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I’m sweating, standing in a thicket of larch trees and peering down through barren branches at the half-timbered chalets and hotels of St. Anton, one of eight historic farming villages forming Austria’s Arlberg. Separating me from lunch are 1,500 feet of steep, wooded vertical blanketed by a season’s worth of snow—snow that’s rapidly moistening from killer corn into mashed potatoes under the spring sun. And the only thing stopping me from poaching it is an orange out-of-bounds rope (a rarity in this no-holds-barred mega resort) and a yellow sign that reads “Es ist auch dein wald” – it’s your forest too. In other words, don’t duck the rope, asshole, this forest belongs to everyone, not just you and your GoPro.
Sounds good to me. It’s my last run of an epic three-day trip. Less than an hour ago, I was high up in St. Anton’s side-country, riding wet pow down a headwall that curled like a white wave. Now I’m spent. I eye the sign warding off would-be trespassers and prepare to push off down a gentle hiking trail that serves as an easy run-out back to the resort. But just before I do, a ski pole darts into my field of vision, gingerly tucks itself under the orange rope, and gently lifts it.
“If it’s my woods,” says the pole’s owner in his deep New Hampshire baritone, “then we’re skiing it, dude.”
They say there’s a kernel of truth behind every joke, but in this case it might as well be unassailable fact. That’s because the pole belongs to Hannes Schneider, a man who—despite the fact that he’s a red blooded, gun-carrying American; despite the fact that he only lives here for a fleeting three months a year; despite the fact that he peppers his speech with plenty of “dudes” and “no doubt about its”—is the closest thing to living royalty in this iconic Austrian ski area.
And so, if anyone can lay claim to these woods—hell, this valley, this vast resort of 88 lifts, and maybe even the entire sport of alpine skiing itself—it’s Hannes.
That’s no hyperbole. Hannes (pronounced han-iss) is named after his paternal grandfather, a local boy from nearby Stuben who more or less invented modern skiing in the early 1900s. Inspired by the Scandinavians who pioneered the sport as a means of transportation, Schneider made skiing a lot faster and more fun by adding two poles, a crouched stance, and—most importantly—the Stem Christie, the precursor to the parallel turn. He dubbed it the Arlberg Technique, and began teaching it to the masses when he opened the world’s first ski school out of St. Anton’s Post Hotel in 1923. Soon, everyone was flocking to the Arlberg to learn this wonky new sport, from European blue bloods to American tycoons, and Schneider—with his pipe, tweed blazer, and rakish thatch of wavy hair—became skiing’s first celebrity, starring in films, writing bestsellers, even traveling to America to put on demonstrations in Madison Square Garden.
Schneider is especially important to American skiing. His technique still serves as a template in our ski schools, and his instructors and devotees developed some of this country’s most important resorts, from Stowe to Sun Valley to Aspen. Schneider—a fierce anti-fascist—would join them in 1939, escaping prison and Nazi-occupied Austria with the help of Harvey Gibson, an American businessman who bartered a secret deal with the Germans that got the “Skimeister” out of Europe and into North Conway, New Hampshire. For the remaining 16-years of his life, Schneider ran the ski school at Gibson’s Mt. Cranmore, teaching legions of Americans the sport he helped create.
Meaning, we can trace much of American skiing’s genesis right back here to this little Tirolean valley, these slopes, these woods, to the Schneider family blood, the same blood pumping through this 50-year old, barrel-chested dude standing in front of me, his long brown hair spilling out of a black Smith helmet, a greying goatee framing his boyish grin like a fu manchu.
“I’m kidding, dude,” Hannes laughs and clicks my pole, “we shouldn’t ski this, it’ll fuck up the forest. Let’s get lunch.”
I pulled into St. Anton 72-hours ago for my second trip to the Arlberg of the season. I’m a bit of an addict. My father grew up two valleys southeast of here, and I got hooked on St. Anton in my 20s, both for its rowdy off-piste and rowdier après-ski. Now in my late 30s, I’m drawn to the romance of the region—its vastness, its history, the pleasure of skiing into pastoral villages rather than cookie cutter condos. But I’d never skied the Arlberg with my friend Hannes, despite the fact that we’d been trying to get a trip together for over a decade. I was here to finally put that bucket list item to bed.
My timing seemed perfect. For the first season in its history, the Arlberg had been linked into one skiable expanse thanks to the new Flexenbahn, a $50-million network of three gondolas that allows you to ski from the steeps of St. Anton to the gentle rollers of Warth (one state, two valleys, five towns, and 20 miles away), all without hailing a taxi or hopping a bus. To make things even better, it had just dumped. Following a season of bone-dry conditions, a bevy of early March storms had redeemed the winter, blanketing the resort with three feet of the good stuff. Who could pass up skiing blower pow in situ with the grandson of the guy who invented the sport? Not me. I booked a last minute flight and begged my very pregnant wife to forgive me.
“You shoulda showed up two days ago,” Hannes shouts over the warm wind on our first morning. We’re standing on the 9,000-foot summit deck of Valluga, home to one of the Arlberg’s most precarious off-piste runs. Known as Valluga North, it’s a cliff-strewn headwall that leads into the pillowy Paziel-Tal Valley. Before the Flexenbahn, this was the only way to get from St. Anton to Zürs without driving a car.
Today, with the temperature in the high 40s and the backcountry less stable than a black market dirty bomb, Hannes and I just enjoy the view. I’ve seen it countless times, and yet still I marvel at densely packed white peaks as Hannes ticks off the Arlberg’s five main towns far below – St. Anton, St. Christoph, Stuben, Zürs and Lech. Forget pioneering the sport, up here I’m simply blown away that his grandfather created a movement that led to all this, a ski area the size of a small country.
“It’s humbling,” Hannes says when I ask him about his grandfather’s legacy, “to be the grandson of the guy who started it all.” Clad in a blue puffer vest and a green hoodie, he looks like just another dude on the mountain. “But I don’t publicize it. I just see myself as a ski bum, man.”
For years, Hannes blew into the Arlberg much like the snowstorms that make this region famous: sweeping across the Atlantic and wreaking havoc for a week. But he didn’t become a full-fledged ski bum until five years ago, when his father Herbert passed away and left him with the rustic Fahrner Hof, a Tirolean inn that had remained in the Schneider family. During the winter, when he’s not working as a civil engineer back home in Maine, Hannes occupies the chalet’s top floor, and rents out the three downstairs apartments by the week (think balconies, wood stoves, and plenty of wall-mounted antlers). The rest of the time he’s skiing—upwards of 70 days a season.
“Even if my company had said no to me taking the winters off, I would’ve still done this,” Hannes tells me. “I would’ve chosen St. Anton for historical reasons, for my passion. It’s very important to keep the Fahrner Hof in my family.”
I follow Hannes down runs made famous by his grandfather in Der weiße Rausch, a 1931 ski comedy so gorgeous and groundbreaking that even Leni Riefenstahl’s involvement hasn’t diminished its stature. We drop in off the Schindler Spitze, sharp and menacing as a shark fin. We schuss by the Austrian Ski Academy in St. Christoph, where my father earned his Staatlicher certification in 1970. We arc down the undulating Valfagehr, crossing the border from Tirol into the Voralberg state of Austria. It’s a seemingly endless run, one that Hannes remembers from his first time skiing here as a 10-year old boy with his uncle. When they’d reached the bottom, they had to hail a taxi back to St. Anton.
There’s no need for a cab today as we pull up to the Flexenbahn’s gleaming HQ. To the north, Zürs-bound gondolas bob up and over a vertiginous mountainside flecked with grazing Steinbock. We grab a gondola in the other direction, heading south into Stuben.
Officially, the Flexenbahn makes the Arlberg the biggest interconnected ski resort in Austria, and the eighth biggest in the world. But those metrics fail to capture the sheer scope of the place, where the easily accessible side and backcountry almost double the skiable terrain.
“My friends ask me the standard American thing, they want to know how many acres the Arlberg has.” Hannes sits wedged in the corner of the gondola, playing with a leather bracelet. “I literally answer them by saying how many stars are in the sky?”
He points out some of those stars when we get off the lift. There’s Star Wars Bowl, nicknamed for a massive concrete tower that sticks out of the snow like something from The Empire Strikes Back. There’s a tree run that takes you down the Klösterle valley into Langen, a town so far outside the ski area limit it necessitates freighthopping the train home. And then there’s the slope directly below our ski tips, a 35-degree pitch that can hold powder for weeks.
“Nope,” Hannes says after carefully striking the cornice with his pole. “Don’t like it.”
Despite the laid-back, Big Lebowski vibe the long hair and the goatee exude, Hannes is a hard-nosed New Englander and a stickler for personal responsibility. The latter is something he’s refined in the 25-years he’s been coming here, a ski resort that’s cool with you skiing out of bounds so long as you’re cool with the $7,000 heli evac fee should you get into a pickle. It’s an attitude that jibes well with his Libertarian political leanings. Back in Maine, he built a house a mile down the road from his ex-wife so that their divorce wouldn’t disrupt the lives of their two boys, a pair of ski nuts now both in college. In the summer, when he’s not squeezing off rounds in his backyard, Hannes scatters avalanche beacons in the high grass to keep the boys’ rescue skills sharp for their month-long visit to the Arlberg each January.
I ask him if he could see his sons wintering here and doing what he does someday. “Oh yeah,” he says, lighting up. “100 percent. No doubt about it.”
We skip the out-of-bounds and cruise down a switchbacked cat road through a forest of Fichte pines and into the village of Stuben, a cluster of chalets cloistering an onion-domed church. This is where Hannes’ grandfather taught himself how to ski, sneaking out at night, zipping down the slopes and crashing into an open hay barn. It has hardly changed since he left in 1907, bailing on an apprenticeship with a cheese maker to become St. Anton’s first ski guide.
Considering that my father—like many Austrians—made his career as a ski school director in the U.S., I want to thank Schneider for his teenage rebellion as Hannes and I stand below the man’s bronze statue in the center of town. It’s a handsome depiction, skis and poles in one hand, the other casually stuck in his pocket. We amble through the empty streets, as narrow and dark as alleys in a city, the white, sun-flared peaks revealing themselves through gaps between houses, the snow dripping from eaves and splashing on cobblestones. Schneider’s cedar-sided childhood home remains, only now it’s owned by an American investment banker who’s updated it into a six-bedroom chalet replete with a spa and private chef that rents for close to $60,000 a week. Despite the over-the-top amenities and price tag, it’s tastefully done, and yet amid Stuben’s throwback atmosphere you hope it’s not a harbinger of future developments.
Stuben reminds me of the Austrian village my father left after he met my mother, a Brooklyn girl who fell in love with skiing and, subsequently, dad. Every summer when I was a kid, we’d return to his family’s farm for six weeks. I’d follow him around each morning as he scythed the steep fields, the same fields where his mother taught him how to ski in winter, and I’d imagine them buried under snow. I couldn’t fathom how he’d left a place so gorgeous.
As we walk back to our skis, I ask Hannes if his dad—who fled Austria at 18 alongside his famous father—ever wanted to return to the Arlberg.
“I think Dad stayed in America because that was important to my grandfather, and Dad was very loyal to him,” Hannes says. “But I’m pretty sure he would’ve liked to have come back and lived here.”
Hannes isn’t the only Schneider fulfilling his late father’s dream. The next morning, I visit his younger brother Christoph at the Schneider Hof, a boutique hotel on St. Anton’s main pedestrian drag that was originally built by the boys’ grandfather. Today, its owned and operated by Christoph and his wife Hannah, who together renovated the nearly 100-year old chalet to the tune of $1.5 million.
Soft-spoken with close-cropped hair, Christoph cuts the polar opposite figure to Hannes. I follow him between guest rooms as he changes linens in the hotel’s five palatial suites and two apartments, each named after important locations in the Schneider family saga, from St. Christoph to North Conway. They come appointed with French panels, Italian sleigh beds, and triple pane windows, which help block out the noise from the all-night party in town.
“People used to come here to ski and party,” Christoph says with a twinge of nostalgia. “Now, it’s almost the opposite.”
Christoph doesn’t ski much anymore either. Sure, there was the avalanche that nearly killed him, a slide set off by a bunch of yahoos who’d dropped in above him and Hannes in St. Anton’s legendary Mattun Valley (he escaped with a broken leg and a very expensive helicopter bill). These days, however, it’s the workload of running a hotel that keeps him off the slopes. If his grandfather could be split into two distinct personalities, that of a ski teacher and that of a genial host, then Christoph inherited the latter. In addition to housekeeping duties, he and Hannah handle everything from cooking American-style breakfast to hosting a subdued version of après-ski in the property’s rough-hewn timber dining room. There, guests congregate after skiing to sip local wine and beer and play backgammon while basking in the warmth of the hotel’s tiled kachelofen. It’s a vibe that hasn’t changed much since Schneider and his wife first played host here in the 1920s.
“It was important for us to continue the tradition grandfather started,” Christoph says. He often speaks like this, referring to Schneider not as “my grandfather,” but simply “grandfather,” as if to suggest that everyone—every skier partaking in this weird and wonderful sport—is one of the man’s descendants. It’s a subconscious slip, and yet, in a way, it makes perfect sense.
“Without Hannes’ grandfather, skiing would not be what it is now,” says Stefan Jochum, Vice President of the Ski Club Arlberg, an organization whose members have won a total of 84 Olympic and World Championship medals. Jochum and I split a bottle of Grüner Veltliner by the open fireplace at the Arlberg Hospiz Hotel, a 600-year old institution perched atop the Arlberg Pass. This is where Schneider and his friends founded the Ski Club Arlberg on January 3, 1901 following a particularly bomber powder day. Back then, the Hospiz was no more than a simple mountain refuge; today, it’s a five-star property that feels like it’s been plucked from a Wes Anderson movie. I’ve tagged along with Hannes for the club’s weekly Stammtisch, or regular’s table. “I’m very proud that Hannes has joined us,” Jochum beams.
So too is Hannes. Like the 15 or so other club members gathered, he wears the official sweater, a grey v-neck with red and white stripes across the arms. He’s here to induct his friend Alessandra Ravanelli, a writer from Vienna who’s recently completed a screenplay on Hannes’ grandfather.
“If you go 50 kilometers out of the Arlberg, just a few people know about Hannes Schneider and that’s a shame,” Ravanelli says, tucking her blond hair behind her ears and sliding into our booth. Over the past two years, her research has taken her to these mountains countless times alongside her co-producer and boyfriend — “I was born in Vienna but made in the Arlberg” he tells me with a wink — as well as to Schneider’s adopted home in New Hampshire.
“Today, the people, they go skiing,” Ravanelli goes on, “but they do not think about where it comes from and why they ski like this, why they do not ski Telemark anymore. It’s all based on the Arlberg Technique. It’s all based on Hannes Schneider.”
Cheers to that. After a few more bottles of Grüner, we fall into spirited talk of the movie. Tim Roth’s name is thrown around due to his uncanny resemblance of Schneider; Robert Redford and Arnold Schwarzenegger are mentioned as possible producers, anyone with a passion for the sport. It might be a stretch, we all agree, but hey, connections and shared interests are what make things like this happen.
“Look at my grandfather,” Hannes says. “The connections he made through skiing are what saved his life. Skiing was his path to freedom.”
I’m still searching for my own path to freedom on my last full day in the Arlberg. As always, it’s been magical — days spent linking turns in the open high country above Zürs; descending through the trees into the fairytale chalets of Lech, strewn like a trail of breadcrumbs along a silvery river. But it’s been a trip confined to the groomers, and I’m still jonesing for a nibble of the off-piste that makes this area so famous.
Hannes remains wary — four people were killed by an avalanche 24-hours ago near Innsbruck, and today, St. Anton teems with patrollers closing off dangerous sections of the mountain. He finds something he finally likes on Schongraben, a saddle plunging into a gully off St. Anton’s eastern most flank. The pitch is glazed with a wafer-thin crust and it doesn’t look like much until we hit it, dropping a small lip onto a steep, endlessly fulfilling headwall of some twenty turns through deep, late-season powder. At the bottom, we dog leg it back in bounds to a rickety old t-bar and bang out side-country laps for the rest of the morning.
We end our day lounging on lambskin throws outside the Galzig Bistrobar. The sun is high and hot, and we strip down to our t-shirts and order spaghetti and skiwasser – a traditional thirst quencher of raspberry syrup, lemon juice, and glacier water. It’s one of those bittersweet spring afternoons, when ski days feel as perfect as they are numbered. Hannes asks me about my pregnant wife. He teases me about how limited my skiing will be for the next few years. I laugh, excited for our baby, but also sad to see these carefree times ending. At some point, our conversation stops, interrupted by the thwap-thwap-thwap of a helicopter. There’s been a slab avalanche up on the backside of the Rendl, an off-piste pitch similar to the one we just skied. Two people are dead.
I wake to heavy rain the next morning. Hannes sits in his living room watching the weather report. It’s snowing above 8,000 feet, but it’s hardly worth the effort. I pack my things, and we bro hug it out, making vague plans for my next visit – whenever I get the hang of parenting.
I schlep my shit to the train station, lost in those end-of-season blues that feel as dark as the fog stuffing this valley. At the station, I buy my ticket and throw my bags into a locker. There’s 45-minutes to kill, and I have two things on my agenda. The first is a gift for my father, which I find at the butcher in the heart of town. It’s a thick chunk of speck, smoked and salt-cured pork that to dad taste like home, his oncologist be damned.
Next, I head to one of St. Anton’s many ski shops, eager to buy something I hope guarantees my return.
“Do you have children’s ski jackets?” I ask the shop girl.
“How old?” She speaks with a singsong Tirolean lilt, the language of my father, of his family, of this small, mountainous corner of the world that a boy named Hannes Schneider made famous almost a century ago.
I laugh. “Not born yet.”
“Come.” She smiles, ushering me to the back of the store. “I have something perfect.”
James Jung’s writing appears in Outside, Men’s Journal, Travel + Leisure, Vice, Bicycling, VeloNews.