Friday, March 23, 2012

Learning lessons from ski tours


I had a short career as a ski tour guide through the ski resorts of Europe. And I did learn valuable lessons from all of the chaos that happened on these guide trips. I never learned much from my successes in life, but I really learned from my mistakes when they wasted time or money, or both.

In 1953, Skiing News Magazine publisher Merrill Hastings promoted my first filming trip to Europe. The only way to convince an airline to send me a second time was to promote a ski tour to the Alps via Scandinavian Airlines. So, at my fall and winter shows in some 75 cities around the U.S., audiences were told of the opportunity to be in my next movie by going to Europe and skiing with me for three weeks. That's how I became a ski tour guide.

Fourteen people signed up for the three-week trip, which took place only four and a half months after my young wife had died of malignant cancer of the spine. I was ill equipped mentally to handle the trip but the people had all paid in advance so there was no turning back. The flight was a slow two-stopper in a propeller-driven plane. We stopped in Gander, Newfoundland, to refuel and again somewhere in Ireland.

We finally arrived in Munich and grabbed the afternoon train to Kitzbuehel where a real surprise awaited us. The person arranging the ground portion of the tour assumed no one would book the tour so they had made no reservations. My 14 guests slept in 11 different inns, hotels and chalets. It was a nearly catastrophic start to my first annual tour. There was no time to even think about taking movies.

A perky little blond lady was the first casualty with a broken ankle on the second day. In Austria at Zurs, I spent five days sleeping on a sheet of plywood atop a bathtub in a pension. I couldn't go to bed until everyone had a bath.

The next year on my second annual European ski tour, we had adequate reservations. I mentally eased up on my responsibilities to actually spend a few days filming. But I never ever had enough time to get the job done that I'd set out to do. We were skiing in Badgastein and decided to ski down to the next town and take the train back. It seemed like a good time for one of the tour members to fall and break his leg.


There were very few ski patrolmen in those days, so I had another member of the tour haul the victim's equipment down the hill and I skied down with him on my back. We caught the 5:53 train back to Badgastein with me carrying the 180-pound man with the broken leg on and off of the train and the two blocks to his hotel. We found a doctor, but he was four blocks from the hotel. So it was another backbreaking slog through the narrow streets of Badgastein with my tour customer on my back. When the tour was finally over, I spent the next two weeks just filming whatever I wanted for my next feature film.

While leading my third annual tour, I showed up with my brand new wife and combined a honeymoon with 17 other people. In St. Anton I left the tour for a night and caught the night train to Mittendorf for the ski flying tournament. I knew that the ski flyers had already broken the 400-foot mark and I wanted exciting footage for my next feature film. I arrived in Kufstein after sitting up all night on the train and found perfect weather for the event. And I was back in St. Anton in the same evening in time to have dessert with the group.

But despite my best plans for the group to enjoy some untracked powder snow in Zurs the next day, things went wrong. One of the men on the tour almost missed the bus because he had left his teeth in a glass beside his bed. One of our ladies had a budding romance with her private ski instructor and barely located the train through sleep-deprived eyes. Those who stayed in the lobby of Herbert Joachim's Hotel Lorunser had a long, leisurely lunch and ample digestion of French 75. That slow-acting drink is made of five parts of champagne and two of vodka. You need to be near a good place to sleep after you consume several of them.

The skiers all had a good time, as did the drinkers. When the bus stopped in Langen for a snack before the long drive to Davos, one of the French 75 drinkers started to cross the road and was hit by a VW bus traveling about 70 mph. A friend yanked him almost out of the way, but he flew up in the air far enough to land on top of the bus and then fall the 8 or 10 feet to the ground. When he got to the hospital, the doctors could only find a broken thumb and a broken leg. Apparently, he was so relaxed with his stomach full of French 75 that his injuries were minimal. In other words, he was almost dead drunk.

When we got him into the ambulance I slumped into my seat on the bus and quickly made up my mind that this would be the last tour I ever led. I've stuck with that vow.

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