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Licking the Glacier
Hintertux, Austria

By Montgomery Sapone

Before the invention of skiing, Hintertux, Austria was composed of a few families willing to brave out the harsh winters, a tiny white church and some cows.  Now, it's full of Europeans in pink Gore-Tex skipants drinking fig-flavored schnapps after a day ripping down the slopes.  But nestled between four-star hotels with thermal swimming pools and shops full of wood carvings of the Virgin Mary are a few weather-beaten wooden barns full of moo-cows. Hintertux still smells like cow on a warm day.

It's hard to imagine how a remote village at the very end of a long, deep valley surrounded by glaciers survived before the invention of skiing.  It's even harder to imagine skiing before the invention of plastic.  Before complex polymers became a fact of life, skiing was a severely masochistic endeavor.  Hanging on the wall of our little pension was a picture from 1936 of a young man with lederhosen and hob-nailed boots climbing up a huge rock face with his wooden skis over his shoulder.  Wooden skis were basically two long wooden planks, with poles made out of bamboo.  Without chairlifts, you had to lug your gear up the mountain yourself.  A trip up the mountain took seven hours, for twenty minutes of downhill joy.  For us, transported by a chair lift, the trip took fifteen. 

Another benefit of modern technology: no more broken legs thanks to the invention of releasable bindings.  When you learn how to ski, suddenly everyone you know has a friend or a cousin or a boyfriend who broke a leg in some horrible collision or flew into a gorge, never to be seen again.  But skiing has become relatively safe, dry and comfortable.  Before the 1920s, women skied in wool skirts.  Our ski ancestors, brave or gluttons for pain?  Of course, there are still some skiers out there who believe that if it doesn't hurt you're not trying hard enough.  Hermann Meier (also known as "The Herminator"), the Austrian super downhill champion who is so famous in Alpine regions that he even has his own brand of schnapps, wears a characteristic grimace of pain as he screams across the finish line at Mach 7. 

My theory: skiing should be a Taoist meditative practice that allows you to experience the weird beauty of snow and rock and ice.  Hintertux not only has snow in spades, but a permanent glacier at 10,500 feet that looks bright blue when the sun shines through it.  To get to the glacier, we took a rickety chairlift, swaying and creaking in the wind, subject to every meteorological whim.  As I kicked my legs back and forth in midair, I looked up.  At that altitude, the sky above was black at midday.  The air so thin and clean, that Sean and I were both huffing for breath in the limited oxygen atmosphere.  As we passed the bulbous blue outcropping of the glacier and I took off my glove to feel it.  It was very smooth and very cold.  But that wasn't enough, so I licked it too.  It tasted like, well, very cold water.  Where does this desire come from, to put everything into one's mouth as a way to explore the world?  And what a strange feeling, to ingest ancient water that was locked in a frozen river eons before cows ever arrived at Hintertux.

Email:  Montgomery Sapone

 

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