The God of Skiing is HERE

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… We have been publishing excerpts of his new novel, The God of Skiing, which is now at long last published and ready to order. Enjoy one more excerpt and buy this book.

Chapter 27

The Downhillers

Crows count telephone poles. The long distance truckers drive by high and methamphetamines and the Holy Grail. And the liquor doesn’t matter anymore for the downhill racer at the bar. Everything else feels like being sober after the naked pull of the vertical white road. The world feels like water and you start to feel seasick standing still, as if gravity itself, oxygen and hope would disappear if you ever left the trail.

Half of them are crazy. Half of all the downhill racers you know. They blow up at press conferences like slapshots into the back of the net, or burst into flames in the cars and bars. And the other half all have something to prove to their father, God or some green-eyed girl. They race with some memory they want to numb so the first pain isn’t real, for when the slope drops off in your stomach and every distraction is boiled down to one single idea: Pray Jesus you don’t fall.

The Crazy Canucks—Ken Read, Dave Irwin, Cary Mullen and Steve Podborski—burst onto the World Cup scene like a band of barbarians from the wastelands of Canada; cocky longhairs into the tea party like a bunch of bikers scaring people who had never been scared before. They raced with bandages and concussions and black eyes, and went so fast sometimes it seemed as if sparks would fly from the snow.

Behind the madness was a simple idea: create a national ski program around the craziest skiers. Build the skills later, but first, find a bunch of brave boys willing to drop down the slopes like stones. So that the lies became legend, how they had been hypnotized, or trained for the big European courses on paratrooper missions, jumping in the dark to embrace the unknown. Especially from 1980-83 when they did the unthinkable, and between Read, Podborski and Todd Brooker, won the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel for four straight years.

To the Europeans, anyone who goes that fast down the gut wrenching corkscrews of the Steilhang is a brother. The Austrians still cheer. And the Canadians forgot to breath as they dropped off the screen and waved the maple leaf like a friendly fuck-you.

But it was already over by the time Brian Stemmle tore himself apart in the fencing, right after Rob Boyd broke his thumb fighting his way to second down the Streif. I was sitting next to Boyd in a hotel bar after the Hahnenkamm in 2000 when the Austrian Eberharter won, and Boyd told me, “Flight is born on the horizon,” staring into his beer.

The Austrian Patrick Ortlieb won the Olympic Downhill in Albertville and wore the same golden smile drinking Obstler in Oberlech in his family hotel with the long polished bar. There was a gondola from Lech and beautiful European families dressed for dinner, the same families every year. They wore handsome suede jackets with stiff white shirts and pulled back hair. A young mother kept watching us after Ortlieb came to the table. She had black eyelashes and dark eyes like something growing outdoors.

We sat eating venison, nuts and cheese, talking later in the bar when Ortlieb showed me how CO2 cartridges would inflate his pack like a buoy in an avalanche so he could float above the snow. He told me about the Americans killed in an avalanche when they went to ski powder with a German couple. One of the Germans kicked off the slide that killed the other three, and Ortlieb said, “At the end of the day, the American kids were the only ones left at the ski school corral.”

He said the powder stays fresh for days, but the crowds follow as soon as someone breaks trail. “We all want the blank slope,” he said as we clinked glasses. “It’s not because of me that I worry anymore.”

I had heard another story about him but didn’t care. I liked him because we were just two skiers talking about the snow. It was the same with Hermann Maier, the former bricklayer who worked his way up from the Austrian instructors’ ranks where the dream lives on for so many skiers, who tore apart every run on the World Cup circuit—Bormio, Wengen, Alta Badia—like Hercules trying to rip the earth into the air. He won more points for first place finishes than anyone ever. And even upside down, heading for the fence at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano he looked impenetrable, like a gust-tossed chunk of steel.

It was the image of the Games, the pilot ejecting from his plane and nothing but blue air. Anyone else would have shattered his pelvis. But Maier came back to win two gold medals. He told Austrian journalist Heinz Pruller, “After such a crash, I thought, If I can win gold now, I must be immortal!

The summer before the Salt Lake Games, in the Alps on his motorcycle, a red Mercedes tossed Maier into the grass so he was suddenly looking at his right leg beside his ear. In The Race of My Life, he recalled with relief how the gigantic ambulance would be big enough to hold his massive frame. “Very nice,” he wrote. “I should fit into this thing!”

The doctors wanted to amputate. They fought to keep his kidneys from quitting. With plates, pins and screws they built a new version of his leg like from a drawing on the wall.

It looks like a pretzel now. He says it is maybe 70 percent, so even standing on it going 80 miles per hour, you know sometimes he can’t feel it at all. When he returned in Sestriere—where he later won bronze in the Olympic Super G in 2006—he said about his skis, “I felt like I was skiing on two Coke bottles.”

The Swiss saint of speed Pirmin Zurbriggen was always the most beautiful skier to me, coming around the turn with his high hands like a leaping puma and his pious face gazing up at the peaks like a prayer. Only he and Bode Miller, Kjetil Andre-Aamodt, Marc Giradelli and Guenther Mader won in all five disciplines: slalom, GS, combined, Super G and downhill. Zurbriggen won gold and bronze in ’88 at Sarajevo, as well as the Hahnenkamm. But Franz Klammer was the king of them all.

Klammer won the Downhill title five times and skied the most famous run ever in Innsbruck at the 1976 Olympics on his home field. He was the favorite but started 15th on the drought-scarred snow, leaping down the hill. He ran those ridiculous steeps taking stupid chances at every turn as his legs dropped off the jumps like broken landing gear. Bob Beattie who called it for NBC sounded like he was going to be sick for Klammer, then turned ecstatic as “the Kaiser” crossed the finish line a half-second ahead of the field.

“I thought I was going to crash all the way. I gave myself terrible frights,” the “Austrian Astronaut” told the papers.

Four times Klammer won the Hahnenkamm—as many as all the Canadians together and twice as many times as anyone before. Drinking scotch at a Kitzbuehel Hotel years after he retired the whole town still waited on every word. “It’s the fear that motivates you. You’re a fool if you’re not scared.”

There was a photo of him waiting for the race, lying on a couch reading the paper with the proud nose and shaggy black hair like one of the Beatles; a young god without a worry in the world. I wanted to pry it off the wall. To have him sign it, and talk about Jackson where he set the course record for the only World Cup downhill ever held there, and how it feels running 4,000 vertical feet from the top of Rendezvous Peak to Teton Village until your body begins to clear with the feeling of how you fall.

I wanted to ask him about those mornings when it’s cold and you’re alone and there’s only history to hold; to say I saw his race on TV from a living room in Denver—we all did—as if that gold medal reel was America’s as well. And I wanted to see his sun-browned face turn toward me as I leaned closer to whisper the name, “Tack Strau,” in his ear.

His brown eyes would slit with the secret, the wink and the welcome. He would blow a great wreath of smoke from the cigars we were smoking and quickly wave it away with his great strong hands, his great strong face as he would laugh and say, “So you know?”

 

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