Ski Stories, Retold

Ski Stories, Retold

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Ski Stories, Retold


My parents were avid amateur skiers. For years they have told me the stories of their attempts down the hills and across the countries of Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and Switzerland. My dad becomes animated, imitating the huffing and puffing of his trips and laughing until his belly bounces, a result of less physical activity since those adventures. My mom laughs more quietly and requires more questions to keep her stories going. But both remember the same highlights and downfalls.

When they were both stationed in Bitburg, Germany they signed up for the USAFE (pronounced u-safe-y) ski team. USAFE is the United States Air Force – Europe, the American Air Forces in Europe and European Air Forces.

“Some were very good. They had made the Junior Olympics [before joining the Air Force],” Mom said, “but we were just doing it for fun and a free vacation.”

They had minimal ski practice beforehand, but couldn’t pass up the prospective of a free vacation. They got TDY (temporary duty elsewhere) for the ski competitions, so they didn’t have to take leave time. One competition lasted for a week in Berchtesgaden, Germany, a small village near Austria.

Mom did the giant slalom and the downhill. The giant slalom is a downhill event with two parallel poles called gates spread apart from other gates all the way down the mountain. The object is to ski through the gates in a specified order as fast as possible. Mom can’t remember how well she did but she “maybe made it down.” She said, in reference to the downhill event, “I made extra turns to try to slow myself down. I was fourth place or something; there weren’t many in it. Dad did well in his cross-country event. He was tenth.”

Dad said, “We were lousy.” He chickened out at the top of the downhill. “We had to stand up there, all cold and holding our poles close, and then just throw ourselves down. We got so stiff, and it hurt so bad.”

Mom joined in, “The tension. Oh, we were so tense. Our neck muscles and shoulders. Because you’re up there and so scared. [Those nights] we filled up the hot tub several times.”

Both remembered Harry Morse, the ENT (Ear-Nose-Throat doctor).

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Harry did the downhill. Dad said Harry went back and forth as much as possible. Mom said they all stood at the bottom of the mountain, looked up, and thought it just couldn’t be Harry skiing that fast.

Harry wore antique leather boots on long, wooden skis that Dad had previously only seen on the lodge wall as if they were preserved for posterity instead of use.

“He was older than dirt,” Dad remarked. “He was just the oldest of the group. He was probably only about ten years older than we were,” Mom disagreed. She mused later that she may have only been in her twenties at the time. She is in her fifties now, and perhaps older than Harry? Maybe it was the ski boots that made him seem so old.

Most of their ski trips were not as part of a team. Their favorite place to ski was Biberwier, Austria. This “nice, little town” was also extremely inexpensive. It only cost about $100 for a week’s lodging, lifts, and meals. In the evening a man would entertain with his guitar playing and yodeling. Mom and Dad took ski lessons there. The slopes were less steep than some of the others they have tried. Dad likes to tell the story here of standing at the bottom with the group and watching Mom make “long, graceful curves back and forth.” She seemed to be thinking, Dad said, “I’m going to get there when I get there and nobody is going to rush me. So just shut up.”

The only time they rushed on a ski trip was their back-to-back weeks in Davos, Switzerland, and then Val d’lsere, France. The trek from Davos to Val d’lsere looked simple enough on a map, just a straight line across Switzerland. The unforeseen problem was a few mountains in the way. In the winter, the passes are closed because it is too hard to continue to clear out the snow for safe passing. Well, my parents snuck through the first closed pass and managed not to get stuck. But when they saw the deep snow of the second, they decided driving onto a train to continue through the tunnels of the mountain was a better plan. Mom said the first week was great, but the second week they spent more time trying to recover than skiing.

In Trento, Italy, they may have spent more time eating then skiing. This is the only ski trip Dad ever gained weight on, so he said. “The food was wonderful,” Mom gushed. Whenever my parents tell this story they first mention the food. Three meals a day were served family-style, everyone at one long table. Dinner consisted of five courses: soup, pasta, meat, salad, and dessert. You sat at your assigned seat. If you ordered a bottle of wine, you could just cork it and leave it at the table to finish up at another meal. The napkin got folded each time and slipped into a holder. They changed it only if it got dirty. After lunch, Mom and Dad always had to take a siesta, but the ski slopes were open late, so they could ski well into the night. The hotel sat halfway up Monte Bondone. All the guests had to do was ski out of lodge and down the mountain to start the day off. A lift at the bottom would carry them up to the top. When they were ready to eat, they skied only halfway down the mountain and into the lodge. One nice thing about the lifts was that the Italians made the Germans get in line.

A train over Thanksgiving took the American skiers to Zermatt, Switzerland. The famous curved mountain, Matterhorn, is in Zermatt. Europeans don’t ski until Christmas, so Thanksgiving is the perfect time to go. Well, it seemed to be the perfect time except that it was so cold when my parents were there that my Dad frostbit his earlobes. He wore a silk mask under a full ski mask and still froze. Despite the cold, no one can drive in heated vehicles anywhere in the winter. Horse and sleigh taxis take people where they wish to go.

Similarly, in Lillehammer, Norway, the people don’t clean off the sidewalks because they ski everywhere. The Norwegians eat fat food such as fried fish, but “there are no fat Norwegians.” They pull their grocery baskets on skis. Even the mailman is on skis, pulling his load behind him. Tractors make parallel grooves in the snow because the skis are not designed for deep powder.

Mom and Dad signed up to take cross-country lessons from a little, old man, but they had more experience than the other pupils, so the man told them to go with his wife. His wife took off. They skied about ten miles a day. She zoomed around and chattered away.

“She’d say, ‘hey, look at that deer’ and point out stuff, and I’m dying,” Dad said, “I’m just trying to keep up. It’s bad. Then I fell down and just lay in the snow. She came over, looked down at me and asked, ‘what are you doing down there?’ Uh…” Dad started waving his arms out to either side. “I’m making snow angels. Mom’s boots were so tight that she got blisters and ended up losing four toenails.

In Leysin, Switzerland, glare ice covered the mountain. This is a sheet of ice over packed snow, not the best conditions for skiing because the skis can’t get traction. It’s too slippery. Mom said, “Well Dad found this trail…” Dad’s version was “We got caught on this trail…” The trail was a Black Diamond, the most difficult, steepest slope. Mom took off her skis and sat down. Dad took off his skis, held them close to his body, and tried to dig his heels into the ice. They tried to slide, walk, “just inch” their way down. It took about four hours.

Mom and Dad had several adventures skiing. The European ski slopes are scarier than the American, Dad explained, because “if you go off a cliff in America, then it’s the ski people’s fault, but if you go off a cliff in Europe, then you’re stupid.” America’s ski slopes are “idiot proof” with ropes and signs because American ski companies are afraid of suits and liability. This isn’t a concern in Europe. My parents lost their way, fell down, and exhausted and froze themselves. Luckily, though, my parents did manage to stay on the mountains. And now they have some great stories to tell their children.
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