19 January 2012

Der schöne Traum

For our last Christmas in the Old World we decided to return to the land of Christmas or somewhere thereabouts. Though the Stubai Valley felt less Christmasy than Christmas in Berchtesgaden 2009, that in and of itself was a welcome relief. No Christmas markets, no nightly fireworks, cannon volleys, or black powder rifles. Not much Glühwein. Few lights or decorated trees. In fact, apart from the candle-lit cemeteries and New Year's Eve noise there was little to distinguish it from any other near-perfect, snow-filled, action-packed ski week. Good.

Before mid-December snow conditions all over Europe were meager at best. It was reported that the month of November was the driest in something like 65,000 years. By the time we hit the road, though, everything changed. Christmas was white and there was plenty of it. The little person was deposited into ski school, the snow began to fall, and life turned exceedingly swell.

The Austrians proved themselves excellent and very friendly hosts; all except one, that is, and unfortunately he married into the family that owned the old Hotel Greier now converted into apartments and the place where we stayed. Franz is his name (of course it is) and because of his inhospitable ways I cannot and will not recommend spending hard-earned money there. On the other hand, the heir to the Greier estate, Gerta (naturally), is lovely if not a bit dingy. Something tells me that Gerta knows well enough of the callousness displayed by the hanger-on she calls her partner. Nevertheless, she keeps a pretty cool place that added plenty of charm to the week.

Of course traveling from inside an apartment is not really traveling. Besides skiing, good food was what we were after and an abundance of it is what we found. The Austrians are masters of soup and few meals passed without a starter bowl of one, usually a knödel suppe of some kind accompanied by a clean and cold Grüner Veltliner.

Other meals included more knödel, Christmas Eve pheasant, New Year's Eve venison, and the kind of picture perfect (if not slightly gaudy) desserts Austria has built a reputation on.

Then there was skiing. The Austrians are interesting skiers. In general the abilities of the Austrians are good to excellent. After all, nearby Alberg is "the birthplace of alpine skiing." It's just that they display some particular curiosities when it comes to the how, where, and when of skiing. For example the hordes of Austrians who make it a daily routine to ski from the bottom of resorts to the top. Seems like an awful waste of mind-numbing energy to me. Then again I don't ski in spandex or on 160 cm skis.

Skirting around their somewhat rigid ideas offers excellent snow conditions four or five days after a storm. In places like Chamonix or Verbier you are lucky to find untracked snow during the storm let alone an hour or two after the snow settles. So for most of the week I did just that: found untracked snow before, during, and after storms. As one able-bodied Austrian put it as I finished an especially powdery run through some small chutes just above a piste that took a measly ten minutes to hike to: "Yes, good, but that's dangerous too." Right-o, Franzy!

Even better skiing was available with short, one to two hour tours into higher cirques, made easier with well-established skin tracks. As usual, the skin tracks, punched into the snow by the same boys and girls who raced up 1,500 meters of groomed pistes, always lead to prominent markings, like the ubiquitous cross or the obvious pass. That leaves plenty to the imagination for those who possess imagination. Like scrambling up cliffy, rocky things and skiing back down them.

That particular day I was not alone. I caught up to a couple of new-skoolers, thirty-something-ish splitboarders who also scoffed at the skinny skin tracks and gorilla turns of the old guard Austrian skiers. Turned out we had the same couloir in mind (how's that for imagination?) so I followed them down a slippery slope. Nice guys. We said our goodbyes on the saddle and in an instant I was alone again with no one but the Tyrolean Alps for companions.

The next tour was even more solitary as it coincided with the near white-out conditions. Not surprisingly, Austrians don't like skiing that much when you can't see. A three-inch long core shot and several falls later when I couldn't see the Earth drop out from beneath me I wasn't sure if I did either. I think I found what I was looking for, though, and it sure was quiet.

The following two days were spent back at the resort. The sky opened and dropped somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) of snow and the skiing turned from very good to incredible. Short steep drops just to the sides of pistes and long runs through trees that were only recently wind scoured and hard packed turned fluffy, bottomless, and effortless. No time for pictures during a gold rush.

I must admit that as much fulfillment and inspiration as I find from climbing and skiing around snowy, rocky places, I've found equal satisfaction and wonder while skiing on the most gentle and tranquil places with Hank. His confidence on skis has grown immeasurably within the last three years in Europe and with that his excitement. To follow him through bumpy ski trails that wind in and out of glades, or to sail with him across the flats, or to straight-line over rolling hills, all the while listening to him yell, laugh, or sing, is nothing short of a complete, crystalline celebration. Watching him and skiing with him reminds me of myself skiing at his age, but more so it reminds me of why he and I--and, apparently, a whole bunch of others--enjoy sliding on snow with two sticks attached to your feet. It's a flight of fancy and it feels like a dream.

We left Austria in an extended dream state after visiting friends in a city of our youth. We experienced Christmas without much thought. We listened to the pops and bangs of 2012 while lying in warm beds in a cold, dark hotel. We escaped the rituals of a holiday season by participating in the rituals of a family. For ten days in the mountains in the heart of Tyrol we celebrated almost nothing else except the intimate act of togetherness. Wake up, ski, eat, enjoy. Repeat the dream.

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