The Austrian stops in the middle of a steep hillside and looks down on the cluster of 200-year-old farmhouses forming a brown scab on the otherwise green slopes of spring. It's a place Americans might joke about having spent a month there one night, but in the center of that scab lies a large chalet constituting Ground Zero for the Austrian. The lower floor of the chalet houses the two-room elementary school where he teaches some 20 children from the surrounding farms, the upper floor is his home.
"When I came here to be the teacher," he tells me, "I had to promise NOT to live down in the valley." He nods towards the expanse of the Inn River Valley and its larger towns lying far below the slopes of this community. "I had to agree to live here with the farmers and to teach in their school for at least five years."
The silence hangs as an emphasis. Five years in this agricultural community - not an atypical one - whose hub is a coagulation of 20 buildings, half of them barns. A hub with no stores, theaters, gas stations... not even a street lamp.
"After I signed the contract, the doubts came." His gaze shifts. It moves slowly up the steep fields traversed by dairy cows in summer and by his skis in winter, to the forests above the pastures, and to the ridge lines confining the community. Those ridges are home to a dozen 8000-to 9000-foot peaks. And the peaks with their forested midlines and bald crests give new meaning to the size and character of the place. The teacher's gaze comes back to me, "That was 30 years ago."
Returning to the moment, the teacher drops his skinned skis, releases the heels of his alpine-touring bindings, and clips the rig to his plastic-shelled feet, a process that produces a puzzled look from me.
"It's OK," he says, "we can ski from here."
He uses the word 'ski' liberally. Sure, in winter the snow would be a meter deep on this slope; now in mid-April we have another 45 minutes of trudging before reaching snowline. "I'll walk a little longer," I tell him.
"Good," he says and strides on.
I try to keep up with the 50-year-old man, but now that his arms are freed to stretch, his 6' 4" frame easily outpaces me. I watch his black Lycra tights, his batik shirt, and his blue-and-yellow skull cap diminish in size. That uniform puzzles me. It's not the conservative costume I'd expect of a schoolmaster from the back hills of Tirol; neither is it the garish garb of the weekend warrior from an Austrian city. It's one example of his commitment to an opinion he shared earlier, "It is equally ridiculous to say, 'This is old, therefore it is good,' as it is to say, 'This is new and is, therefore, better.'"
The man is apparently no Doctor of Dogma and the speed at which he is dusting me because of my own dogma - a creed insisting that snow is a good thing for skiing - broadens my mind. I decide that while in Grossvolderberg, the name of this slopeside community, I will do as the schoolmaster does. I drop the skis and click in. Then I stride over soft pastures that are well weeded of rocks. Before long the pupil is pulling up to the master.
He hears my labored breathing. "In German we say that on the uphill you fight the Schwein Hund - the pig dog. The Schwein Hund inside makes you want to turn around, to quit, to give up."
"Do you still fight him?" I ask.
Years of taking to the mountain, after dismissing school in the early afternoon have taught the teacher how to cage his beast. Now the climb is a time for meditation, a time when both mind and body wander in silence. He mentions ancient Asian tribes who relied on sojourns through the desert to find the sense of their lives. "In the same way, I use the emptiness and silence of the mountains to find my sense."
We enter the forest and the skis move from grass to soft, needled dirt. Before long we stand by a wooded stream and a hut whose square logs were hand-hewn hundreds of years ago. It's a setting that exudes tranquility. "I like this place," says the teacher, "but I couldn't live here." He looks up at the canopy. "It's too... enclosed. It forces you to always look inward, never out."
"Did you ever think," he continues "about where you most like to sit at home and what that means? Fifteen years ago my favorite chair had its back to the window and I would look in at my family. Now I have the chair turned so I can see in, if necessary, but so that my eyes naturally go out to the fields and the mountains."
It's a small detail that sums up much about the teacher. Because he lives above the school his private and public lives - his view in and his view out - are inextricably intertwined. The school is his job by day. By night it is his home, but it is also a community center where he conducts his choir, practices with his two instrumental groups, acts in community plays, attends programs for the continuing education of local farmers, and partakes in discussions staged there.
We climb on. As the trees dwarf then disappear, we encounter something novel - snow. Not long after climbing above timberline, we reach a collection of huts and stables (an alm) inhabited in summer by locals who graze livestock in the high country. Each farmer has specific lands that can be used by specific numbers of animals - never more, for that endangers the health of the mountain which sustains them all. The teacher skis onto the porch of a hut whose ancient timbers have weathered to a rich copper color. "Sometimes I ski here and spend the night with the school children."
"Do they have touring gear?" I ask.
"No. They carry the skis on their pack and walk in their ski boots."
His youngest students - his first graders - are only six and I think about the likelihood (or, rather the unlikelihood) of getting my eight-year-old daughter to climb several thousand vertical feet through deep snow with heavy boots on her feet and skis on her back. "And all the children come?"
He sees my doubt. "These children walk everywhere. They live with snow much of the year. They grow up skiing down hills and carrying their equipment up. Many of them walk 30 minutes from their farms to my school. When the snow comes, the walk takes longer. The mountains make them strong."
As we talk, another ski tourer blasts up the slopes, the snow under his feet melting from the friction of his accelerated pace. He is perhaps the sixth person with whom we've intersected paths, and though we are orbiting quite a distance from the halls of learning now, the teacher, as was true with all other encounters, knows the man. The skier stops, sweat dripping off his thirty-something face, and in his thick dialect of German pays his respects to the teacher. Then the newcomer, who is on a sanity break from the duties of his green fields below, carries on toward the summit, melting snow as he goes.
"He's very fit," I observe.
"Yes. I brought him here as a student when I was The New Teacher."
"Thirty years ago?"
"Not exactly. They called me 'The New Teacher' for fifteen years."
We too carry on toward the summit and, with the guise of journalism to mask my impropriety, I grill a private man for his opinions on: age (The man who is too old to learn was probably always too old to learn), truth (We don't see things as they are, but as we are), education (It's about learning what to do with a living rather than learning how to earn one), experience (The best of instructors), happiness (Not a place we get to, but the result of how we live), optimism (The ability to enjoy the scenery of a detour), religion (One of many doors to the spiritual realm).
During a lapse where I'm sucking air to keep up, he turns the tables. He wants to know my thoughts about: curiosity (What keeps us all from committing suicide), criticism (What we say about people who don't share our faults), ego (Perhaps the only organism that grows without nourishment), home (The place we leave in order to appreciate a good bed), life (A tragedy for those who feel, a comedy for those who think), friends (People who don't give our children drums at Christmas).
I doubt that he agrees but he accepts that, for me, these opinions are true. When he asks for my sweeping synopsis of mankind, I tell him, "Our world is composed of electrons, neutrons, protons, and morons."
He laughs. "I believe in man," he tells me.
"I know. That's why you teach."
"And you write because... you are a cynic?"
On top of Largotz Spitze and beside one of the ubiquitous crosses marking an Austrian summit, we strip our skins. From this vantage a geographer could identify several hundred peaks. For me, it's a melancholy so-much-to-do-and-so-little-time moment. The teacher lets me enjoy the macrocosm then introduces me to his microcosm. He identifies the different peaks he can access from the back door of his school - peaks like Hanneburger, Malgrubler, Seespitze, Naviser Sonnenspitze, Glungezer, Reuzspitze, Grunberger... He points out some of the lines he most enjoys skiing.
I study his domain of a dozen peaks - each with myriad routes to ski; each with different personalities at different times of the year; each with different snow coverage, exposure, hazards, stashes...Although it is but a small nook of the world, it is a ski area of immense size. It is his own undeveloped Whistler/Blackcomb complex. "It would take a lifetime just to really know these few mountains."
"Yes," says the teacher.
We stuff skins into packs, fasten down bindings, and clip in. "You know, to climb up the mountain was our decision. But what happens on the way down is life's decision. It is no longer completely in our hands. It is as likely to be fun and marvelous as it is to be bad and dangerous."
"But don't we have control by deciding where we descend and how conservatively we ski?"
Due to the lack of snow on the western slopes we climbed, the teacher opts for a different descent. He tells me that on weekends its not unusual to find two hundred skiers from the valley up here. "They all go down the same way. Now you will see my private way down."
"What will we find there today?" I expect him to wager an educated guess about the conditions, but experience has taught him that a guess, even an educated one, is just a guess.
Life begins with dust on crust. The sun, approaching the bed of the horizon, accents our northerly line with golden light. The teacher yodels several bars of a traditional song, a gesture that strips him of the bifocals and bunions five decades of life have given him. He is no longer a graying teacher but a boy who has always loved the freedom of the mountains, a boy who has always used snowy slopes and slippery boards to do the impossible - fly. Fly he does. With sweeping GS turns he interconnects jumps between snowed over rocks. Farther down he slaloms between gates formed by the leaders of small trees that have emerged from the snowpack.
Life's curve ball is thrown into the mix between the blink of two turns. Suddenly we are both lying, face first, in bottomless slush that underlies an eggshell crust. We ski tenuously until our route meets and follows an avalanche path. Here, by skiing smoothly and avoiding abrupt edge sets, we remain on the surface of the slope's delicate skin. Beyond the avalanche slope, we confront thin forests whose snows are a slurry. We resort to survival tricks. Sometimes aggressive jump turns off irregularities power us through the snow, sometimes they bury us. Sometimes we are reduced to linking traverses with kick turns. Even on traverses the skis want to dive deep into the snow.
We reach a road that takes a long, descending contour towards the school. Icy ruts fix our skis to their course. We fly downhill, stripped of turning ability and dependent on the parachutes of our bodies to brake our speed. Occasionally we jump bare patches of gravel where the road has melted through the snowpack. Much of the time I am on the brink of a major yard sale.
Inevitably the snow gives way to dirt and as skis move from foot to shoulder I tell the teacher, "I understand what you mean about the way down being life's decision."
"And I understand what you said. We could have walked."
"Perhaps. But we came to ski."
The descent has brought us much farther down the mountain on skis than I expected. A short hike through the dimming twilight takes us down a switchbacked gravel road to the school's courtyard. I tell the teacher I should return to Innsbruck, but he will not have it, "It is not a proper tour unless we take a drink together."
We head up dark stairs to the pine-panelled quarters of his dining room. His wife greets us warmly. She has prepared onion soup and Eglefillet, fish taken from the Boden See, the lake near her home town. We eat and then she breaks bad news: One of the old farmers, who had been ill, died today. It is not feigned sadness that falls over the teacher: A friend, the father of a former student, and the grandfather of a current student is gone.
"We will visit tomorrow and see how we can help."
Silent moments pass before he moves to a cupboard for a bottle of schnapps made by a neighbor down the road. "This is good schnapps, not at all like what you buy in stores in the valley. It is especially good for digestion."
By the time I leave the dining room, indigestion is no problem whatsoever. I waver by the car, looking out over the valley from whence a thousand points of light shine. Or are they really a thousand points of confusion? The teacher's decision to sink roots in a community devoid of even street lamps speaks to my schnapps-enhanced psyche. Amenities may be absent and life may be harder, but distractions are few here. On this slope one's relationship to the fundamentals that sustain life - family, friends, community, nature and, of course, skiing - are easily understood. Here each person makes a difference and a teacher helps not just his students but his community find its way.
Regretfully, I start the car rolling and in the rear view mirror watch the diminishing figure of the teacher meld with his mountain.
GETTING THERE. Grossvolderberg, one of the many tiny agricultural communities found in the Austrian Alps, is a 40-minute drive east and south of Innsbruck, the epicenter of Tirol. To ski such communities, fly Lufthansa to Munich (800-645-3880), then travel by train or shuttle service to Innsbruck. For information and packages about skiing opportunities throughout Tirol, call Adventures on Skis (800-628-9655).
RURAL AUSTRIA. Many countries have done nothing to halt the migration of citizens from rural back waters to urban centers. The Austrians, however, work hard at preserving their rural communities. Austria's year-round economy depends heavily on tourists visiting the mountains; farmers are indispensable in maintaining the picturesque nature of the country. Also without the farmers and livestock to keep mountain grasses short, avalanche hazard throughout the country would rocket each winter. Finally, Austrians believe that an exodus from the farms will ultimately result in joblessness, crime, and social problems.
The upshot? Subsidies and tariffs keep international competition from blowing Austrian farmers off their hillsides while considerable tax dollars are allocated to bringing education to the children living on these hillsides.
Avid backcountry outdoor enthusiast Andy Dappen, of Brier, Washington, is a nationally recognized journalist with hundreds of published articles in such periodicals as Outside, Backpacker, Men's Health, SKI, Climbing, Hemispheres, Travel-Holiday, Women's Sports and Fitness, Ladies' Home Journal, Reader's Digest, Bottom Line Personal, American Woman, Canadian Airlines Magazine, The Best Report, Pacific Northwest Magazine, Oregon Magazine, Chevy Outdoors, City Sports and The Oregonian (1985-99). He is also a contributing editor to Powder, Bike, and BackCountry magazines and until recently, senior writer for the 'zines iSKI and iBIKE (www.iski.com and www.ibike.com). Andy has also served as contributing editor to Canoe Magazine, a columnist for Trailblazer Magazine, and the boating reporter for The Seattle Times.