Every skier should visit the Atomic factory in Altenmarkt, Aaustria. A sprawling, 411,000-square-foot production plant, it's the only place in the world where skis, boots, and bindings are made under one roof. You should go if you seek a deeper understanding of the mechanics behind the ethereal beauty of our sport. You should certainly go if Atomic calls, asksif you want a free trip to the Alps, and puts you up in a spa resort named Pichlmayrgut that's five-star in every way—never mind that one can't say "Pichlmayrgut without expectorating a wad of phlegm.
That's how I found myself at the Altenmarkt plant, which constructs 800,000 skis per year, using computerized robotics. Powerful fatigue-testing machines wailed on boot tongues. My tour guide pointed out that if a human even came close to leaning with that much pressure, his Achilles tendon would snap like an old rubber band. Cool. I saw that Austrian ski-makers, like hyper-angulating Austrian racers, are obsessed with edges: New boards at Altenmarkt pass through no fewer than 28 grinding stations.
We spent four hours at the factory before departing for—in the best local tradition—a sausage-laden lunch washed down with steins of Trumer Pils beer. Good times. But unfamiliar ones: They do things differently in Austria. The World's Greatest Ski Culture occasionally is downright goofy.
For one thing, Americans and Austrians don't quite agree on the concept of the ski posse. At the Atomic tour, the two dozen Americans (Atomic dealers, plus some spouses and a few media types) divided into distinct groups. I was assigned to a fast group of skiers. We were well motivated by the Alps, and even more fired up by the three feet of snow that fell during our visit. Nevertheless, our guide made a habit of yelling, in a petulant voice, "C'mon guys, let's go!—as if we were a bunch of toddlers wearing our pants backward and dragging our gear. In fact, we'd be standing right next to him, ready and raring to go. Chalk it up to the innate Teutonic need to herd and control.
Then there's the punctuality thing. I got an earful one day for arriving at 8:32 a.m. for the 8:30 bus to the slopes. It didn't matter to our guides that two minutes is a blink of an eye in Tahoe or Telluride time. To them, I was a blasphemous offense to the almighty itinerary. Talk about a culture clash: American skiers hope their slacker buddies show up on time. Austrians expect it…"und vot iss dis vord, 'slacker'?
Austria boasts the liveliest, most international après party scene of anywhere in the Alps. The bars at the Pichl-mayrgut hopped till 5 a.m.; yet, even at that hour, there's still an alarm-ing amount of accordion music. The accordion is a traditional Tyrolean instrument that produces happy, jolly notes. I can listen to it for about a minute. Give me loud banging on skins and strings versus squeezing a bag of air. Worse, accordionists at Austrian resorts wear skimpy leather shorts and feathered caps, and generally look like refugees from an alternative lifestyle website.
The Austrian sense of humor also eludes me. If you've heard the governor of California lumber through one of his dated "girlie-man jokes, you can imagine how low his home nation sets the laughter bar. During my stay, I picked up several issues of Ski Austria—the premier magazine for those seeking three pages on racer Ingrid Rumpfhuber's fitness-ball routine. Once you get past the juvenile pleasure of saying "RUMP-hew-burr, however, there's not much funny in Ski Austria. Not unless you count the photos of racers yukking it up by ditching their skis and sliding on their bellies in their skin suits. Tee-hee!
Ski Austria devoted its Oktober 2003 cover to a wheelbarrow race featuring Hermann "the Herminator Maier. That's right—a wheelbarrow race on the cover. American magazines have lately resisted this temptation. The last time wheelbarrow races were hip enough to bag a cover in the U.S., there were fewer than 40 states, and photoography hadn't been invented yet.
A couple hills we skied near Altenmarkt featured "Ski-Robics! stations: Push a button, and an excitable German voice, accompanied by cheesy synthesizers, booms from a speaker and commands everyone in earshot to stretch in unison. The ski areas were decorated top to bottom with dewy-eyed cartoon-character mascots—a snowman at Zauchensee, a cutesy rabbit named Hopsi at Planai. Seeing them left childless adults with a vaguely creepy feeling, like we'd intruded on a kindergarten class or a birthday party at Neverland Ranch.
I will say this for the "Ski-Robics! crowd: They stay largely on the groomers, leaving acres of powder for visiting Yanks. One afternoon at Planai, six of us hiked to the top of a knob. The hike took only 10 minutes, and presented us with 800 vertical feet of steep-to-moderate untracked. We skied knee-deep powder down to a sun-splashed deck, clicked out of our bindings, and ordered beer, bratwurst, and fries. The requisite accordion player serenaded us with tunes better suited to dancing monkeys. But at that moment, Austria's culture became endearing. Austria is goofy alright, but it's the goofiness of a teenager in love. The country's dizzying affection for skiing blinds it to questions of cool and hip.
Sliding down snow turns these supposedly tight-ass people into giddy hedonists. True, Austrians sweep sidewalks compulsively. They wear more ties than the rest of the world's alpine communities combined. But up on the mountains that cast their tidy little villages in shadow, the Austrians hang fire. They do not watch your alcohol intake. They do not erect fluorescent snow fences and call them "Slow Zones. Indeed, they encourage balls-out speed, knowing that this breeds Klammers and Eberharters.
The Orwellian tendencies and oom-pah overtones can be disconcerting for an American, but they're essentially just encouragements to get on board with Austria's national pastime. Count me in. I loved skiing mountains I'd never heard of before—Obertauern, Zauchensee, and Planai. I admire the fact that Atomic almost went bankrupt a decade ago, but has now furnished the skis for nine overall men's World Cup winners in a row. I marvel that a country of eight million people can utterly dominate the rest of the world in ski racing.
Which brings up the final difference between us and them: They don't get ridiculed by the rest of the world for their pathetic grasp of international geography. We do. Austrians can find our country on a map. Needless to say, most Americans would struggle to locate the greatest ski culture in the world. So I'll leave the geographically challenged amongst us with a couple of clues: Austria is in Europe, and it doesn't have kangaroos.