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
The Rettenbach Glacier is as steep and tree-less as a sheet snapping in
the wind. A gondola runs over the course where models on a stage were lipsynching
to Austro-pop anthems. In the VIP tent the competitors walked
down the buffet line in black numbered bibs like racehorses with the saddles
still on. The cheers for them would blow down the mountain. It was loudest
for the Austrians. But for Miller you could hear it growing like a wave,
almost primal the way it rang.
He was fastest by far in the second run. The Europeans said he skied
like he was “Riding a bull,” pushing his skis from his heels to gain speed as
the boards slipped down the hill and he tried to catch up to them. “He does
not care what t-ey t-ink. Only ski-eeng mat-airs to heem.”
Miller could win by magnificent portions, or crash so spectacularly it
seemed as if the reins had been jerked from his hands. And it reminded me
of Strau, how he learned to ski in New Hampshire on icy nights under the
lights like skating practice on the pond. The bloody noses and sore elbows
from the gates, and sharp-banged blondes drinking wine coolers with names
like Heidi and Kim.
“Your friend who died? Thees was t-e seas-own?”
“No,” I said, and thought of how when I walked out of the pressroom
the moon-eyed girls were already 10 deep, blinking for a glimpse of “the
“It just wasn’t until October that they found him.”
We went for dinner at a hunting lodge with hostesses in fraulein
costumes. Cars were off the road and there was only room downstairs at the
bar. The special was pfeffer steak and carafes of the house red wine.
We were joined by Martin, a ski shop owner who used to be a butcher,
who talked about all the different cuts of meat and the way different types of
women ordered them: the housekeepers that leaned against the counter until
he thought the glass would cave in, the young wives that just stared until he
asked what they were thinking, and the divorcees who wanted to know how
sweet the meat was, and what temperature for cooking.
“Men just want to know how it tastes,” Martin said, sniffing his wine
with his great long nose. “But women want the whole scenario of the thing.”
He was about to explain the “whole scenario,” when the steak came,
served on big white plates with French fries and carrots and the perfect
orange cursive sauce dripped presentation. The meat was thick and cooked
perfectly pink and all three of us were quiet and happy, eating the steak and
mopping up the sauce first with the golden brown fries then the soft white
bread until we smiled around at each other like we were waking from a
dream. “May-bee a lee-tle beer?” Jean-Marc suggested when the wine was
gone. “Or purr-haps zee Weel-yums?”
The Williams was served in fluted glasses like thimbles of gasoline.
We sniffed the crystal fruit and sipped it like it was someone we were
kissing; that detached fire that burns down your throat with the fermented
memory of the sun. “T-e best t-ing of alcohol, is t-at time stands still when
you are drink-ing,” Jean-Marc said, looking at no one. And I thought of
tables in time, shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows and lovers, brothers and
friends. I thought that few people in the world are as happy as the Austrians,
to make such an alcohol that your mind can crave like fire on your tongue.
We seemed to float up the stairs, into the cold pushing the warmth
even further within. The lights rose like embers toward the boulevard of bars
where we walked to a pub called Bier Himmel and spoiled the night with too
many Wiesse bieres, sucking diesel from the buses up the long mountain
road to the glacier in the morning, trying like every skier does to ski out the
alcohol with run after run.
But that night on the road Jean-Marc said God was always there,
somewhere in the starry sky, as long as someone believed in him. That in
every great idea, eternity begins again. And we never really leave this world,
but remain forever in some soulful kind of radiation.
“It is the ener-gee of liv-eeng!”
He said some of us are filled with such a spirit of life we inspire
people we never even meet, or that even live in our lifetime. For him it was
Antoine de St. Exupery, the French pilot and writer who disappeared near
Marseille in World War II and who wrote Wind, Sand and Stars.
Jean-Marc said “St. Ex” taught the “t-e beauty of a life in motion.”
Years later, he was devastated when they found the wreck age of St.
Exupery’s plane. Why, he wondered had they not just left those broken
pieces hidden beneath the waves and sand?
“Ev-a-ree-buddy dies,” he said that night, still imagining St. Ex
somewhere above us in the nighttime sky, writing and flying. “But when t-ey
die, you Kant! die wit t-em.”