The adventures of a flatlander surviving in the Alps
Despite the 6 a.m. train, we planned to hit the slopes the moment we arrived in Oberndorf in Tirol five hours later. The excitement of a ski trip is palpable and quite contagious; even beginners can look forward to a few days in the mountain air.
I started learning this alpine sport five years ago when, at 23, I was old enough, and sensible enough to be very, very scared. As a Midwesterner from Indiana, the expression “flat as a dime” pretty well captures the landscape back home. So ski trips are unnatural to me, and I mostly go for the company. It’s always learning by doing: You either keep up, or you don’t find your way to the Hütte for lunch.
Naturally I was a bit concerned about being a beginner among friends who were thrown on skis from the time they could walk. Except for one, who said she was at my level, and suggested we should be buddies. I should have known better. Never believe an Austrian when she says she’s a poor skier – they will still be better than you. It must be something in the water.
Seven hours later, I found myself looking down a murky combination of dirt and artificial snow, skating instead of skiing through a gauntlet of rocks and mud. In what seemed like seconds, everyone was already at the bottom, glancing back up… at me.
My ten days experience over five years were no match for a lifetime. However if there is anything skiing has actually taught me, it’s that comparisons get you nowhere. If you are gaping at everyone else, you can’t move. Quite literally.
On the second day, my ski buddy and I found some comfortable “blue” slopes while the others adventured off to the black ones – in my opinion – to flirt with death. Gradually though, over the four days my legs steadied and my friends gave encouraging and very helpful tips on my form. I began to understand why people voluntarily strap sticks to their legs and throw themselves off mountain tops into the great beyond.
On the last day, when it was time to go catch the train back to Vienna, I of all people, found myself suggesting one last valley run – the Talabfahrt – into Kitzbühel, to catch a final glimpse of the Wilder Kaiser in the afternoon light.
The train was leaving in half an hour, did we have enough time? After some convincing, they agreed I would be able to keep up.
In skiing, there is a distinct moment when you suddenly understand that you’re in charge, that you can control the snow. I smiled, my cheeks stiff with cold, as I sped up, the icy wind burning my face, as I followed my friends down the mountain.