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
By Peter Kray
Of course the same story keeps getting written, and the ending is always the same. It was written the day Claudine Longet shot Spider Sabich in Aspen. Booze and beauty, her angel face in the courtroom, and all the celebrity friends. With no clear explanation of how the gun went off, or how an accident keeps happening.
Spider drank wine from the bottle on the chairlift before races then won them. In the movie Downhill Racer, even though he was already too old for the role, Robert Redford modeled his character after him—the cocky Colorado kid alone with his talent and Europe a giant playground where he couldn’t understand what the other kids were saying.
Spider had long blonde hair and an easy smile like you were sharing a joke with him. He looked fast standing still, born to walk on that myth of mountain air. It’s hard to say whether she caged or released him.
It was written the day the Germans opened fire in the Apennine, their machine guns and mortars blowing a lethal gust through the men of the 10th Mountain Division; its Ivy League outdoorsmen, mountain climbers, expatriate ski instructors and Olympians. The famed Mountain Troops of Colorado finally in combat, crawling through mud and slush under blistering fire, and killing and dying.
They trained outside Leadville at 10,000-feet in train-soot-soiled barracks in the high freeze of Camp Hale, drunk on the snow and the altitude, wanting for the fight, buoyed by the new friends and all the new mountains they were learning. They rappelled into the grand lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, that honeymoon haven of high society, fresh blonde debutantes and big-balled stock show prize bulls set off on islands of hay, with its ascending black balconies, red carpeted hallways and wood-doored rooms. They filled their packs with stale bread and the wine they could find and scouted and skied the smooth rolling slopes of what would become Vail and Aspen; a fraternity pledged to fight, to stand sentry in the cold and then to sing and drink and know which way the snow will drift and load across the mountain.
In Italy they fought like hell to take Belvedere and Riva Ridge from the Nazis when no one thought they could be taken—after full battalions of allied troops had tried for months already to take them. They advanced in the dark, scaling the bare vertical stones of Riva with their ropes and rifles, or sliding through mud and fog toward Belvedere as grenades and bullets rained down in the morning. Champion ski jumper Torger Tokle was one of the dozens killed. Friedl Pfeifer, the godfather of Aspen, spent the rest of his life with German metal inside him.
Those that survived, like Pete Seibert, Bob Parker, David Brower, Paul Petzoldt and Bob Dole, came home and spread like messiahs to America’s mountains. They built its ski resorts, its politics and environmental ethics, and the world’s new standards for mountain climbing and methods for ski instruction.
“Skiing is life,” Parker told me over coffee in a Santa Fe bakery where we met to talk about Strau, and instead discussed St. Lawrence and the coming season. The rain turned to snow. The clouds were low over the wet brown town, stained on adobe walls, and the tall round mountains were hidden. People stopped in the doorway like swimmers in the sound as I bent forward to hear Parker talking.
“Otto Schniebs said that. He was my coach at St. Lawrence before he went to Dartmouth and became a legend. ‘If you are skiing, you are living.’”
He had a gravel voice. There were white patches on his beard, and he was bent like an old tree in the wind. With Seibert, Parker built Vail. He skied the open-run wonder of the Back Bowls before anyone, on tilted pastures and knolls of new snow under a sky so blue it felt as if you were under the ocean. They reinvented the white chocolate fantasy of what they had seen in Europe—the huddled little towns against the hills, brown wood balconies and crystal creeks that shone silver in the sun. It was a kind of dream where they could be heroes forever in the conversations, in the camaraderie of Camp Hale with nature just out the door, the copper-walled bars and one hundred chateaus to drink and screw and ski from.
He went to Riva Ridge 50 years after its surrender to climb with the same Germans who woke to bayonets moving like hot knives through the mists in the morning. It was in the spirit of the hills, the friends who were gone and the love for the mountains. General Klenhart commanded the Germans. He cried when he looked down that impenetrable rock face. “It is not possible.”
“But general, it happened.”
Parker’s hands shook when he talked about the shelling. He stared at the table to say their names. The days he lost to shock before he found himself sitting on the porch of a hospital in Italy, recognizing and not recognizing the bandaged men beside him. He wore a blue anorak and a red plaid shirt and sketched me the route for a ski trip north of Chama on a napkin. It crossed the border between Colorado and New Mexico through long blue mountains. It took a week to ski in the 60s. It was on cattle land.
The cowboys had snowmobiles now, but no reason to check the ridgeline.
Then he said what every skier says, “Sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission.”
When Buddy Werner was caught by avalanche in Switzerland, the story was written again. He was 28 and just retired from alpine racing. He was shooting a film with German Olympian Barbi Henneberger, and it was said they tried to outrun the wall of snow crashing down behind them.
Werner was the first ski cowboy, from Steamboat, a town synonymous with cowboys and snow days since him. There is a mountain outside the town named after him, a museum, and a nationwide junior ski program. For decades he was the only American to win the Hahnenkamm, and the Holmenkol when he was just 17. But injuries and off days in three Olympics kept him on the sidelines, a poet’s legend. In 1964, just months before he died, before he retired, in a first for American men, he watched Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga win silver and bronze behind Austria’s Pepi Stiegler in the Innsbruck Slalom.
For me, the story first began, and ended, in the Himalayas in the 1970s when Hollywood began feeding rumors of a failed marriage between the CIA and ski mountaineering—of climbers fighting Communists, mountain rebels on the goatpaths and dark-bearded operatives parachuting in. Fritz Stammberger disappeared. He is still missing.
Stammberger was another one of Aspen’s alpine expatriates with the thick lips and strong high cheekbones. He was a German printer who went alone up the steep, wild slopes of Asia, Europe and Colorado’s mountains. He gained fame for his ascent of Cho Oyu in Tibet—the world’s sixth highest peak—and for skiing from 24,000 feet in a losing attempt to save two downed companions.
On Aspen’s Maroon Bells, the “Deadly Bells,” he began to rebuild the path past the ski resorts to the untamed peaks, high passes and bare ridgelines. He put skins on his skis every morning and strode to the top of Aspen Mountain. To train for the cold, he melted snowballs in his bare hands. He became a god to me the summer I met him.
It was August in Denver and we walked in the shimmering heat under the Dutch elm trees to City Park and the Natural History Museum, beneath the towering spruce at the front of the park to the Phipps Auditorium. It was a rambling community theatre with the long sloping walkway down to the seats and red robe drapes at the sides of the stage where Stammberger’s movie, The Death Zone, was playing.
The theatre is an Imax now, with four-story sharks, polar bears as big as a bus and stadium seats that fall to the floor so the closer you lean toward the screen the closer you are to disappearing. But Stammberger showed his movie on a pull-down screen and talked at a little wooden lectern about the dangers of high altitude climbing:“The Death Zone,” where the air is so thin your body starts to feed off itself in some strange feast of self-cannibalization.
My father talked to him in the aisle. People looked at us as they were leaving. Stammberger put his hand on my shoulder and I felt as if I were standing in a sunbeam. He glowed, his proud nose and his clear eyes, and my parents glowed back at him. And I thought about what he said that day we pulled Tack Strau’s body off the mountain and the snow fell as fast as white rain.
“Is he skiing?”