The God of Skiing: Spider Sabich

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.

 

The God of Skiing

Spider Sabich

By Peter Kray

Of course the same story keeps getting written, and the ending is always the same. It was written the day Claudine Longet shot Spider Sabich in Aspen. Booze and beauty, her angel face in the courtroom, and all the celebrity friends. With no clear explanation of how the gun went off, or how an accident keeps happening.

Spider drank wine from the bottle on the chairlift before races then won them. In the movie Downhill Racer, even though he was already too old for the role, Robertasm hl07 template Redford modeled his character after him—the cocky Colorado kid alone with his talent and Europe a giant playground where he couldn’t understand what the other kids were saying.

Spider had long blonde hair and an easy smile like you were sharing a joke with him. He looked fast standing still, born to walk on that myth of mountain air. It’s hard to say whether she caged or released him.

It was written the day the Germans opened fire in the Apennine, their machine guns and mortars blowing a lethal gust through the men of the 10th Mountain Division; its Ivy League outdoorsmen, mountain climbers, expatriate ski instructors and Olympians. The famed Mountain Troops of Colorado finally in combat, crawling through mud and slush under blistering fire, and killing and dying.

They trained outside Leadville at 10,000-feet in train-soot-soiled barracks in the high freeze of Camp Hale, drunk on the snow and the altitude, wanting for the fight, buoyed by the new friends and all the new mountains they were learning. They rappelled into the grand lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, that honeymoon haven of high society, fresh blonde debutantes and big-balled stock show prize bulls set off on islands of hay, with its ascending black balconies, red carpeted hallways and wood-doored rooms. They filled their packs with stale bread and the wine they could find and scouted and skied the smooth rolling slopes of what would become Vail and Aspen; a fraternity pledged to fight, to stand sentry in the cold and then to sing and drink and know which way the snow will drift and load across the mountain.Sabich&Longet-together200

In Italy they fought like hell to take Belvedere and Riva Ridge from the Nazis when no one thought they could be taken—after full battalions of allied troops had tried for months already to take them. They advanced in the dark, scaling the bare vertical stones of Riva with their ropes and rifles, or sliding through mud and fog toward Belvedere as grenades and bullets rained down in the morning. Champion ski jumper Torger Tokle was one of the dozens killed. Friedl Pfeifer, the godfather of Aspen, spent the rest of his life with German metal inside him.

Those that survived, like Pete Seibert, Bob Parker, David Brower, Paul Petzoldt and Bob Dole, came home and spread like messiahs to America’s mountains. They built its ski resorts, its politics and environmental ethics, and the world’s new standards for mountain climbing and methods for ski instruction.

“Skiing is life,” Parker told me over coffee in a Santa Fe bakery where we met to talk about Strau, and instead discussed St. Lawrence and the coming season. The rain turned to snow. The clouds were low over the wet brown town, stained on adobe walls, and the tall round mountains were hidden. People stopped in the doorway like swimmers in the sound as I bent forward to hear Parker talking.

“Otto Schniebs said that. He was my coach at St. Lawrence before he went to Dartmouth and became a legend. ‘If you are skiing, you are living.’”

He had a gravel voice. There were white patches on his beard, and he was bent like an old tree in the wind. With Seibert, Parker built Vail. He skied the open-run wonder of the Back Bowls before anyone, on tilted pastures and knolls of new snow under a sky so blue it felt as if you were under the ocean. They reinvented the white chocolate fantasy of what they had seen in Europe—the huddled little towns against the hills, brown wood balconies and crystal creeks that shone silver in the sun. It was a kind of dream where they could be heroes forever in the conversations, in the camaraderie of Camp Hale with nature just out the door, the copper-walled bars and one hundred chateaus to drink and screw and ski from.

He went to Riva Ridge 50 years after its surrender to climb with the same Germans who woke to bayonets moving like hot knives through the mists in the morning. It was in the spirit of the hills, the friends who were gone and the love for the mountains. General Klenhart commanded the Germans. He cried when he looked down that impenetrable rock face. “It is not possible.”

“But general, it happened.”

Parker’s hands shook when he talked about the shelling. He stared at the table to say their names. The days he lost to shock before he found himself sitting on the porch of a hospital in Italy, recognizing and not recognizing the bandaged men beside him. He wore a blue anorak and a red plaid shirt and sketched me the route for a ski trip north of Chama on a napkin. It crossed the border between Colorado and New Mexico through long blue mountains. It took a week to ski in the 60s. It was on cattle land.

The cowboys had snowmobiles now, but no reason to check the ridgeline.

Then he said what every skier says, “Sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission.”

When Buddy Werner was caught by avalanche in Switzerland, the story was written again. He was 28 and just retired from alpine racing. He was shooting a film with German Olympian Barbi Henneberger, and it was said they tried to outrun the wall of snow crashing down behind them.

Werner was the first ski cowboy, from Steamboat, a town synonymous with cowboys and snow days since him. There is a mountain outside the town named after him, a museum, and a nationwide junior ski program. For decades he was the only American to win the Hahnenkamm, and the Holmenkol when he was just 17. But injuries and off days in three Olympics kept him on the sidelines, a poet’s legend. In 1964, just months before he died, before he retired, in a first for American men, he watched Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga win silver and bronze behind Austria’s Pepi Stiegler in the Innsbruck Slalom.

For me, the story first began, and ended, in the Himalayas in the 1970s when Hollywood began feeding rumors of a failed marriage between the CIA and ski mountaineering—of climbers fighting Communists, mountain rebels on the goatpaths and dark-bearded operatives parachuting in. Fritz Stammberger disappeared. He is still missing.

Stammberger was another one of Aspen’s alpine expatriates with the thick lips and strong high cheekbones. He was a German printer who went alone up the steep, wild slopes of Asia, Europe and Colorado’s mountains. He gained fame for his ascent of Cho Oyu in Tibet—the world’s sixth highest peak—and for skiing from 24,000 feet in a losing attempt to save two downed companions.

On Aspen’s Maroon Bells, the “Deadly Bells,” he began to rebuild the path past the ski resorts to the untamed peaks, high passes and bare ridgelines. He put skins on his skis every morning and strode to the top of Aspen Mountain. To train for the cold, he melted snowballs in his bare hands. He became a god to me the summer I met him.

It was August in Denver and we walked in the shimmering heat under the Dutch elm trees to City Park and the Natural History Museum, beneath the towering spruce at the front of the park to the Phipps Auditorium. It was a rambling community theatre with the long sloping walkway down to the seats and red robe drapes at the sides of the stage where Stammberger’s movie, The Death Zone, was playing.

The theatre is an Imax now, with four-story sharks, polar bears as big as a bus and stadium seats that fall to the floor so the closer you lean toward the screen the cho-oyu-21181-hd-wallpaperscloser you are to disappearing. But Stammberger showed his movie on a pull-down screen and talked at a little wooden lectern about the dangers of high altitude climbing:“The Death Zone,” where the air is so thin your body starts to feed off itself in some strange feast of self-cannibalization.

My father talked to him in the aisle. People looked at us as they were leaving. Stammberger put his hand on my shoulder and I felt as if I were standing in a sunbeam. He glowed, his proud nose and his clear eyes, and my parents glowed back at him. And I thought about what he said that day we pulled Tack Strau’s body off the mountain and the snow fell as fast as white rain.

“Is he skiing?”

The God of Skiing: South America

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.

 

THE GOD OF SKIING

By Peter Kray

SOUTH AMERICA

The second time he disappeared everyone said he ran off to Argentina with Marc-Andre, that lanky grinning badger, the reckless French Canadian. The two of them talked about it like a dark green dream at the bottom of the world filled with fields of super skinny cigarette smoking licorice-haired girls who got plastic surgery for bigger lips and bigger butts but wanted tinier tits and had reductions. In Buenos Aires they met up with Marc- Andre’s friends who ran a tour DSC04605operation. They took a train through the Lake District and hired a car to the grasslands. They went to Las Lenas, above the treeline where everyone keeps their goggles on. To Chile, eating fried guinea pigs and washing them down with wooden cups of wine. They found work in the bars, or on the hill as avalanche control in La Parva or Portillo, the tiny private village where the World Cup racers come in August and September to train for the season.

But then they said that he fell in love with the little New England girl with short-black hair and sharp granite eyes who skied like a loping deer and spent her summers teaching skiing in Australia at Thredbo, or Hotham. So he had stopped in Australia then went to New Zealand. He dropped acid every day, living on beer and water, on trekking skis where the slopes echo tree-less as beaches, white and blue and beyond. He was in the saddle of some perfect ridge with just his sleeping bag, a pot for coffee and two bunks, and outside his hut was a crown of mountains.

“You follow the season.”

Other skiers were there though, and no one had seen him. So they said he left me the dog to drive south with Miller, through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, down broken roads with bad weather and bandits to the brown-white sands of Nicaragua where they would surf through August and come back in the Avocado, Miller’s old green Ford truck with the weather-beaten white camper and more than 100 pounds of marijuana to smoke and sell so they wouldn’t have to work all season. He was cutting trees in British Columbia. Guiding rivers in Alaska. And I was just borrowing the dog.

Someday, I would have to give Toby back to him.

 

***

 

The God of Skiing — Chapter 1

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.

THE GOD OF SKIING

Chapter 1

By Peter Kray

The Sports Illustrated story was called, “In Search of Strau: What’s become of the daredevil king of collegiate skiing?” I was in high school when it ran. The photo on the page was the first time I ever saw him, standing on the stage at the NCAA Championships on the top podium.

DSC02530-1(1)He was golden and glowing like a statue in the sun. Like a movie star with his broad Swiss face, his white crooked smile and his wheat white hair blowing in the wind. His eyes were as blue as deep water and he stood out from the crowd like a sunflower he was so tall and tan.

He was the quarterback just come off the bench to win the game, except with something tattered and about to be broken. In the scar that cut from his right temple to his cheek. In the careless way he raised the silver trophy in his right hand. You wanted to be there to catch it for him. To tell him that his red speed suit was torn and his biceps showed through at the arm. To show him how his long black skis were both bent at the tips, and how the two other skiers on the stage, the posters, green, red and blue banners and people in the crowd were all falling out of focus in a swirl of color behind him.

The story counted up the long list of come-from-behind victories and heartbreaking wrecks in two columns right beside each other until they began to seem like the same thing: the stunning wins where he careened down the course and everybody forgot to breathe as he zipped by, or the quiet after the crash before the blood hits the snow and the skis are still sliding. From triumph to tragedy, one after another, they read like the made up rumors of some distant, crazy cousin.

His fluid, aggressive style in the downhill and Super G was described as ‘angry,’ ‘feral,’ and even ‘pathologically transcendent.’ It shocked collegiate racing. He skied so close to the gates that they would explode from their moorings. They were left flopping in his wake. Sometimes it seemed he skied right through them.

For two years at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York—where Bob Parker of the 10th Mountain Division had gone to college, and where I would go too—he built his own East Coast legend. He won races from way back in the field when the spectators were starting home and the courses were rutted and rotten. He ran from the top of the mountain all the way to the bottom on icy blue pavement like tilted frozen lakes through the trees where it’s only glory or ruin; where only because of their balls, their fear or their fuck-it-all skiers first see if they can survive, then win. And Tack won downhills by a whole second sometimes, which is good as a mile in skiing. Or he crashed so spectacularly that a hush ran up the hill.

“Is he dead?” “Will he ski again?”

They would rush back to the orange fencing when they heard his split-time come over the PA system. Those early East Coast drunks, leaving their beers on the bar as they ran outside for that glimpse of a shooting star—the vapor trail of snow as he was passing. Shouts erupted from the finish line as the adrenaline went through someone. Or there was a collective gasp as he sailed into the woods like a car off the road and everybody waited for the explosion; the blue and red fiberglass poles burst like fireworks, the horse breaking its stable and the raceworkers standing dumbstruck as it happened.

“Tack ‘Tornado’ Strau,” the announcer would say. “Let’s hope he’s not hurt too bad, ladies and gentlemen.”

But he never missed a race. No matter how badly hurt he was, he was always back the next weekend. He hid the bulk of tape around his fractured ribs with an extra turtleneck and told his coaches he was cold. His broken wrist with bigger gloves. He took off an eye patch on the lift and stayed off the drugs to pass the piss test, choosing alcohol over Percodan.

Between his ribs, his arms, his legs and hands he broke 17 bones. But it said you would have to look to see where it slowed him. It said, “He smiles like a joke he shouldn’t tell, with perfect white teeth and thick Swiss lips that are always burned and cracking. He laughs like coffee, like some party or fistfight about to happen.”

He drank after races with his growing legion of fans, the “Scarecrows,” who took to making phony casts, wrapping themselves like mummies in toilet paper and blacking their teeth with markers and charcoal to cheer him. At the NCAA championships in Lake Placid, he annihilated the field in both his disciplines. Then, almost as a joke, he entered and won the slalom. In the post-race interviews he revealed to a reporter that a week before he had torn the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during a training run. He said the doctor told him he needed surgery and at least four months off before he could ski again.

“Why risk it?”

“It’s like being pocket rich,” he said. “You spend it when you can.”

And then that immortal quote: “If it weren’t for gravity, I’d probably be in Nebraska building engines.”

***

Photo by Chris Denny

The God of Skiing — Introduction

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.

 

THE GOD OF SKIING
INTRODUCTION
By Peter Kray

Their stories are trapped like butterflies under ice. And their exploits and adventures disappear over the years in the wind. In the high mountain towns they gather the sun on their faces like poor playboys, drunk in the bars at night, never worrying about anything except when it will snow and when they might feel the warmth of someone else’s skin. They travel through blue air and black clouds across the cold peaks of Montana, Switzerland, the Himalayas and Patagonia, alone and unknown, up against the sky like lost angels looking for their broken wings.

Of those few that are revealed to the world, there is something that marks them: the racers like Jean-Claude Killy, the beautiful French Olympian, Franz Klammer, the “Kaiser,” who rode like a rocket down the Strief, as if the hounds of hell were behind him, and Hermann Maier who ruled the World Cup with an iron fist before he nearly severed his leg in a motorcycle accident and then returned to race and win again; the daredevils like Pierre Tardivel, the French ski mountaineer who still claims four first descents in the lightning cracked gullies and slim couloirs of the Alps each season, and the black-haired, white-toothed wolves like Patrick Vallencant and Jean-Marc Boivin, his dead countrymen.

They were dead before Paris-Match got tired of publishing the pretty pictures of the sheer chutes they skied, their windburned smiles and the green-eyed models and red helicopters they rode in. Then Doug Coombs was dead too, his big toothy smile and friendly face gone over the rocks in La Grave so that North America still mourns its guru of big mountain skiing. He joined the ranks of history alongside Sondre Norheim, the Norwegian ski evangelist forever linked with the freeheel turn, Davo Karnicar, the iron-gripped Slovenian that first skied from the summit of Everest, its rock-jawed groom, Arlberg’s peasant-faced Hannes Schneider, the godfather of the modern style of skiing, and Tack Strau, the far-eyed cowboy whose brief, shining career as a collegiate racer and whose strange disappearance and subsequent first descents in the tall peaks of the Tetons and the Chugach seem to double in legend each season.

Some say he was the sport’s last great sensation—the last best that’s ever been. What he did was so pure, so truly close to flight, that he moved across the mountains like a raven, riding the open space and empty sky with only gravity and his strange sense of god to guide him. Even in the danger—especially in the danger—when it was rotten snow stuck to the side of a cliff and only disbelief and speed that kept him from falling through the rocks, he looked like he was skiing in slow motion.

It is because of the story in Sports Illustrated, the few newspaper clippings and photos people collect like stamps that they say if he had lived for even one more year…well, who knows then. Mourners pass. The flies dry in the window. And time fades and blooms again. For me, it wasn’t until Jackson Hole tore down its big red tram that I realized I had held this story inside for too long, and I took the beer and wine-stained notebooks from the all-night airplanes to Munich, the hotel bars in Montreal and piss-torn couches in Aspen and rented this little apartment in Soelden to wait for the World Cup campaign to begin again.

In order to tell what’s true, I made up a couple things. But only to balance out what I’m still afraid of telling. And I present the events as much by year as I do by season, which means you can call it a novel if that makes it easier to understand. Or a documentary. Or skiing’s double album. It is the celebration of a sport made of cold and clouds and the anticipation that the white water will come to wash us clean again. It’s the explanation of why Tack Strau told the reporter in Alaska, “Skiing is made of gravity and speed. It’s dying all the time.”

 

Photo by Graham Gephart

40 Years Outdoors

In 1972, I was living in the house on Niagara Street in Denver with the sandbox in the back where my dad would cut our hair. There was a flagstone porch as wide as a stage and the sour apple tree with the bucket beneath it where our big German Shepherd Toby would stick his head and think that he had become invisible because he couldn’t see us — and wouldn’t come — when we called.

It was the year I broke my nose in three places when I took a Flexible Flyer to the face sledding up above Lakewood on what we called “Motorcycle Hill.” I had to sleep for three weeks sitting up so the infection wouldn’t spread to my brain. And every time we drove by that hill, I would press against the window to watch for hangliders pushing off from their perch, falling at first like stubborn, stuttering birds. I would listen closely to the stories about whenever any one of them was fried like a barbecued hippie Pterodactyl in the power lines below.

“C’mon,” my father would say on the trail, as much coaxing as he was commanding. “There’s just another mile to go.”

I was just beginning to learn how to read and write, but I could already carry my own pack and smell the weather through the window. And I could start to see the difference between the world I was beginning to live in, and the world I was starting to know. The way we crossed little creeks on cut logs like they were rivers that fed the world. Those first flags that we planted in our minds with every view. And the way the gas stations excited us like malls out there in the mountains, with all of the baseball cards and Slurpee cups and sugar that they could hold.

It makes you who you are, the way the sun comes down through the aspens on the trail. The smell of pine so damp and sudden, and your initials carved onto your own camp cup so that the memory of Tang tastes like metal even now. That natural magic you could always imagine out there with the eagles and Indians all walking on clouds, and the proud wolf with his worried eyes, and the wise, curious black bear. How all of that stuff has always been better than any of the shit I ever learned in school.

If it changed, then it changed the way it always does, so that some barometer, both real and imagined, both media and mental, was always insisting that the experiences had to get deeper, and the stories had to get better, and that sense of danger you might find started to become more important — more awesome! — than all of the times you spent just sitting on a ridge staring into the infinity of a sky full of blue mountain air.

“Do you want to get high?”

“Do you want to race?”

“Have you ever tried other boots?”

So that the accessories become the biggest part of the conversation if you want them to. And all of the things that were inconsequential when you started, when all you knew was that you were outside, can begin to get bigger than the experience itself. So the spice becomes the meal.

In the 1970s, there were already people getting high on mushrooms and climbing the Flatirons on rollerskates wearing tutus. In the 1980s, there were guys in Adidas short shorts and Vuarnets talking about their heart rate like it was some scientific breakthrough, and the math of carbohydrates they burned going uphill. In the ’90s, there were the people who watched their watches instead of the view, accelerating each outdoor event into a kind of race with themselves, then going off to save the world with all of the time they saved, I suppose.

“It was a personal best, dude.”

I want to be clear when I say this, “I don’t really care.” That’s because what I do care about is something that we don’t seem to talk about enough anymore. Which is all of that magic out there — or that was out there — including those watchful wolves, those patient arcing whales and the mighty grizzly bears.

What I mean is that there are magical parts of our world that are literally getting the shit kicked out of them right now. From habitat encroachment (obliteration) to poaching to a vast array of vanishing natural resources, we are the cause, the agitator, the consumer and the disease in so many places on this planet, demanding no matter how much it hurts that every ecosystem provide more, more, more.

Maybe it’s naïve to think there was more hope for the natural world 40 years ago, long before we knew about things like climate change, tar sands, mountaintop removal and how with every tank of gas we buy we all feed the tyranny of big oil. If I could put a finger on it, I would say that we have lost our backbone, and the will to change or stand alone in protest of something that we know is wrong. And maybe the anniversary of this magazine provides one more chance to remind ourselves that we are all still here, united across the Rockies by our collective cherishing of all those pristine places

Maybe it’s one more reminder that it is really up to us to work to keep all of that natural, dangerous, breathtaking magic real. To keep working to ensure that the wilderness is wild, and to keep helping to decide how the future thinks of us all.

Editor-at-Large Peter Kray is a lover of dogs, beer, and pouring tall bourbons for his lovely wife. He is the author of “American Snow” and “The Monster,” and for the past five years (OK, 10), has been telling himself this is the year he finishes writing “The God of Skiing.” He may be right. Kray lives in Santa Fe.

A look at gear and the good old days over these past 4 decades.

Kitzbuehel

In Denmark, scientists used carbon dating on a ski discovered in Greenland in 1997 to reveal that the single board was at least 1,000 years old. They said the 85-centimeter plank, made from larch, was a common tool for winter travel used by the Norsemen who, in 980 A.D., somehow first crossed the cold open ocean. Older skis have been found in Mongolia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. There are Chinese cave paintings of hunters on skis thought to be more than 2,000 years old. The ski predates Christ, and in some regions, even the wheel.

But the modern birthplace of the sport of skiing is in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where the Hahnenkamm, alpine skiing’s most-famous roller coaster, is run every year. Begun in 1931, the race down the steep white throat of the Strief has only ever been interrupted by drought or war. The entire World Cup was built around the drama of the Mausfalle, and the shudder when you first drop down that face like a man falling by the window.

When Jean-Marc, the Frenchman, asked me to watch “The Race” with him, I felt as if there were offerings I should bring or old precious clothes I should wear. As if he were inviting me to Mecca, or telling me that we would be drinking lager from the Holy Grail. The two of us had met on a press trip and had talked about starting a magazine together, and had become friends in the little pleasures we took in the particulars of travel — a glass of wine with lunch in Italy, or the quality of German beer. I remember how his face lit up when they gave us a Mercedes Kompressor at the rental desk in Munich because they didn’t have the car we had reserved. On the Autobahn, he kept pushing it faster whenever the speed limit lights above the road were clear.

“Ahh,” he smiled. “I have a mee-stress now.”

He had the face of a sunburned badger, like one of those retired athletes on the sideline watching the score. He had the big strong Gallic nose, a shaggy head of pepper hair and sleepy blue eyes that lit up when it was his turn to lead the conversation, which he adored.

He said, “T-e long-eng is too Ameri-can,” when I told him about the book I wanted to write, and the story I wanted to tell. “You pee-pull all-ways talk about what ees-ent t’ere.”

The adrenaline of gravity was still on our faces like coffee with Schnapps from skiing all afternoon. We drank yellow glasses of cold Pilsener at the hotel outside of Orderndorf, outside of Kitzbuehel, and decided we would make a movie about the World Cup season. When the waitress came by, we ordered a bottle of wine and asked for menus too.

“We weel call it t-e Alpine Cir-cus,” Jean-Marc said with boozy authority. “It wheel show what we fee-yul.”

The highlight would be of the Hahnenkamm: behind the scenes with the coaches pacing in long parkas and foreshadowing shots of the slope like an icy slide straight to oblivion; the Austrian soldiers grooming the course with crampons on so they don’t fall off the edge of the earth. And the orange fencing down the Streif like a luge to the first gate covered with the “yellow line” from the piss of fear.

By the time the racers reach the first gate, they are going 70 miles per hour. The name of each winner, the flag of his country and the year he won is painted on the gondolas that you ride up the mountain. Buddy Werner, 1959, was the only American for more than 40 years, until Daron Rahlves won on a shortened course in 2003. And when we thought about who we would follow for our movie, I insisted one be an American, such as Rahlves or Bode Miller. Jean-Marc wanted one to be French, and of course, an Austrian, like Maier.

“But the French are no good.”

His thick face flushed. He looked around the room.

“Swiss?”

“They’re fading. It would be better if we could find an Italian.”

“Italian?!” Jean-Marc exclaimed, and looked at his big dark hands as if he had given up smoking only weeks before. “Merde.”

The crowds filled the streets. The bars were open all night, and more than 100,000 people took the bright red trains up from the cities, from the farms with their gray, tall uber-Abner bumpkin hats, red and white painted faces and cases of Zipfer biere. Most of them didn’t even bother to get a room, staying warm on the beer and the gluehwine as whole families — mom, dad and the kids — all got drunk together.

But they were good drunks. So we hardly saw any fighting. We would film that too, how skiing was their national pastime and their birthright in the cold speed, the crosses on the peaks and the endless road of snow. We would film the finish lines and high-speed crashes where the racers are into the nets like tossed dolls, like splaying, unfortunate fish. And in the starting house where it’s the cold and the nerves at the same time and there is always the idea of an ocean somewhere far below.

We would film their eyes as wide as headlights as they watched the mountain unfold. The size of the legs they ran on. Their feet skimming the slope. We would make gods out of wind and wine and the history of candy-coated towns with blue walls and warm windows; a beautiful eternity forever lost in the perfect faces of passing women, and that sound of our heels clicking on the cobblestone.

“Austria is t-e heart t-at’s all-ways beat-ing!” Jean-Marc said, and pounded his fist against his chest. “Eet is a love song now.”

It was a beautiful meal, the pumpkin soup in a thick orange broth and the buttery tenderloin of Chateaubriand. Headlights were curving by on the narrow road as it started to snow. I looked at the waitress in the long green Austrian dress and black vest with the straight black hair as we waited for the Williams and thought, “And my room is so close.”

I thought about how a split second can last a lifetime and how for ski racers it’s more important to win the Hahnenkamm than gold. “Because all t-e other race-airs know.”

“Kaiser Franz,” Franz Klammer, waited seven seasons between his third and fourth victories, an entire career. It was only for The Race that he even kept at it. He was still handsome and strong in the easy way he admitted it the night we had dinner with him as the guests of Head Skis, talking about how simply his victories could have been failures, “Maybe that is what I miss the most,” he said. “The nerves.”

The next day, we stopped at the top of the gondola where there is a small museum with posters and photos and a restaurant with big glass windows that looked toward the valley where the racers were all sitting by the fire. It was the first day of training and there were half-eaten plates of sausage and bread, half-empty bowls of cereal, little espressos that went untouched and songs that kept starting and stopping. From a few tables away, we could smell their fear.

“I would say ‘good luck,’” the Frenchman said. “But dey would not hear-ear.”

“The training’s even harder,” Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe told us when we went looking for former racers to interview. “Because you still have to ski the course and there’s nothing to win, or lose.”

Von Hohenlohe was a Mexican-Austrian prince and part-time rock star, who performed as Andy Himalaya or Royal Disaster. His black hair was down to his shoulders and he had thick black sunglasses and a Mexican flag on the back of the black parka that he wore. His beautiful blonde girlfriend was as fine as fresh snow. Each turn of her head revealed another discovery of her white smooth-skin, and she held a cigarette as if it were breathing on its own.

“Can I light that for you?”

Von Hohenlohe said the organizers might as well canvas the mental hospitals to try and find skiers to forerun the course — to “set the line” down the frozen groomed face for the racers to follow. He told us about being on the World Cup, and the last time he raced at Kitzbuehel. The two skiers he was traveling with were a Swiss who had skied for eight campaigns and was thinking of retiring, and an African from Senegal.

“What do you think is cheaper,” the Swiss racer asked Hubertus before the event, wondering if he shouldn’t just go and wait at the next race after the Hahnenkamm. “The hotel in Wengen, or the hospital in Kitzbuehel?”

The Swiss skier chose the hotel. “But the downhiller from Senegal did come,” Hubertus smiled. It was a flashbulb smile. “He didn’t know enough to be scared.”

He said they were like pirates off the train, with their bags, their bright coats and the bottle of wine that they shared. They stopped at every bar. It took them seven hours to make it to the hotel. But they couldn’t stop the morning, and on the gondola, they hardly spoke a word. They dressed like deep-sea divers beneath the deck, pulling their race suits on where it was cold as a morgue. Hubertus said he was curious to notice how his Senegalese friend was getting so pale. “It was a transformation, really,” he said. “He did not look well.”

They stood against the fence to watch the training runs, catching their breath as the first racers came by, and dropped away like marbles. So the Senegalese kept getting paler as he suddenly turned to von Hohenlohe and demanded, “Do you believe in god?”

“Of course,” von Hohenlohe replied. “I am a Christian.”

Then the next racer came, with the battered fabric and desperate scratch of skis as he disappeared down the Streif, on his way to the stark sudden drop of the Mausfalle, where he would have to fight with all his body to resist the forces of gravity and velocity trying to pull him sideways off the hill.

He flew like they all do, like an awkward reluctant bird toward the steep face of the Steilhang. Into some certain disaster or glory waiting far below.

The Senegalese was white as a ghost. He asked von Hohenlohe, “But does god believe in you?”

Peter Kray is the editor-at-large for Mountain Gazette, and according to Fayhee, a hopeless romantic in every sense of the term. His new book, “American Snow: The Snowsports Instruction Revolution,” will be published by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors on Nov. 21, 2011. 

Talismans

Tack would talk about winter nights speeding through the farmlands of Pennsylvania, careening across blue ice toward bare trees in the headlights when he told his mother, “Don’t be surprised if I don’t make it home.” The pigs whose throats he slit, chickens he chopped and a cow he shot, “the first bullet bounced off her head,” when he couldn’t stuff her uterus back in.

He was climbing in the orchard when the FBI came to dig up the makeshift grave of a murdered small-time crook that became a scene in the movie “At Close Range.” He said the smell was “Piss on perfume.”

He didn’t like riding chairlifts. “You’re just sittin’.” Or sleeping. “Because I get bored.” So it was strange how busy and anxious he said he was for how calm he seemed. Only his foot would be tapping, or his big blue eyes were looking around. But when he moved, it was like being stuck in concrete in a dream. I had to run when he walked. When he ran, I had to start sprinting. He was like a bigger animal, a bigger track ahead of you in the snow. I knew I was going to get better just by being near him. And that I was in danger because it would take me to places I would never go alone.

“As long as you don’t fall, you’re fine.”

I put together a bag of things to keep me safe: a plastic soldier with skis over his shoulder, a red rubbed corner of ski wax, the pewter angel my mother gave me, and from the truck that night, Tack’s tiny stone.

It’s as soft as the river, weighted like the wind. And I wonder if there isn’t some memory of his touch, some lingering moment of surprise like when it skipped across the water and sank for a million years or was blasted back to the surface in a volcanic eruption; a sense of glaciers and rivers and wonder at how the world can seem so intimate and infinite at once, like from an open window to the back of your mind.

My friend Penn has a St. Christopher medal, the patron saint of skiers. Esteban from Chile has a snowflake tattoo and a silver ring. Miller wears black sunglasses and Marc-Andre carries a picture of his little girl. He showed it to me in Mont Tremblant that night when we knocked wood at the mention of snow and remembered how we learned the language that we use.

“I’d never heard that word.”

The first story I ever published was about Tack Strau, about the two-story cathedral windows that faced the Tetons in the house we shared on Sylvester Lane. How on clear days it seemed we were at sea, drifting below black ragged shores. And on the big snow days the glass would rattle with the bombs. Sometimes we could see the flares rising like matches against the mountain before we felt the “boom.”

There were lots of stories in bigger magazines by people that never knew him, with quotes that were 10 or 15 years old from when he was still in college, still racing. My story ran in Couloir Magazine a year after he was gone, when the place was already starting to become something of a soul-filled ski bum shrine.

Couloir ran a spread featuring the giant black woodstove in the living room. It could eat an entire pine tree in an hour. To feed it, we stacked six cords of wood against the wall in the three-car garage and froze our trash out there until the spring. We played tennis ball hockey under carpenter’s lights, only stopping when we got too drunk or someone was really bleeding — two events that often seemed to occur at the exact same time. You could see the two torn couches and the news from Idaho on the television. The cream-colored carpet looks black, it hadn’t been vacuumed in so long, and the hall to the garage was just exposed insulation and uncovered beams.

It wasn’t the kind of place to meet girls, but all night long other Skids would drop in. Someone would bring a couple of beers or a bottle of Beam and we would stare into the fire and pick at guitars and try to remember the lyrics to certain songs. “Take me down, little Susie, take me down … ”

We rented the loft to Virgil, a narrow-faced boy from Virginia with lemonade veins and newspaper skin. He had a golden hoop earring and a little red ponytail like Thomas Jefferson. Tack said he was “a pilgrim” who couldn’t believe that the Tetons existed until he created them in a poem or a letter back home. And one night, Virgil proudly told us. “Since I have been here, I have not had one intelligent conversation.”

The front door opened onto the dirt lane that led to the Village Road. And the back door opened onto a giant plank deck like a woodcutter’s dancehall, where Tack had shot a magpie and nailed it upside down above the frame. They had been stealing Toby the Dog’s food off the deck — that was their crime. The magpies and crows together had measured the length of his rope and squawked their oily gossip every time he “gacked!” at the end of the line.

“That shit’s got to end.”

Tack said the other birds would read it like a keep out sign. “They’re smart birds,” he said, right before he took his .22 rifle and put a red buttonhole straight through the white chest of one of them.

There was a pop and he fell off into the grass, then it was quiet like the whole world was waiting. And as I picked up the little warm body, I was surprised by how light it was, but then I figured that’s how it happens. And the birds did stay away. But so did the storms. So it got to be a week after Thanksgiving, with the sky as still as glass, like the sun was painted on.

What clouds there were seemed lost, the dust of nomads disappearing in the dawn. “Don’t say a goddamned word.”

We tried not to talk about the spiders crowding into the house to hide from the cold that was sure to be coming, and how the grass that supposedly grew as high as the snowpack was “plenty tall now!” Or even that all the cows had been facing north along Spring Creek Ranch Road that morning. But when Short Fat Bald Stewey shot an elk that had built up five inches of fat for the winter, we couldn’t help but begin.

“Them boys know somethin’!”

“Even if it was a waste of time.”

Short Fat Bald Stewey made us big juicy elk burgers as soft and red as velvet inside at his trailer one evening. We brought potatoes and beer and some hot peppers we had grown in the yard, so that Bald Stewey’s head was soaked in sweat as he started babbling about how many storms we were going to get, and how “DEEP! it’s gonna be,” and Tack handed him a Pabst and said, “It ain’t snow until it’s on the ground.”

Still, the superstitions burned. Bonfires were built with old skis at parties where high-pressure bubbles were metaphorically “popped” by some hippie driving a knife into a balloon. There were kegs, barbecues and one-night bands, and non-stop speculation about unusually intense volcanic activity in the Pacific where the entire ocean was apparently being drained. Clouds were filling like freighters. There were “unmistakable signs.”

It’s only two or three storms that separate a good season from a bad one, Tack said. “Four or five nights when the snowflakes run by the window like old friends with a bottle of wine.” And those chances are thrown through the prevailing weather patterns, jetstreams, melting glaciers, warming ocean water and the way the clouds can build all day with the drama of a deluge until the wind blows it out all blue and gone.

“You buy a pass. You put your money down.”

Each season, we bet that the skiing would be as good as it has ever been. That black clouds would tear their bloated bellies on the jagged peaks like shipwrecked galleons. Then the snow would spill like confetti, and once it started, it would never stop, as if the weather were just a wheel that needs to be primed. We made little deals in the dark and put prayers on the wind. Until like a black answer, the weather came back, right behind the ravens flapping back over the house like burnt trash blowing in.

“Sqrawk!” the first raven said, as fat as resin, dripping in sin. And we looked up to see the bloated wraith beating the air with his wings, coming over slow, rubbing it in. He called and was answered, and the sky was suddenly filled with them. “Sqkrawk!” the others sang, flapping in pairs and one by one. They came off the mountains and telephone lines, gathering at the edge of the fields in a big wide pine.

“Crow party.”

“Somebody called a meeting.”

It was like a mob reunion. Like limousines rolling in. And, in minutes, there were more than 30 of them, squawking from branch to branch like black bandits planning which barn to burn.

“You think that magpie was their friend?”

I thought I should pick up a shovel to stand them off if they came. And Tack watched so deliberately that, when he blinked, I half expected to see one sink like a kite to the ground. “They’re social birds,” he said. “I know a guy that puts a tape of them beneath a tree, and when they come to see what’s up, he starts blasting.”

“That’s false advertising.”

“No,” he said. “It’s for a golf course. He kills crows for golfing.”

Toby the Dog was just one year old then. His little black ears were folded like triangles as he sniffed the air like he was trying to figure the wind, sniffing up against a post where he liked to pee and was getting ready to pee again. But then one last late raven soared by and sang, “Ach! Ach,” and Toby’s stout little doggie body went stiff before he jumped up and barked back at him.

“A-roo-roo-roo,” he yelled, then bolted off across the grass so fast that all I could see was his fuzzy tail like a flag as he ran.

Tack just laughed and said, “There goes your dog, man.”

Editor-at-large Peter Kray lives in Santa Fe, from where he edits shredwhiteandblue.com.

Denver

Farmers pray for clouds, with dirt beneath their nails as they watch the sky and wish for rain. Sailors feel their hearts beat in time with the tides, and the saltwater flowing through their veins. And in Denver, the mountains stand at the end of every westbound street like a neighboring magic kingdom, succeeding blue waves that never break along the horizon.

Winter turns them into white castles. The weather and seasons come through them; the gold at the end of the day at the house by the airport when the jets were over the roof and there was a drawer filled with plastic-wrapped butterflies that my brother and I spread out on the table in the kitchen. The older kids married me to the French girl down the street in a soda-pop wedding. Minot was her name. I drank water from the gutter to stay out and play. And upstairs in my bed, I thought about Betty Rubble until a thrill went through my waist like lightning.

“The dogs pee in that water,” my mother called from the den. She had blonde hair like cotton candy; big blue eyes like ice cubes in a glass of gin. She had big round tits on a tiny frame, so small sometimes it seemed as if she was just those tits, that hair, and a little squeak of a voice like air escaping. “It’ll make you blind.”

She was from Minnesota, the Dairy Queen. And she arched her back and watched my father with those big blue eyes like he had just carried her into the room.

He was a handsome man. He had high broad shoulders and long swimmer’s arms, a thick black mustache and the mean look of a friendly policeman. There were pictures of him in his flight suit beside his silver jet, in black wraparound sunglasses beside his green Austin Healy and in his officer’s uniform standing at attention. He was a captain in the Air Force before the migraines grounded him. He would vomit all over the control panels on flights out of Texas. It was always someplace over New Mexico where the holes in his vision would open.

“There were parties at the Officer’s Club,” my mother said, with her eyes as big and wide as if a camera were rolling. “And everybody smoked, and drank beer. We didn’t know it was just speed in all the diet pills we were on. Oh, you should have seen him.”

I remember how he whispered in my ear, “You’re standing still,” when I was two, when he first took me skiing. Then he held me between his legs and tilted us over the hill until the wind was on my face and the sky was set in motion. “But you’re flying.”

I leaned into his red down parka, looking up at the icicles on his mustache and thinking he looked like a walrus with a tall red hat on. I watched his clear goggles, and his gaze so still and serious that I felt like we were levitating. With his hands out front and his legs coming close together, we went looking for the softest snow on the side of the runs.

“In the shadows. Away from the sun.”

He grew up in Syracuse, New York, where winter is like a mini Ice Age with some of the biggest blizzards of the year and the wet constant cold that seeps

into your skin. Only broken little slopes like Song and Labrador sprout up in weather-beaten remnants of the Adirondacks to the north, and that first day on the golf course, on the white wooden pair of Army Surplus skis he bought for $15, he knew there must be something better. He could feel it in his toes like a tingling sensation. He could see it in the pinned-up pictures of the Obermeyer girls of Colorado, the beautiful blonde skier Gretchen Fraser, the beautiful blonde skater Sonja Heinie, and the Sun Valley brunettes with the cold apple cheeks staring into black peaks in the distance as if they were windows in his room.

“It’s like you’re king,” he said about standing on top of his first Colorado mountain. “Like what you see is what you own.”

He read us “Hamlet” when we were too little to understand, except for the slings and arrows, the ghost on the wall and his voice like a soft wind. To train for the winter, he ran up the stairs with a backpack full of sand. In the early ’70s, he worked at Vail every weekend as a volunteer ski patrolman.

Every Friday night, we drove up out of Denver in our Volkswagen station wagon. It was before Eisenhower Tunnel was blown through the mountain. Over the icy switchbacks of Loveland Pass to the top of the world with snowflakes like schools of fish against the glass, white whales past the headlights, big bare winter moons and the orange-lit faces of men beside jackknifed trucks; the skeletal aspen. Ghost stories on the radio: The Beach Boys and The Beatles, and only because I say it now, Gram Parsons.

Copper Mountain was like a truck stop where we never stopped. Vail Pass was like a haunted forest of deep secrets in its bunched-up black trees and empty frozen meadows, the heater against our hands and the lights in the valley below like we were coming down in a covered wagon. The waterfalls were as blue as rock candy against the cliffs and there were so many stars that your head would swirl to see them.

“There, with the golden belt, is Orion.”

His friends owned a house in East Vail. Then it was called Big Horn. It was like a Swiss chalet with indigo shutters and white walls into the trees where we hunted raspberries in the spring. We built a fort in the boulders above the house with realty signs and dead aspen. Two ski instructors rented the downstairs and kept a greenhouse in the woods. They played guitars and rolled cigar-sized joints that the adults would smoke in the living room. We were there when they said Elvis was dead on the news. It didn’t make me sad until I really started to listen.

We slept swaddled in sleeping bags on the floor and woke up with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches already packed in the pockets of our parkas. Ice on the beaver pond. “It’s like they’re on fire,” my brother said as the sun smoked snow from the tops of the trees. But I was already dreaming.

“You have your father’s eye.”

Vail is built on the idea of beautiful women. In the showers and saunas where Spanish-speaking girls sweat away the chill like chocolate melting. In the wood-carved doors that lead away to restaurants with candles on the table, fireplace bars, stringed white lights and bright European ski clothes like presents waiting to be opened; green-eyed girls from Cherry Creek with red hair and perfect crooked teeth, freckles and big brothers in letter jackets that want to drink Coors with you and chew Copenhagen. How it feels to be cold, then warm again. The way the sunlight falls into the condominiums. And the best blondes in the best restaurant windows as sudden as white ponies in the streets, in fur coats and cowboy hats when you turn around to see who is laughing. Brunettes from Boston, as indifferent as an away game, with Christmas card lists that they learn to turn into weapons, Rossignols and fuzzy mittens. The smell of woodsmoke like sex on the wind. The slopes into town like falling ribbons. And in everyone’s breath, the smoke signal surety of human warmth held up against itself; under all those puffy parkas, long-knit scarves, tight turtlenecks and black stretch pants with the promise of secret skin.

“I think about it with my legs,” my brother said. The memory. The anticipation. In the drum of our boots as they would sound through town, carrying our skis over our shoulders by the tips like off to the cool war, as if just by walking to the lifts we were capable of a greater something. “The way it feels to have people stop and watch you come past them.”

The preceding is an excerpt from Kray’s book, “The God of Skiing,” scheduled to be released next year by Shred White and Blue Media. Kray lives in Santa Fe.