Friday, February 22, 2008

Ski adventures with Konrad

Norbert Untersteiner lives in Seattle, Wash.


Sometimes I Google the snow report for Sun Valley, just to nourish the illusion that I might be going there as I did so many times in the past. Having ascertained that on Dec. 31 the snow was good and plentiful, I punched in "Konrad Staudinger, ski instructor."

I had met Konrad on a lift ride up Bald Mountain more than 40 years ago. We discovered that we not only spoke a similar Austrian dialect, but that we shared similar stories about how we had survived the chaos of the last year of the insanity of World War II. In 1944, we had been drafted out of high school into the German army and were sent to the same godforsaken little town in Slovenia to receive basic military training while Tito's partisan fighters were lobbing mortar shells into our barracks.

Like many Austrians, I was a pretty good skier, but having come across that interesting emissary from the past, I decided to take more lessons. After a few runs down Baldy, Konrad said to me, "You don't need no ski lessons, you just need to ski." For some reason he called me "Burli," which in our dialect is a generic name for a little boy. He would say, "Come on, Burli, let's burn a little ski wax" or some untranslatable Tyrolean equivalent. And so he would lead the way, flying down the hill with that amazing certainty of control and elegance, fast but in perfect harmony with the terrain. It was the purest physical joy to ski just a short distance behind him, copying his motions with a delay of a second, enjoying the illusion that this was not his but my own way of skiing.

I told Konrad about Hans Hauser, one of the first Austrian ski instructors brought to Sun Valley by Averell Harriman in the 1930s. Hans Hauser and his brother Max were our boyhood skiing idols. Their mother owned the most popular mountain inn near Salzburg, and the Hauser boys were credited with many legendary feats of skiing. After World War II, Hans, then the fourth husband of Virginia Hill (of Bugsy Siegel fame), returned to Salzburg, where Virginia died under mysterious circumstances in 1966.

Today, Sun Valley still hosts many contemporary celebrities, but back in the 1960s I remember standing in the liftline with Robert and Ethel Kennedy, or sitting next to Marlon Brando or Mary Hemingway at the Christiania, or running inadvertently over Steve McQueen's skis. Celebrities and million-dollar studio apartments notwithstanding, Sun Valley remains the Grand Old Lady of ski resorts, with a touch of the old sheep town of Ketchum here and there.

Staring at my computer screen while all these memories ran through my mind like old-fashioned news reels, I found myself Googling "Sun Valley telephone directory" and, sure enough, there was Konrad. I called the number and he answered. He said he is still working on the slopes and still wears nothing on his head except his formerly blond, now gray, hair, no matter how cold. It was nice to hear that he remembered me and my name, and our flights down the hill 40 years ago. We wished each other a Happy New Year, good health, and a long life but, actually, I have a hunch that Konrad will ski forever.

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