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.
Their stories are trapped like butterflies under ice. And their exploits and adventures disappear over the years in the wind. In the high mountain towns they gather the sun on their faces like poor playboys, drunk in the bars at night, never worrying about anything except when it will snow and when they might feel the warmth of someone else’s skin. They travel through blue air and black clouds across the cold peaks of Montana, Switzerland, the Himalayas and Patagonia, alone and unknown, up against the sky like lost angels looking for their broken wings.
Of those few that are revealed to the world, there is something that marks them: the racers like Jean-Claude Killy, the beautiful French Olympian, Franz Klammer, the “Kaiser,” who rode like a rocket down the Strief, as if the hounds of hell were behind him, and Hermann Maier who ruled the World Cup with an iron fist before he nearly severed his leg in a motorcycle accident and then returned to race and win again; the daredevils like Pierre Tardivel, the French ski mountaineer who still claims four first descents in the lightning cracked gullies and slim couloirs of the Alps each season, and the black-haired, white-toothed wolves like Patrick Vallencant and Jean-Marc Boivin, his dead countrymen.
They were dead before Paris-Match got tired of publishing the pretty pictures of the sheer chutes they skied, their windburned smiles and the green-eyed models and red helicopters they rode in. Then Doug Coombs was dead too, his big toothy smile and friendly face gone over the rocks in La Grave so that North America still mourns its guru of big mountain skiing. He joined the ranks of history alongside Sondre Norheim, the Norwegian ski evangelist forever linked with the freeheel turn, Davo Karnicar, the iron-gripped Slovenian that first skied from the summit of Everest, its rock-jawed groom, Arlberg’s peasant-faced Hannes Schneider, the godfather of the modern style of skiing, and Tack Strau, the far-eyed cowboy whose brief, shining career as a collegiate racer and whose strange disappearance and subsequent first descents in the tall peaks of the Tetons and the Chugach seem to double in legend each season.
Some say he was the sport’s last great sensation—the last best that’s ever been. What he did was so pure, so truly close to flight, that he moved across the mountains like a raven, riding the open space and empty sky with only gravity and his strange sense of god to guide him. Even in the danger—especially in the danger—when it was rotten snow stuck to the side of a cliff and only disbelief and speed that kept him from falling through the rocks, he looked like he was skiing in slow motion.
It is because of the story in Sports Illustrated, the few newspaper clippings and photos people collect like stamps that they say if he had lived for even one more year…well, who knows then. Mourners pass. The flies dry in the window. And time fades and blooms again. For me, it wasn’t until Jackson Hole tore down its big red tram that I realized I had held this story inside for too long, and I took the beer and wine-stained notebooks from the all-night airplanes to Munich, the hotel bars in Montreal and piss-torn couches in Aspen and rented this little apartment in Soelden to wait for the World Cup campaign to begin again.
In order to tell what’s true, I made up a couple things. But only to balance out what I’m still afraid of telling. And I present the events as much by year as I do by season, which means you can call it a novel if that makes it easier to understand. Or a documentary. Or skiing’s double album. It is the celebration of a sport made of cold and clouds and the anticipation that the white water will come to wash us clean again. It’s the explanation of why Tack Strau told the reporter in Alaska, “Skiing is made of gravity and speed. It’s dying all the time.”
Photo by Graham Gephart