Time Travelers

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If you're a romantic soul-or indulge, as I do, in bouts of nostalgia-you've likely enjoyed vacationing at a resort prominent in skiing's history. I find a piquant pleasure in gripping a chilled martini at the bar of The Whip in Stowe's 1833 Green Mountain Inn and in skiing down Nosedive, even though its punishing seven turns, 60 years old, lie buried in the woods ungroomed. By similar reasoning, I love Alta, Utah. The small scale of the base, with its scattering of intimate lodges, evokes the feeling of skiing a half-century ago.

Indulging in nostalgia, however, can have a downside. A resort created before World War II may have antiquated lifts, less groomed terrain. It may lack the shopping and go-go night life of the kind offered by a Vail or a Courchevel. If you stay in a historic hotel, the room may be small, the closet space less. Perhaps you have to climb a hill to board the lift.

Such were my doubts last winter when I rode a train climbing steeply out of Innsbruck, Austria. My destination: Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. It was in Garmisch that the first Olympic downhill and slalom races were staged in 1936. Adolf Hitler listened as Willy Bogner Sr. recited the athletes' oath. After World War II, tens of thousands of Americans learned to ski on the slopes of Garmisch, courtesy of Rest and Recreation (R&R) programs of the U.S. Armed Forces. A local engineer, Hannes Marker, persuaded the GIs to test a revolutionary binding toepiece that he had invented.

Today, Garmisch has three distinct ski areas. The main slopes and 38 lifts stretch from the Hausberg ("local mountain") to Kreuzeck to Osterfeld. Two aerial tramways climb Eckbauer and Wank peaks. Additional ski terrain can be found in a monstrous glacial cirque below the 9,284-foot summit of the Zugspitze, the nation's highest mountain. There are also 84 miles of slopes on the Austrian side of the Zugspitze.

As the train trundles its way to Garmisch, vistas unfold as immaculately as in a tourist-office promotion film. The open scenery of these northern Alps is stunning-more akin to the Canadian Rockies than to the densely packed mountains of Switzerland. There are daily excursions possibilities everywhere, such as Mad King Ludwig's castle Neuschwanstein-the inspiration for Disneyland's turreted look-alike-less than an hour away.

The train creaks to a stop in the main Garmisch Bahnhof, letting me off before it proceeds to Munich, an hour away. My first discovery is that I'm not in Garmisch. I'm about to begin a walk through Partenkirchen. The distinction is this: Parted by a small fast-running river, Garmisch and Partenkirchen were separate towns before they were chosen as the site of the 1936 Winter Games. Partenkirchen is the more ancient. It was an important stop on a Roman road traveled by traders in the 14th century. With the arrival of the 20th century Olympics, the government (who knows, perhaps Chancellor Hitler himself?) concluded that Garmisch and Partenkirchen should be one. The inhabitants were not especially pleased at their union, and I'm told that a certain resentment lingers.

It's difficult to understand why. Physically, Garmisch and Partenkirchen appear to the eye to be a single city. With streetcars and stoplights, cars and multistory buildings, you will not find G-P to be a gemütliche alpine village. It is no Lech or original Vail, though it has beautiful homes, including that of longtime resident Richard Strauss, the composer.

Looking westward, I catch sight of a huge concrete amphitheater, with two ski jumps rising behind it. It must be the original Olympic stadium of 1936, I guess, and I follow a side road that brings me to a towering stone entryway. Inside, the bare ground-the size of a soccer field-is surrounded by a tiered oval of stone benches. Here, 10,000 spectators cheered as the athletes marched in the Olympic opening ceremony, saluting Hitler. The aging concrete walls are streaked with dark stains and emit an aura of dey. G-P's Olympic stadium is not abandoned, however. Each New Year's, 50,000 spectators watch skiers soar off the 90- and 120-meter jumps.

Walking back to Garmisch-Partenkirchen's main street, I cross Aspenstrasse. For its part, Aspen, the resort's sister city, has a street named Garmisch. The two towns have something else in common: Shops stocked with Armani, Bogner, Versace and other designer goods. The side streets are lined with small inns and bed & breakfasts.

Walking now on Ludwigstrasse, the city's most ancient street, I arrive in the heart of old Partenkirchen. The stucco walls of the wood-beamed houses are painted with colorful Luftlmalerei (outdoor painting) depicting knights, angels, saints and religious scenes. Although it's February, the natives are taking beer in the spring-like weather, seated on sidewalk chairs outside Fraundorfer, a restaurant and inn owned by the same family for 150 years. A few hundred feet farther on, I pass a house dating to the 15th century. Then, as suddenly as it began, the engagement with history ends. My hotel, the Mercure, a five-story building, stretches before me, longer than a football field, more Ramada than romantic.

My room turns out be spacious, with ample closet space. At dinner, I rejoin a group of writers with whom I had earlier skied in Kitzbühel. We dine on delicious Leberknödl-suppe (large liver dumplings floating in a clear beef broth) and Schweinsbraten (pork roast). The agenda for the next day: A 20-minute van ride to the Zugspitze, where we will ski the highest of the Garmisch ski areas.

The aerial tram up the Zugspitze is a single span of cable, rising precipitously from lake Eibsee. From the summit, we ride in a small cable car that descends to the treeless ski area, which sits like a cradle under the Zugspitze peak. In a semi-circle, 10 lifts fan out-a mix of T-bars and older fixed chairs-flanked by groomed ribbons of piste. A small remnant of a glacier offers skiing into May.

Not a cloud mottles the sky. I cruise the mostly intermediate-to-advanced terrain. Over a lunch of wurst (sausage) and strudel topped with schlag (whipped cream), I ask our instructor/guide about the area's aging chairlifts and T-bars. "We just elected a new mayor," he reports. "The guy ran on the promise to build new lifts."

At the top of the Zugspitze, I stop at the sightseeing station. The remarkable vista embraces the Alps from the Dolomites in the southeast to the Matterhorn and westward to Mont Blanc.

That evening, in old Partenkirchen, we gather for dinner at Gasthof Fraundorfer, an institution dedicated to the perpetuation of schnitzel, sauerkraut, oompah music and Schuhplattler. The latter can best be described as Riverdance performed to accordion music by Germans in lederhosen attempting to convert their feet into instruments that sound like thunderclaps.

Schuhplattler is an example of how Bavarians assiduously tend their cultural heritage. Two days later, I discover an immaculately preserved 350-year-old merchant's house containing the Werdenfelser Heimat Museum, which houses hundreds of pieces of sacred statuary fashioned by local artisans as early as the 15th century. In one room, dedicated to early climbing and skiing gear, I spot a paraffin melting pot and brush, like the ones I employed as a 12-year-old to prepare the bases of my skis. You know you're getting old when museums begin to display objects you used as a child.

Later that evening, I visit the Posthotel and learn that Garmisch has something to compensate for its lack of slopeside accommodations: You can sleep in a museum! The Posthotel began as an inn in 1512, explains the owner, Ekke Locher. In the late 19th century, a Berlin brewer named Clausing spent a fortune restoring the oldest parts of the building. Each guest room is different, decorated to convey the feel of an early rustic bed chamber, but with modern amenities. Outside, the halls have elegantly carved wood-paneled walls, hung with old paintings, under intricately coffered ceilings. Antique pewter plates sit atop ancient Bauernschrà¤nke (armoirs). For a while after World War II, Clausing's Posthotel served as a posh American officers' club. Ekke leads us to a low-ceilinged, ornately decorated room off the bar. We order schnapps and steins of Weissbier.

It's not the sort of evening recommended by coaches for taking on a world-renowned downhill the next day. Yet in the morning we head to the top of the Kandahar, a trail with a history as treacherous and venerable as that of Austria's Hahnenkamm, and a regular stop on the World Cup circuit. Past winners include Karl Schranz, Franz Klammer and Steve Podborski, but not a single American.

It was on the Kreuzeck terrain next to the Kandahar that the 1936 "Olympia" downhill was run. The winner was Norway's Birger Ruud, perhaps the most remarkable athlete in our sport's history. Only 5-feet, 5-inches tall, Ruud was the world's best jumper, having won the gold medal at the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., after which he and his brother performed inverted aerials on skis on crushed ice in Madison Square Garden.

"The '36 Olympic downhill was a wax race, very slow at the end," said Dick Durrance, the best racer on the U.S. Team, who poled himself to a disappointing 11th place. Because Ruud was a jumper, he was a skilled waxer, and picked the right mix for the day. After he won the downhill, he went on to win the Olympic gold medal in jumping, using the same pair of boots-a feat that has never been repeated.

Among recreational skiing's pleasures, there is almost nothing that surpasses the descent of a world championship downhill when it's groomed, without gates and the harsh, deliberately created ice of World Cup races. I was ready to tackle the famous Kandahar, covered by snowmaking from start to finish.

From the starting hut on top, I begin by arcing turns down the steep upper face, which in competition accelerates racers to 80 mph. Bypassing a short, mogul-chopped section, the trail traverses to a point where the super G begins, about one-third of the way down the 3,000 foot vertical drop. I thrill to the rolling terrain and the wide serpentine turns. Alas, not for long. Farther down, the ribbon of manmade snow turns to heavy slush. Above the finish line, surrounded by bare ground, I stop to inspect a final devastating sharp left turn. Here Austrian downhiller Ulrike Maier was killed in 1994 when she hit an obstacle at the edge of the trail.

At the end of the afternoon, I ski over to the Hausberg cablecar for the ride down to the snowless Garmisch valley floor, at 2,300 feet. Standing in the liftline, I spot Rosi Mittermaier, the great Bavarian champion. Before Janica Kostelic's four-medal triumph at Salt Lake last winter, Mittermaier's two gold medals and a silver at Innsbruck in 1976 ranked as the greatest performance ever by a woman in Olympic alpine skiing. She lives now in Garmisch with her husband, Christian Neureuther, who also raced for Germany.

Rosi is warmhearted and modest and is loved throughout Bavaria. When I ask her what advice she would have for Americans skiing Garmisch, she responds: "There are so many sports you can do as well as downhill skiing-ice skating in our Olympic arena, sightseeing the beautiful Wetterstein mountain range, gambling in the casino, curling, cross-country skiing, going to Munich for the day." It's true, I thought. The place is like a personal computer, from which you derive only 10 percent of its benefits unless you know what you're doing.

After breakfast the next day, I ride the Hausberg cable car, and make my way to a peak known as Osterfelderkopf. Here I discover, perhaps, the most charming run above Garmisch. I ski through a narrow cleft in the rocks, which leads to the top of a gracefully undulating trail, flanked on one side by forest, on the other by a massive cliff. I'm alone in a gentle canyon. Down and down the Osterfeld downhill wld paintings, under intricately coffered ceilings. Antique pewter plates sit atop ancient Bauernschrà¤nke (armoirs). For a while after World War II, Clausing's Posthotel served as a posh American officers' club. Ekke leads us to a low-ceilinged, ornately decorated room off the bar. We order schnapps and steins of Weissbier.

It's not the sort of evening recommended by coaches for taking on a world-renowned downhill the next day. Yet in the morning we head to the top of the Kandahar, a trail with a history as treacherous and venerable as that of Austria's Hahnenkamm, and a regular stop on the World Cup circuit. Past winners include Karl Schranz, Franz Klammer and Steve Podborski, but not a single American.

It was on the Kreuzeck terrain next to the Kandahar that the 1936 "Olympia" downhill was run. The winner was Norway's Birger Ruud, perhaps the most remarkable athlete in our sport's history. Only 5-feet, 5-inches tall, Ruud was the world's best jumper, having won the gold medal at the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., after which he and his brother performed inverted aerials on skis on crushed ice in Madison Square Garden.

"The '36 Olympic downhill was a wax race, very slow at the end," said Dick Durrance, the best racer on the U.S. Team, who poled himself to a disappointing 11th place. Because Ruud was a jumper, he was a skilled waxer, and picked the right mix for the day. After he won the downhill, he went on to win the Olympic gold medal in jumping, using the same pair of boots-a feat that has never been repeated.

Among recreational skiing's pleasures, there is almost nothing that surpasses the descent of a world championship downhill when it's groomed, without gates and the harsh, deliberately created ice of World Cup races. I was ready to tackle the famous Kandahar, covered by snowmaking from start to finish.

From the starting hut on top, I begin by arcing turns down the steep upper face, which in competition accelerates racers to 80 mph. Bypassing a short, mogul-chopped section, the trail traverses to a point where the super G begins, about one-third of the way down the 3,000 foot vertical drop. I thrill to the rolling terrain and the wide serpentine turns. Alas, not for long. Farther down, the ribbon of manmade snow turns to heavy slush. Above the finish line, surrounded by bare ground, I stop to inspect a final devastating sharp left turn. Here Austrian downhiller Ulrike Maier was killed in 1994 when she hit an obstacle at the edge of the trail.

At the end of the afternoon, I ski over to the Hausberg cablecar for the ride down to the snowless Garmisch valley floor, at 2,300 feet. Standing in the liftline, I spot Rosi Mittermaier, the great Bavarian champion. Before Janica Kostelic's four-medal triumph at Salt Lake last winter, Mittermaier's two gold medals and a silver at Innsbruck in 1976 ranked as the greatest performance ever by a woman in Olympic alpine skiing. She lives now in Garmisch with her husband, Christian Neureuther, who also raced for Germany.

Rosi is warmhearted and modest and is loved throughout Bavaria. When I ask her what advice she would have for Americans skiing Garmisch, she responds: "There are so many sports you can do as well as downhill skiing-ice skating in our Olympic arena, sightseeing the beautiful Wetterstein mountain range, gambling in the casino, curling, cross-country skiing, going to Munich for the day." It's true, I thought. The place is like a personal computer, from which you derive only 10 percent of its benefits unless you know what you're doing.

After breakfast the next day, I ride the Hausberg cable car, and make my way to a peak known as Osterfelderkopf. Here I discover, perhaps, the most charming run above Garmisch. I ski through a narrow cleft in the rocks, which leads to the top of a gracefully undulating trail, flanked on one side by forest, on the other by a massive cliff. I'm alone in a gentle canyon. Down and down the Osterfeld downhill winds in dips and rolls. No other slopes intrude. Down more than a thousand vertical feet, the trail spins until, at the bottom, I reach the isolated Bernadein lift.

On the ride up, I sit next to an Alaskan, Damian Wildur, a U.S. Air Force information processing expert based in Belgium. Garmisch has always been popular with America's armed services. The resort played a significant role in the lives of young GIs after World War II as the principal R&R center for American forces in Europe. Ted Heck, 80, a highly decorated infantry officer who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was one of them. After the cessation of hostilities, in June 1946, Heck arrived in Garmisch. "It cost me two dollars a night to stay in the officers hotel," he recalls, "a dollar if I'd been an enlisted man." As the war's winner, the U.S. had taken over the town's hotels. With nothing else to do, Heck went up to the Zugspitze glacier and took his very first run on 210-centimeter wooden skis in bear trap bindings. "Amazingly, I became hooked on the sport," he says.

If the 10th Mountain Division supplied the men who built the ski industry in America, the slopes of Garmisch arguably created its customers. Soldiers, sailors and airmen came on leave to drink beer and ski.

As the Cold War escalated and the number of troops in Europe soared, tens of thousands of GIs arrived in the 1950s. Cal Conniff, who became the President of the National Ski Areas Association, spent two years working on the patrol at Garmisch. He watched GIs from Georgia and Florida ski for the first time. "It was comical. They'd go up on the mountain wearing their army fatigues. The snow was almost unturnable." ll winds in dips and rolls. No other slopes intrude. Down more than a thousand vertical feet, the trail spins until, at the bottom, I reach the isolated Bernadein lift.

On the ride up, I sit next to an Alaskan, Damian Wildur, a U.S. Air Force information processing expert based in Belgium. Garmisch has always been popular with America's armed services. The resort played a significant role in the lives of young GIs after World War II as the principal R&R center for American forces in Europe. Ted Heck, 80, a highly decorated infantry officer who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was one of them. After the cessation of hostilities, in June 1946, Heck arrived in Garmisch. "It cost me two dollars a night to stay in the officers hotel," he recalls, "a dollar if I'd been an enlisted man." As the war's winner, the U.S. had taken over the town's hotels. With nothing else to do, Heck went up to the Zugspitze glacier and took his very first run on 210-centimeter wooden skis in bear trap bindings. "Amazingly, I became hooked on the sport," he says.

If the 10th Mountain Division supplied the men who built the ski industry in America, the slopes of Garmisch arguably created its customers. Soldiers, sailors and airmen came on leave to drink beer and ski.

As the Cold War escalated and the number of troops in Europe soared, tens of thousands of GIs arrived in the 1950s. Cal Conniff, who became the President of the National Ski Areas Association, spent two years working on the patrol at Garmisch. He watched GIs from Georgia and Florida ski for the first time. "It was comical. They'd go up on the mountain wearing their army fatigues. The snow was almost unturnable."

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