2016-11-29 14:31:19
Skiing the Alps, Making It My Own

One more run. We had to take one more run from the Zehnerkar peak down the steep, snowy trails, beyond the black strings of chairlifts and all the way into the Austrian valley below, where the high-speed gondola would gather us up like parishioners crowding into church and whisk us back to the top.

My legs were tired and trembling a little, but my friends Christoph and Thomas were too excited about the packed powder, sunshine and empty trails in this corner of the Obertauern ski area to stop now. After that next run we would have earned the Alpine refreshments, the spiked mountain-goat milk and the yeast dumpling drizzled in vanilla sauce. There were traditions to uphold, the Wiener schnitzel, the pear schnapps, but most of all the camaraderie that came with our yearly weekend trip to Austria.

I know that sounds extravagant — “my annual trip to the Alps with my friends” — but they’re German, and I was living in Berlin when we started the tradition. Christoph and I would hop down on a short Air Berlin flight to Munich. Thomas would pick us up for the drive to neighboring Austria, where a lift ticket at Obertauern costs less than $50.

On days with decent visibility, the mountains were already discernible in the distance. We would stop at a gas station for chips and candy bars, Haribo gummy bears and sodas as if we were on a school ski trip. To save money we slept three to a room and somehow I always ended up as the one on the pullout couch while the Germans shared the bed.

Capturing that teenage feeling of friends joking and daring and not caring was basically the premise of the entire trip. We set aside one weekend a year without spouses or children or work responsibilities to risk middle-aged limbs on black-diamond slopes. The only other rule was a different resort every time, always a new adventure.

We met an actual princess in a bar in Kitzbühel, and her stepsister asked me what kind of Lamborghini I drove (hint: none). Somewhere a grainy BlackBerry video supposedly exists where I am dancing — in ski boots — on a table at the Krazy Kanguruh slopeside bar in St. Anton am Arlberg (doesn’t quite sound like me). And in a pulsating nightclub in Ischgl full of German, Dutch and Austrian teenagers, we conceded our age and called it an early night (about time). We were rewarded for our judiciousness the next morning with an early start, first up the mountain and out onto the best untouched powder any of us had ever skied.

Over and over again it comes back to that: the mountains all around you, some with elevations over 10,000 feet, black and white crags as far as you can see in any direction. As Albrecht Dürer, inspired painter and traveler of the Alps, insisted, “Truly, art is embedded in nature; he who can extract it, has it.” There would always be that moment, coming off the highest lift for the first time, when some combination of dizziness from the altitude, the bracing wind and the stunning vista would hint at the sublime.

My skiing roots are decidedly modest. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area meant carving the nearby hillocks of Pennsylvania and Virginia with names like Liberty and Roundtop. We would rarely even stay overnight; Dad would wake up my sister and me as early as possible, and we would pile into the brown Volkswagen Dasher station wagon, fortifying ourselves at the drive-through with McMuffins and hash browns.

At that age I had no idea that the mountains were tiny or the waits for the lift interminable. My frame of reference was summer trips to the amusement park, where you stood in line for 20 minutes for the brief thrill of a roller-coaster ride. Skiing beat any roller coaster for me. I felt like the Italian slalom legend Alberto Tomba, despite the poor imitation my snowplow turns were of his muscular moves around each gate. I begged to stay longer every time and kept the lift ticket dangling from the zipper of my ski jacket all winter to remind myself of the fun I’d had.

When I got a little older, there were 10-hour bus rides to Vermont with friends, watching VHS tapes of Warren Miller movies like “Steep and Deep” and “White Winter Heat,” filled with guitar solos and aerial tricks we would never pull off. The cramped journey earned you a spot on slopes of pure ice where subzero windchill gusts rearranged the tiny drifts, like a decorative dash of confectioners’ sugar on a dessert. But the mountains were much taller than those in the mid-Atlantic and the runs were longer. The rush of those solitary slides down the mountain alternated with good talks with friends on the chairlift up again.

A ski accident my senior year of high school sent me to the hospital, and other than one trip with my dad, I took a decade-long hiatus from my favorite sport. When I moved to Germany as a correspondent for this paper and realized how tantalizingly close the Alps were, I made a deal with myself: One day a year, no matter what.

But my promise became a reality only because my friends got onboard. I was the instigator, who began peppering the others with emails starting in October, hounding them until a date was chosen and reservations could be made. Thomas was the driver, leaning on his BMW in his Ray-Bans when we arrived, ready to beat the Friday rush hour traffic with an early start from Munich. Christoph was the navigator of the pistes; his skills as an illustrator came in handy as we puzzled over the stylized blue, red and black slashes on the map, where, to my eternal confusion, you could somehow ski down something pointing upward. Each had his role, the key to assembling a team that travels well together time and again.

This year, on our way to Obertauern, we drove past the Chiemsee, one of the placid Bavarian lakes you pass before you begin the climb into the mountains. The sky was blue with a few cumulus clouds scraping the peaks in the distance. We even saw a mountaintop castle, in case in my jet-lagged state I momentarily thought we were headed for the Rockies or the Sierras.

As usual, we raced to get there in time for a few runs in the afternoon. Saturday was our only full day of skiing, so getting the feel for our skis on Friday was essential. We dropped our bags at the Alpenhotel Perner, changing as quickly as we could into ski pants and jackets.

The nerve-racking moment at the rental shop arrived. Could they find the ridiculous size-15 ski boots I needed? One year we had to go to three different stores before I could squeeze my feet into a pair and missed our Friday start. I watched anxiously as the staffers conferred, then checked the cobwebby back corners of their storage spaces before emerging, chuckling, with the single Sasquatch-size pair of boots in the place.

On the mountain, Thomas barreled full-steam downhill, always skirting the edge of control. Christoph executed one meticulous turn after another, like an ice skater perfecting his figures, or the illustrator that he is, drawing curves on the mountainside with his skis. I alternated between following in his tracks and pointing my tips straight down and hurtling into Thomas’s wake.

“At the beginning, I think, ‘Oh God, why am I doing this,’ but by the third or fourth round, I remember,” Christoph said on one of our lift rides. “This is redemption for being a bad skier as a kid,” he said, then paused for a moment to consider. “I was not a bad skier,” he corrected. “I was a terrible skier.”

The other reason you have to get in runs on Friday, as he pointed out, was that otherwise you felt like a fraud in cavernous après ski bars like the Lürzer Alm, which looks like a peaceful mountain lodge from the outside but transforms into a Brothers Grimm go-go club mixing traditional woodwork and disco balls, where everyone is wind burned and still wearing their gear from the mountain. I was mentally better prepared for the soaring mountains — “White Winter Heat” was partly set in the Alps, after all — than the party atmosphere.

The World Cup Alpine ski racer Bode Miller nearly torpedoed his reputation in the United States with a comment on “60 Minutes” about skiing drunk. In Austria he had plenty of company. We once watched an entire police unit at the bottom of the mountain with Breathalyzers pulling people aside and writing ticket after ticket. After your last run, you plant your skis into the snow, leaving them in the neon forest of equipment outside the bar, and enter a mini-Oktoberfest.

The Latsch’n Schirm in Obertauern looked like a circus tent, with the red and yellow striped roof. Immediately someone called for a round of pear schnapps with a chunk of pear speared on a plastic sword. The music is a beguilingly weird blend of oompah, disco, hair metal and techno, with songs about polar bears and red horses.

When a hundred people clomp their heavy plastic ski boots at once you feel as if the floor is about to drop out from under you. We watched a grown man tear a teddy bear apart until the cottony stuffing blew across the bar while the members of a bachelorette party in snow pants, blue sashes and bunny ears danced together on the bar.

It’s a party every time but one with a clear and blessedly early endpoint. With a few exceptions the hotels are all half-board, including dinner as well as breakfast, so the bars clear out at a reasonable hour as everyone retreats to their hotel rooms for a shower and then down to their meal. The second night, chastened by the first night’s party, we cut the après ski short and had a restoring sauna at the Perner before dinner.

My friend Julia, at her home resort of Ellmau in view of the jagged Wilder Kaiser range, taught me the basics of hearty mountain eating in Austria. You have your staples, like the aforementioned Wiener schnitzel and spaghetti Bolognese, pure fuel for the slopes. You have to drink an Almdudler, the Austrian herbal soft drink, a little reminiscent of cream soda, the name a reference to yodeling. There’s the rösti, a dish of shredded potato with a couple of eggs over easy, which hails from Switzerland. You will break Thomas’s heart if you don’t have kaiserschmarrn for dessert, an eggy pancake chopped up and topped with powdered sugar and served with fruit sauce or compote.

Which leads us back to that yeast dumpling, better known in these parts as a germknödel. It looks a bit like a round lump of uncooked bread dough but is fluffy and delicious and hides a plum jam in the middle. Covered with vanilla sauce and sprinkled with ground-up poppy seeds, it is a miniature mountain in a bowl.

“One more run after this?” Christoph asked. I demurred. My legs were so tired and I was feeling comfortable in the Gamsmilch-Bar, a large mountaintop hut decorated with old wooden poles and skis. Out the window I could see gusts of snow swirling around the cross set high on the peak.

“He’s not up for it,” Thomas said. I took another sip of fortified chamois milk, thinking how those intrepid mountain goats wouldn’t turn in early.

The day was receding and with it Christoph’s flight to Berlin approaching. Each year you had to wonder whether next year would really happen, if the tradition could hold up under the pressure of careers, of children, and with my move back to the States it frankly didn’t seem all that likely.

Outside in the snow, we clicked our boots into the bindings and pushed toward the drop-off, wondering if this would be our last time down the mountain together. I remembered those day trips to Roundtop, pleading with my father to stay a little longer.

“One more run?”

“Maybe even two,” I said. And off we went.