I liked seeing the town of Schruns last month. It was Ernest Hemingway’s beloved Austrian winter home during his Paris years, when he was young and innocent and struggling to become a writer. Skiing is the one Hemingway exploit I can relate to. Big game hunting, hauling marlin out of the sea, wartime ambulance driving? They’re all too macho, too far outside my experience. But I know what it feels like to be alone on a mountain in a blizzard.
I’m not much of a back-country skier, at least so far. Mount Werner in a blizzard is about as adventurous as I get, and it’s enough. Some people are fair-weather skiers. I prefer snowstorms, when powder piles up so deep and fast that my tracks fill in behind me. When the sun comes out, so do other skiers. It’s great at first, and makes for nice pictures. But soon the snow begins to get heavy and develop a crust. I like storms. Icy winds and blinding snow? Bring ’em on. I love the mountain on storm days because hardly anyone else is out there. Good. The mountain is mine.
I switched from skiing to snowboarding eleven years ago. The learning curve was pretty steep, but it’s much easier on the knees. I hope to be shredding well into my old age.
Today, Schruns still looks like a working town, unlike nearby Lech and Zurs. European royalty and others with deep pockets fill the expensive hotels and crowd the expensive restaurants in those resorts. In Schruns, there are probably no ski valets and it takes some doing to get to the lifts. In the 1920s, none of the present-day ski runs were neatly marked with signs. The local people were mostly busy making a living. They had no time for snowy hikes up into the high country just in order to risk life and limb skiing down. Besides, they believed that devils lurked in the high mountains.
In Hemingway’s day, everyone who skied was a back-country skier. There were no gondolas with heated seats and Wifi. There were no chairlifts. There were not even any humble tow ropes. As he recalled his life in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote, “Skiing was not the way it is now, the spiral fracture had not become common then, and no one could afford a broken leg. There were no ski patrols. Anything you ran down from, you had to climb up to first, and you could run down only as often as you could climb up. That made you have legs that were fit to run down with.”
Hemingway’s mentor Walther Lent took small groups, including Hemingway’s cronies and sometimes his wife Hadley, up into the untracked high country for the ultimate reward: “unroped glacier skiing, but for that we had to wait until spring when the crevasses were sufficiently covered.”
On a ski trip to Switzerland years ago, I once skied around the rim and down the steep slope of a glacier, ending up at a remote train stop in a valley. I don’t really claim bragging rights, because I was in abject terror most of the way down. But I do know what a crevasse looks like: an impossibly deep blue chasm opening up in the rutted, hard-packed snow in precisely the spot where I think I can manage a turn. There’s no time to plan. Survival means improvising, and later wondering how you did it. Now that’s skiing, Hemingway style.
If Hemingway had lived to see the advent of snowboarding, would he have tried it in Sun Valley, where he lived out his final days? I like to think so. I wish he had lived just a little more prudently, for the sake of his liver and his aging knees. Maybe he would not have succumbed to despair and left us too soon. I doubt that he would wear knee pads like I always do. I do know that if he ever buckled on a snowboard on a powder day, he would want to do it again.
Dude, he would be strong and sure and straight and true.