races, incidentally.)
When I caught up with Gilbert and Hannah on Thursday to see if their sunlit tryst with the white stuff had been as good as anticipated, their enormous grins said yes.
“I feel like a little five-year-old on Christmas Day,” Hannah said, in between complaints about how “buggered” her legs were. “I can't stop smiling.”
They had groggily contemplated the snooze button before looking outside and seeing blue skies and powder. They were on the hill by 9 a.m. and got fresh tracks until the lifts closed. Reflecting on how much ground they'd covered the day before, Gilbert now felt free to indulge momentarily in other pursuits.
“Oh, and look at that,” he said, elbowing me and nodding toward a woman wearing tight ski pants. “If we ski close to her and impress her, maybe she'll want to sleep with one of us.”
He followed her turn for turn the whole way down, mesmerized. By the time I caught up with him in the lift line, he'd decided that, with fresh tracks still to be had, there was no time to waste following women and had moved the conversation on to another of his favorite topics: the strangeness of Austrian culture.
“And who invented lederhosen?” he asked on the lift. “Who says, 'I'd like a pair of leather dungarees and I'd like them short'? It's ridiculous.” Then he burst into song.
“Someday I'll fly awaaaaay…” He and Hannah had adopted a slightly off-key rendition of this ballad from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack as their official theme song for the trip. Unfortunately, neither of them knew any words beyond those four, so Gilbert kept repeating them, over and over, in various keys and rhythms.
“Those aren't the bloody words,” Hannah laughed.
Toward the end of the day, we bumped into Chaps. He'd just gotten a phone call from James, who had gone off-piste with Lenny and Chris that afternoon, following Lenny despite the fact that he'd found his way into two streams that morning. They'd eventually made their way out of the forest but had ended up in “some random town” and were looking for a taxi back to Hinterglemm.
SITTING IN THEIR SUITE before the Farewell Party, Lenny and his friends had been completely transformed by the snow, and it was evident that the stories of this week, embellished slightly, would bond them together long after the trip and be trotted out at parties and weddings for years to come. Chaps was on the phone with his parents—”We've gone from grumpy with no snow to always knackered, because we're out skiing all day,” he said—while Lenny mooned him to let him know the conversation had gone on long enough.
“Yeah, the snow and all the trails being opened turned this trip from shit into a great week,” said James.
Gaz lay on the floor leafing through a skiing magazine, pronouncing, on the basis of his four days of powder hounding, that they should pick a ski resort—Val d'Isèe;re or Chamonix—to work at for a year after they graduate.
“It's really embarrassing that Kat's just a miles better skier than me,” Gaz complained. Why? “Because she's my girlfriend, and it's embarrassing if I'm not better than her at everything.”
As the Farewell Party unfolded later that evening in a huge tent set up under the main gondola, it became clear that the rest of the week's social events—the flügerl-chugging contests, the Bling-Bling Party, the snowball fights—had all been mere training for this final night of debauchery. Gilbert borrowed a waitress's tray to stockpile glasses of wine in anticipation of the open bar shutting down. Lenny, Chaps, and the boys dispatched of a constant supply of flügerl buckets, which they sucked down with two-foot straws. Hannah was dancing on a tabletop, and inter-university snogging was rampant.
On the final morning, I caught up with George, of the Varsity Trip Committee, who was just a few hours removed from frolicking in lederhosen at the Farewell Party. His wide smile at the day of skiing ahead belied his exhaustion. “I've slept in restaurants, on floors, on stairs, and I'm wankered,” he confided. “But that's what it's all about in the end. We have a good laugh.”