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I am Austrian

Most of Austria’s huge ski industry clings to its heritage—ski racing. But one small company is betting that’s all wrong. An American tries to get a job in the Kästle ski factory to find out what it takes to be Austrian.

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Check out photos from Tom Winter’s trip to Austria.

The first hint at what it really means to be Austrian, to be truly born in the mountains with skis on your feet comes at the end of a simple meal at a mountain hut tucked into a snow-drifted ridge at the top of a resort called Krippenstein. The final plate appears, overflowing with a sliced pancake amply coated in powdered sugar and accompanied by three equally sweet bowls of fruit swimming in liquid sugar: a gastronomic gut bomb called Kaiserschmarrn. There’s a girl, young and strikingly blond—way out of my league—at a table across from me. She digs into the dessert, scarfing it down to the crumbs before slurping the sugared fruit directly from the bowls. Then she orders a second plate and finishes that too.

Krippenstein feels wild and untamed, an anomaly for European resorts. A few years ago, the ski area nearly closed due to a lack of customers, who flocked to bigger mountains with more extensive grooming and snowmaking. In a last-ditch effort to stay afloat, the modest resort, which features a mere five runs on its trail map, became a “freeride zone.” Its off-piste terrain now lures skiers with avalanche gear and fat twin tips, the kind of equipment that’s commonplace at North American resorts but nearly absent in racing-mad Austria. The freeride vibe at the hill is a far cry from the stiff Teutonic temperament that dominates the cultural landscape of this alpine country, and for the first time since I arrived four days ago, I feel at ease. Though I’m still bloated from dessert.

I defuse the gut bomb by making laps at Krippenstein. The mountain mostly consists of unmarked, unpatrolled, off-piste skiing with hardly any grooming. It’s more than just the avalanche danger that puts me on edge; the ski area sits in the limestone belt of the northern Alps and it’s riddled with jumbled rock massifs, fissures, and some of Austria’s largest caves. The terrain is an otherworldly planet of sudden drops, yawning pits, and chalky cliffs.

I start the day with Martin Unterberger, a local pro skier who shows me hidden lines that plunge through the jagged rocks with ghostly trees clinging wherever they can. Pillow drops lead past the mouths of caves as eight inches of dry snow hiss under our skis.

Four runs in, Unterberger has to leave for work. I tentatively explore more terrain by myself until midafternoon, when the tricky route finding and technical lines leave me so physically and mentally gassed that I call it early. After all, tomorrow I have to show up for the first day of my new job: becoming an Austrian.

I’ve come here to tap into the heart of the country that is the spiritual home of our sport. I figure the best way in is to get my hands dirty—to breathe the fumes of ski wax and epoxy and climb into the cradle of skiing. I’ve got big plans. Several weeks of e-mails and phone calls with the guys at Kästle, the recently relaunched and rebranded Austrian ski company, have led to a temp job. They’re going to let me into their ski factory so I can spend two weeks building skis, hanging with the factory-floor magicians, drinking beers with them when we finish our shifts, and falling asleep with the echoes of ski presses whispering in my ears. That experience will be complemented by time at one of Austria’s best ski shops, where I’ll sell and rent gear.

It will be a chance to commune with the culture that created skiing as we know it. I will become an Austrian, a complete skier fully in tune with the history, culture, and passion that drive skiing. I’ll do all of this, of course, without speaking a lick of German. But I can learn, right? Besides, I’m a skier, which means I’m practically half Austrian before my plane even lands.

Kästle seems the ideal cultural time machine for achieving my goals. Developed in 1924 by Anton Kästle, the company’s first skis were made of ash and produced in limited numbers, eventually rising to prominence. The company started to own ski racing, with its athletes winning 11 medals at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina and dominating the 1978 World Alpine Championships. The brand also became known for innovation when it developed plastic-metal-compound construction methods in 1966 and the Tour Randonnée, the world’s lightest boards for ski mountaineers, in 1979.

I get the history directly from Rudolf Knünz and Siegfried “Sigi” Rumpfhuber, the 32-year-old president of Kästle, in a swanky après-ski bar in the venerable ski village of Lech. Over a round of beers, they tell me about how it all came crashing down in 1991, when the company was purchased by Benetton, which planned to relocate it to its Italian base of operations. The Kästle experiment quickly soured for Benetton, who shuttered it in 1999. But to Sigi and Rudolf, Kästle’s brand value remained intact.

Originally, Rudolf was part of a group of Austrians who lost to Benetton when Kästle was first put on the sales block. But when the Italians killed the brand, Rudolf and his partners at Cross Industries, which also owns KTM Motorcycles, saw an opportunity to buy it. As soon as they did, Rudolf and Sigi took Kästle down a path blazed by American ski brands like Line and K2, a path that focused on youth, powder, and terrain parks. And like Line and K2, Kästle has ignored racing and focused on a small array of high-performance skis for the common but discerning off-piste skier.

By Austrian standards, it’s an audacious gamble. Racing defines the sport of skiing across Europe, particularly in Austria. It’s deep in the psyche of its people, more so than any other nation on the planet. Sure, the Germans and Swiss may applaud their World Cup heroes, but Michale Ballack, Germany’s star soccer midfielder, is Deutschland’s true national god. For the Swiss, that role is filled by tennis great Roger Federer. In Austria, no athlete comes close to the fame of its World Cup racers because all other sports in Austria are merely pastimes to fill the void between May and December.

It’s reflected by the multimillion-dollar sponsorships Austrian racers such as Hermann Maier have enjoyed, by the hard truth that Austrian skiers have won 50 percent more World Cup races (730) as the closest competition, Switzerland (501). Or by the fact that despite being a country smaller than Maine, Austria has 336 ski areas.

This sense of ownership started with Mathias Zdarsky, a stubbornly innovative Austrian who took up the sport in 1890. Zdarsky directed skiing’s focus from the rolling, flat terrain of the valleys toward the plunging slopes of the mountains above. He revolutionized skiing by using shorter skis, developing the stem turn, organizing the first ski race with gates, and inventing an alpine-style binding—the precursor of all alpine ski bindings used today.

As Sigi, Rudolf, and I continue nursing our beers, they tell me that the World Cup is, in Rudolf’s words, “overrated.” When I ask if that poses a problem for an Austrian company, Sigi reminds me that Kästle was born in the mountains and of them; if anything, his freeride focus is a return to the company’s roots.

I’m galvanized by their conviction, passion, and emphasis on freeriding. The guys at Kästle get it! My choice of company seems inspired, and I finish my beer and soak in the glory of my own genius.

The next morning I head to Montafon for the first leg of my anthropology mission. Sigi has set me up with one of Kästle’s oldest and best customers, Herbert Tschofen, who owns the premium ski shop at the base of the mountain. Tschofen’s shop is known for high-quality gear, exemplary bootfitting, and attention to detail. It’s an ideal location to get a ground-floor view of Austrian ski culture, with me at the center of it all, fitting boots, tuning skis, and talking shop with the other staffers.

I show up early and find Tschofen in the midst of one of his legendary custom fitting sessions. The client is a 50-something veteran ski instructor. His old boots look hardly functional, distressed by thousands of days on the hill.

Tschofen seems uncomfortable with my presence. He keeps asking, “Sooooo, vhat do you vant to do?” and looking at me with a hint of disdain every time I open my mouth. The phrase seems to be the only English that Tschofen knows, but the way he’s saying it suggests he’s trying to ask, “Sooooo, vhy the hell are you here?” Despite the arrangements the Kästle boys made so I could work as an Austrian ski-shop rat, Tschofen’s not going to turn any part of the store, not even the toilets, over to a Yankee who can’t speak more than six words of German. Still, my sense of duty prevails for half an hour. I sit in on the bootfit, watching Tschofen’s gnarled fingers make subtle tweaks to the liners.

Then, with snow pounding down outside, I do a most un-Austrian thing: I blow off the shop and go skiing. It’s exactly what any good American ski bum would do. And when I find a hidden double chair that accesses a steep face bisected by avalanche chutes closed to skiers, I succumb to my cultural bias and poach the stash for the rest of the day, sucking up face shots and skiing empty lines with only my tracks as witness.

The snow gets deeper with every turn. I drop off a ridge into an hourglass chute that feeds into steep glades, the pitch rolling steeper and steeper the closer I get to the valley floor, spraying snow contrails at every turn. An après-ski beer washes away any disappointment from not spending the day inside Tschofen’s shop.

It’ll be OK, I tell myself. I’ll get serious about becoming Austrian inside the Kästle factory tomorrow.

When Rudolf and Sigi decided to focus on freeride skis, they weren’t turning their back on Austrian racing tradition but listening to the market. In 2008 ski-equipment sales in the U.S. were worth $425 million, a number that has remained relatively flat for the past five years. But within that, sales of freeride equipment—big-mountain and backcountry gear—have exploded during the same period. According to a 2008 sales report by Snowsports Industry America, backcountry equipment grew 16 percent in units and 21 percent in dollars.

This segment’s growth has been fueled primarily by North American purchases. But European skiers, particularly younger ones, are starting to jump on the bandwagon. While the numbers are elusive, other signals—Krippenstein’s success at reinventing itself as a freeride mecca, the rise of European terrain parks, live TV coverage of the Freeride World Tour’s big-mountain competitions at Verbier and Chamonix and its 16 feeder events—show that a modest freeride sensibility seems to be taking root.

But when I arrive at the Kästle factory, I don’t see any evidence of this. Hell, I don’t even find a factory. Kästle has been producing skis at the Head facility in Kennelbach. I’m ushered through locked doors by an icy receptionist into a massive complex, where I meet Rene Harrer, Head’s marketing manager. We sip espressos, served by another icy beauty, in a spartan and hip conference room. We chat for a while and suddenly it dawns on me: The Austrians are treating me, a journalist on an assignment involving their company, with gloved hands. They see me as a VIP rather than a worker bee. To them, I’m not someone humble enough to get down and dirty with the guys on the shop floor. I’m more of a marketing opportunity.

As my espresso grows cold in its cup, Harrer, with impeccable Austrian manners, confirms it. A tour has been arranged, he says, just for me, and it’s very important that I get to see how they make the best skis in the world.

He marches me through the mazelike facility, a jumble of different buildings housing ski presses, production lines, warehouses filled with cores, edges, and fiberglass, and, in a remote corner of the complex, the race room, where hundreds of 225-centimeter Head downhill skis stand at attention.

Then Harrer hits me with a second bit of news: I won’t see any high-performance freeride skis getting produced. The Head factory is in the midst of a beginner-ski production run.

The tour ends with a quick handshake. I walk out into a gray afternoon, with slush spitting out of a darkening sky.

That night, alone in a hotel room, I take stock of the situation. There will be no intimate moments on the shop floor, no hum of grinders, and no chance to caress a ski as it comes hot out of a press. After all, Tschofen won’t even let me clean the crapper. My experiment is doomed.

In other words, as an American, I’m unworthy to be an Austrian. I don’t understand skiing. I’m a pretender who only thinks he can ski, and from a country that knows nothing about it. They pity me.

Since I’m not going to be working the next day (or the day after that, or ever) I head down to the hotel bar to have a beer. I quickly have another and start boiling. Who are these people who think they own this sport? Americans developed reverse-camber skis, twin tips, mogul skiing, freestyle, and big-mountain skiing. We invented snowboarding and gap jumps, halfpipes and Winter X. We have better snow and more of it. We have Alaska, Alta, and Aspen. Screw them!

And then I look outside. It’s dumping. Hard. I pay my tab and head to bed. Tomorrow will be a powder day and Austrians don’t ski powder. Screw them indeed! I’m getting first tracks. All day long. I’d pity them, but I’d rather poach their lines.

Three days later, I’m in another hotel in Innsbruck, watching it snow even more. I’ve yet to do any work on becoming an Austrian, but I’ve been nailing powder day after powder day, and my dander has been replaced with fatigued bliss. It’s been an incredible week, with nary a groomed run and plenty of backcountry lines. It’s the kind of skiing I do every day at home with my local Colorado crew yet it seems strangely progressive in Austria, where my crew now consists of Kästle athlete Martin Winkler and his buddy, Florian Edinberger.

I’m still searching for what it means to be an Austrian despite being shut out by the ski industry’s gatekeepers. Most of my search has manifested as skiing some of the deepest powder I’ve ever skied in my life at nearby Seefeld, on a day measured in meters rather than inches. Twenty-four hours later, we ski the steep trees at Nordpark, where the sun turns the snow into cream. We carve turns in the smooth snow high above the urban patchwork of Innsbruck, visible in sharp contrast below us.

With a final, untracked lap on Nordpark’s off-piste under my belt, Martin and Flo tuck into an après feast of Kaiserschmarrn. As the young Austrians shovel in the local pancake, I notice how they differ from the other pancake eaters. They don’t race. They ride fat skis. Their clothing is baggy and they’ve given new life to ski areas like Krippenstein and companies like Kästle. Maybe, just maybe, I am Austrian, if only because the next generation of Austrian skiers will be as American as I am, minus the passport.

As I reach this odd conclusion about the future of skiing, I can’t help but think of Zdarsky, the greatest Austrian skiing pioneer of them all, who was still insisting, just before his death in 1940, that the only proper way to ski was with a single ski pole.