Stepping into the rental touring bindings in the dark, wasn’t that easy. We were at the snowline, and traipsing around in the mud meant my boots were covered in it. But as I finally got into them, looking up, I noticed the guys were already leaving me in their wet, muddy, proverbial, dust. A fairly regular occurrence, but this time they were going up without me.
We’d arrived in Kitzbuhl earlier that day and it was probably something our guide Markus Noichl had said that got these guys set off so quickly. It was probably the Everest boast. He’d dropped it pretty early on. Yes, he’d climbed Everest. And so had his girlfriend.
“Everest isn’t that difficult,” he’d stated matter of factly in strange South African/Austrian accented English. “There’s just no air.”
The Everest thing had some people’s guards up. It’s true, it was a tad on the pompous side. He’d said it a bit early on in the conversation, but what can you do? It doesn’tneed to be taken as a challenge. But, according to the two leiderhosers I was hanging out with and in a country where the term ego was invented, maybe it does.
Photographer Kari Medig and pro skier Dominic Melanson had as much time on skins as anyone, so the only one that couldn’t participate in this ego battle was me. The only one that actually suffered as they raced Markus up the mountain was me.
Fat and out of shape after months of editing magazines and ‘training’ on an eastern ‘mountain,’ I suffered all the way up. Sweating profusely while freezing at the same time, I kept thinking to myself, “how is this fun?”
Medig and Melanson were against this outing from the onset. I foolishly thought it might be interesting. But, they couldn’t see the point of skinning up an Austrian mountain in the dark unless there was fresh powder. And there wasn’t any. But they agreed to come along and as they raced ahead I followed slowly, and painfully in the dark.
Supposedly, this is something people do in Austria. More for the exercise than any chance at fresh tracks. And as I considered this while suffering an absolute hatred for my current situation, that Pulp Fiction dialogue kept re-occuring in my mind;
–You’ll dig it the most. But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
–It’s the little differences. A lotta the same shit we got here, they got there, but there they’re a little different.
I thought about this and decided Yeah, things are a little different here. I was essentially skinning up to a restaurant. We have those in North America. And you don’t have to burn an Ironman’s worth of calories to get to them.
Finally arriving at the hut, after realizing that I wasn’t going to have a heart attack, I clicked off my skis thankful I didn’t have to go up anymore. What they call a hut in Austria is more of a restaurant on the side of a mountain with no roads leading to it. As I walked in the door I was surprised to see it nearly full. All of these people had skinned up for a nice evening out. As warm air and the delicious smell of Vienna Schnitzel filled my lungs, I realized I was dripping in sweat. Seeing the crew next to the fire, I joined them at the booth. A guy I’d never seen before, obviously a buddy of our guide’s extended his hand and, noticing my sweat-soaked face, said to me, “It’s raining outside?”
Choke-slamming the guy was the first thing that came to mind. Instead, I shook his hand, realized he was the owner of the hut and sat down to rest my wearied body. Then I ordered a beer.
When one thinks of Austria it’s inevitable that skiing comes to mind. Places like Sallbach, Hinterglemm, Innsbruck and St Anton are ingrained in the mind of a skier as far away places that live, breath and eat skiing. And that’s because they do.
The Austrian section of the Alps makes up 62% of the entire country and the farther west you go, the bigger the mountains get as you head further and further into the Alps. Skiing began in many of the valleys in the late 1800’s by young farmers and today, those early beginnings have led to a labyrinth of lifts, resorts, villages and ski culture that are as inextricable from Austrian culture as the mountains themselves.
Austrian Tourism had set us up with a grueling three-week schedule in which we skied a new resort nearly everyday and one tourism district after another tried to out do their predecessor. It was certainly nothing to complain about, but on looking back the entire country is a blur of solid skiing, beautiful architecture and lots and lots of schnapps (perhaps that’s’ what contributed to the blurry part).
We began the trip in the Gastein Valley in the east of the country and though the mountains were not the largest in Austria, the valley had a beautiful rural feel to it as we passed through one spectacularly beautiful town after another. Skiers from throughout Europe seemed enamored with nothing but groomers here and on a good dump, this place must be unbelievable fun.
From there it was on to Saalbach-Hinterglem where we found an endless array of lifts, featuring heated chairlift seats and numerous, beautiful huts scattered throughout the mountains.
You can ski the whole region from the town of Saalbach, to Hinterglem to Leogang without ever taking the same lift twice. And it’s ridiculously large. Ticket sales here averaged 20,000 skiers per day, but you’d never know it; Not once did we wait in a lift line that was longer than ten people long.
Perhaps it was the two-litre beer that did him in. Or maybe it was Google Earth. Dom had seen a ceramic-two litre Stiegl mug amongst the hut’s decorations and pointed drunkenly with one arm, while his other arm was around the leiderhosen-wearing-hut-owner (and everyone’s new best friend), Pinky, saying, “I want that.”
Pinky, ever ready to please, didn’t skip a beat. He reached up to the highest shelf, amongst the dusty old wooden skis, and Austrian bells, grabbed the mug, took it to the bar for a wash and proceeded to fill it with beer.
Then the dice came out, the drinking games began and we learned the third Austrian drinking game in as many nights.
And once Pinky had returned with Dom’s giant beer he joined in the games.
“Twenty-one,” he said, handing Dom a cup with a coaster on top hiding a couple of dice. Though Dom didn’t understand the rules yet, he knew 21 was the highest role. And Pinky had a sparkle in his eye that seemed full of shit. So Dom called him on it.
Lifting the coaster, he realized his mistake. There were the two and the one he thought wouldn’t be there.
Markus handed Dom two ounces of mountain water (schnapps) that were his punishment and the Acadian with a Whistler address looked around the table of Austrians and Canadians, a mish-mash of drinks on the table, the warm fire burning quietly in the background, and gave a scowl as if to say, fuck it, as he slammed it back.
Everything that had happened so far this evening had had that feel to it: Fuck it. As in:
Fuck it, it’s okay to get on the back of Pinky’s snowmobile for a ride to the top of the mountain (drunk and in the dark). Fuck it, it’s okay to race on plastic toboggan type things called dick-bops back down that mountain (drunk and in the dark). And fuck it, it’s okay to nearly kill yourself doing it (drunk and in the dark).
So when we found ourselves back in Pinky’s office while he randomly showed us Google images of Dubai it seemed innocent enough. That is, of course, until staring at a rotating globe that someone else has control of starts you to spinning.
Dom unsuccessfully struggled to put on his jacket before going out into the cold mountain air and collapsing in the snow saying repeatedly, “we need to go home now.” We laughed and joked that Dom was currently experiencing “My own Private Hahnenkam,” and like Todd Brooker circa 1987, Kitzbuhel was having its way with him.
It was at that moment I had two simultaneous “it’s the little differences” moments. One was that I was laughing, and pointing, arm in arm with Pinky (the restaurant owner, remember) as Dom puked over the railings into the snow, and two, that I still had to ski a good 1600 metres downhill (drunk and in the dark) to get back to the hotel.
In Innnsbruck we found ourselves right downtown in the Hotel Innsbruck. The bicycle city of Austria, Innsbruck is buzzing with the vibrancy that only 30,000 students can bring to a town. It’s a classic beautiful city in all the right European ways and is one of those places where you can sit in a café, watching the people as they go about their lives, and think to yourself, “I could live here.” Add to that the fact you can use public transport to get you to 1900 metres within 20 minutes from downtown, or 3333 metres an hour from downtown and Innsbruck really is a ski bum’s paradise.
In St Anton, we started to see fat skis. Considered to have some of the best skiing in Austria, the valley is splattered with villages and the mountains are lined with lifts. And if the Valluga lift, a terrifying dangling gondola that swings freely and gets you up to 2811 metres isn’t enough for you, then the local heli-skiing outfitters could no doubt get you where you wanted to go.
It was here that we got the best snow of the trip, a good 40cm of fresh fell overnight, and it was here that we learned, unlike many of the other resorts we had visited (where groomed runs seemed the most popular), that they live for powder in St Anton.
With over 280 km of piste and 180 km of powder runs this massive area was totally tracked out within 12 hours. If your average Austrian is willing to skin up a mountain for a beer, then the average Arlbergian seems willing to skin out of bounds for one turn.
“Shit, there’s the Biklhoff,” said Kari as we drove right past the entrance to our hotel, “just let me out here.”
The only sound from the front of the taxi were laughs. Markus was not letting us off that easily. We were heading straight to the bar. The legendary Londoner pub in downtown Kitzbuhel, where according to rumour, in a couple of days Bode Miller would rent the place and throw the party of the year. But we couldn’t’ stay as every hotel in Kitzbuhel was booked.
And considering that Dominic had already puked, and passed out once tonight, the last thing we needed to do was stick around for more partying. In fact that last thing we needed to do was go to the bar, period. But it was two days until the Hahnenkam and these Kitzbuhel locals were in training. Plus, Markus had climbed Everest. And even though Kari had won the skin up to the hut, the ego battle raged on.
The skiing down from Pinky’s had been marginal at best. What we could see from the weak headlamp that six of us shared drunkenly was a moguly, icy run that certainly wasn’t worth the skin up. But we laughed and stumbled down it clumsily and realistically, we were getting pretty good at skiing under the influence at night since arriving in Austria. And realistically, it was damn good fun.
The Londoner was a fairly standard British style pub as found throughout the world and as rounds were handed out by our Austrian friends, Dom gained his second wind and we socialized as much as is possible at three in the morning. But we were fading fast and needed sustenance.
Leaving the bar we saw what we needed. A McDonald’s. It always feels a bit lame going to a McDonald’s in a beautiful city far across the pond where the local delicacies are to die for, but sometimes it has to be done. Having traveled extensively throughout the world, and being a tele-marking, coffee snob from the Kootenays, Kari is the kind of guy you expect to pass on eating somewhere like McDonald’s. But he was right there with Dom forcing his way past the guy that was trying to close the restaurant for the night.
And as I stood behind them in line, I drunkenly contemplated Austria and Europe. Tarantino nailed it with his “little differences” dialogue. Everything is just a little different in Europe. Perhaps it’s millennia of cultural refinement that makes the quality of life seem just a little bit better, but those little differences add up. Things like being able to drink in public, the electronic, self-swiping ski passes, the eight-person chairlifts with heated seats and big glass domes that slide down to shield you from the wind, being able to ski from town to town, the train systems that link ski resorts together, or the free wireless in the laundromat I washed my stanky ski clothes in earlier.
And, Austria? Well, Austria is just a great country to ski in. Over 100 years of resort development have created an endless array of terrain and possibilities for the skier. From 300 year old huts, to ultra modern lifts and bus systems, Austria is one hell of a good place to recreate.
It was over these thoughts, that I heard the lactose-intolerant Kari place his order.
“Um, I’ll have a Royale,” he said drunkenly. “Without cheese.”