Close

Member Login

Logging In
Invalid username or password.
Incorrect Login. Please try again.

not a member? sign-up now!

Signing up could earn you gear and it helps to keep offensive content off of our site.

PRINT DIGITAL

All or Nothing

Features
posted: 11/10/2003

"Scheisse."

A balding Austrian with thick stubble jumps into the driver's seat and announces himself loudly with a slap on the chest: "Marco!" I slap my chest and say, "Eric." Other than frequent banter involving the Austrian word for shit, this is the last time we understand each other.

It's 11:15 a.m. and Marco and I are in the cab of a large refrigerated truck in southwestern Austria. All I know thus far is that the job I am being paid to complete has something to do with dairy products, the stained upholstery smelling a bit sour and all. "Scheisse," Marco says again as we rumble up a road that appears to wind into the heart of the Alps. Marco pulls over and double-parks before I can buckle my seat belt. He jumps out, pops open the trailer door, and hefts himself up.

"Scheisse, scheisse, scheisse," he mumbles, handing me a couple buckets of mysterious cow liquids. We carry the buckets quickly into the back entrance of...a restaurant, follow a maze of hallways to...the walk-in refrigerator, drop the goods and hustle back to the truck. I'm a milkman!The last orders are left on a tram at the head of the valley before we loop back on a high macadam road that soon intersects a ski slope. Marco is silent while edging the five-ton vehicle along the precipitous snowy traverse. Skiers hockey-stop above and wait for us to pass. "Scheisse," I say. This is the first ski-bum job I have found in Europe, and I don't want it to end in a bloody, milky mess.

A week earlier, i had left the states to fulfill my dream of becoming a working ski bum in the Alps. A typical day, I imagined, would go something like this: Meet Euro friends for un petit café, during which they suggest we bag some 7,000-foot-long run that of course holds the lightest powder on the Continent. At night, these friendly hotshots and I honky-tonk with Swedish beauties till well past the hours of inhibition. It doesn't matter that I show up late to my job the next day because my boss is also hung over, smoking cigarettes in the back of the ski shop. Deep down I knew I would be, to put it harshly, a wetback crossing the Atlantic. I was bringing no work visa and no job leads. My $1,500 and elementary French would count for little. But I would have one thing going for me: enthusiasm. Enough to power trains.

I started my quest in mayrhofen, austria, population 3,600, because an acquaintance there said the living was cheap. And it was. A train from Innsbruck dropped me near the tourist information office, where a cheery clerk found me a single room in a working farmhouse for $14 per night. I dragged my rolling ski bag along the slushy main street, past a resort Sno-Cat refueling at a public gas station and a herd of cattle grazing a paraglider landing zone. One $24 lift ticket later, I was doing laps on a natural staircase still holding powder three days after a storm. I got on the road to rejection shortly thereafter.

Most of the 50-some people I solicited for employment turned me down on the spot-ski schools, rental shops, restaurants, and a tipsy woman I'm not sure actually worked at the hotel bar. On the way home, the floor manager at the local dairy said he needed help, and that's how I end up making $11 per hour, four days a week, sloshing moo juice with Marco Turrets.

It's honest work and I dive in with vigor. Only my musty farmhouse accommodations are lacking. So when my second day as an Austrian milk maiden draws to a close, I meet some friends of friends who have offered me a night in their four-star hotel in exchange for odd jobs. A mountain-view room with a one-foot-thick down comforter and cloudlike pillows, for nothing more than shuttling guests to the airport and cleaning the spa pool, sounds like a generous trade. It is not. The job demands that I wear a loaner Hotel Veronika Speedo. Bavarian vacationers apparently like their pool boys a certain way-nearly nude, specifically-and I'm forced to tiptoe around the deck in front of a fat German sausaglover eyeing my weenie and buns.

Later, I blow my $12 in tips (from driving the shuttle) at the pub. But I recoup my losses when I employ my newfound taxi skills on the streets of Mayrhofen. At 1 a.m., I'm headed back to the hotel when a brown-haired kid stumbles out in front of the van, waving his hands over his head and yelling in German.

"Argle hack cagg argle phlegm."

"English, English," I insist.

"Ve vant to go to Schwendau."

"Ten euros," I say, flashing ten fingers in his face. He and his friend collapse on the backseat. Fifteen minutes later, they've happily paid and I'm contracted by five new drunks.

"Where do you want to go?"

"Stuuuv grack shnk argle phlegm."

"English, English!" Flash the fingers. Drive. Another ten Euros. Actually, I settle for nine and a cigarette, afraid the skinny kid clutching the window might puke schnapps if he doesn't stagger out soon.

At five in the morning, my gypsy cab is full of money, and I have the sudden urge to leave Mayrhofen behind. Success has come too easily. Certainly there are better jobs and bigger mountains out there. Hubris inspires me to depart for Switzerland.

I leave a good bye message at the dairy and arrive by train in Davos five hours later. This, I've been told, is where the money is made.

It being Sunday, the tourism office is closed, so I haul my bags up and down the steep streets in search of a hostel. Large, blocky '70s-style hotels loom overhead. I hope I'm in the right neighborhood, because Davos, population 13,000, sprawls in all directions. At the Snowboarder's Palace hostel, I am alarmed to find that a single dorm bed costs $45. Time to get to work.

With my watch reading 3:20, I enter the restaurant Choccolino: "I love chocolate," I say to the proprietor. No go. Two minutes later I'm at the Post Hotel next door. Three minutes later, at Schneider bakery: "I see you don't have any pies. I bake very good French tarts." They smile and say, no, thank you. If I enter every place on the street, I figure someone will hire me.

3:30: Morosani's four-star restaurant: "No."3:31: ED Barth Jewelers: "I can shovel your walkway." 3:32: E. Kremers Reisegepà¤ck luggage: "No."3:34: UBS Bank: "No."3:36: Intersport Angerer ski rental: Swiss Miss grins. Flirting delays me. 3:40: Caviezel AG kitchenware: "I know a lot about baking supplies." 3:43: Apotheke: The counter girl gets a colleague who gets a pharmacist who refuses me. Time, people, time. 3:47: Coiffure Femina: "I can sweep up the hair." 3:48: Restaurant Gentiana: "I bake great French tarts." 3:49: Christ jewelry store. "No."3:50: Verena Zehnder trinket shop: "Nein!" Whoa, someone who doesn't speak English. 3:53: Morosani Schweizer-hof hotel: looking for help in August. 3:57: Outdoor Corner: "Timberland clothes are American and so am I." 4:05: Street One women's couture: "Women want a man's opinion. I can help." 4:08: Casty Wohnen swank custom furniture: "I can lift heavy things."4:16: Raiffeisen bank: "I bake French tarts and they...are...amazing."

Unsettled by the record-setting pace of my failures, i get out of Switzerland the next day. If I'm going to fail, I'd like to ski some hoot-and-holler runs in the process. I straightline for Chamonix.

On the nine-hour ride from Davos, financial reality hits hard: I'm down to $38 per day for the eight days I have left. I walk through the heart of Chamonix, a 2,000-foot-in-diameter twisty maze of brightly lit cafes and pizza stalls and bars, hoping to find the youth hostel.

By ten o'clock that night I stop looking. Scandinavians, Brits, and Parisians have taken every inexpensive room-except for the nook under the outside steps of the École du Ski, a grand old plaster building beneath the illuminated Aiguille du Midi tram. This looks like a fine place to lodge, I think, probing the dark corners for rats.

Two discarded wooden pallets form a hobo's cot, and my ski bag acts as a shoulder-pinching bivy sack. My sleeping bag keeps me warm till the hot spiced wine wears off. At 4:30 a.m., with my zipper thermometer reading 15 degrees Fahrenheit, some mountaineers come to check the posted avalanche report and spot me. Hmm, they probably think I'm sleeping here. Dawn lasts three decades.

Le Chamoniard Volant, a $14-per-night boarding house, isn't much of an improvement. The dark, three-story gite is so full that three people crash on sweat-scented mattresses in the front hallway. A heavyset kid from Marseilles sleeps on the bunk above me and snores. Like a dying cow he snores. The rest of my roommates include a heroin addict who screams at the hostess, a sad-eyed Algerian girl in a doo rag who I never see leave the building, and a Portuguese security guard who, eerily, knows my name before I introduce myself.

Stepping out onto the street the next day, it is obvious I need a dose of positivity. I need to ski.

Above me are the mountains I dreamed of, the prickly white peaks that literally define Alpine, their features having inspired the very terms glacier and couloir and arête. The Y-axis of the chaotic rock spires reaches some 12,000 feet over an X-axis of just two miles. Their beauty hurts. To ski the 7,000-foot runs, I need a 400-dollar-a-day Chamonix Guide. Which I can no longer afford.

Instead I hop on the Brévent tram and find myself on sun-melted rivers of slush. The '60s-era lifts creep along at the rate of inflation, while unrestrained Euro-punks tear by. One five-foot-tall kid with blaring headphones keeps pulling back-flips off a cat track and smacking down amid groups of snowplowers. I might as well be at Yahooligan Resort in California. I quit after two hours.

Over the course of the next two days I make the rounds, from casinos to trinket shops. I try the grocery store bulletin boards and the employment office display, where dozens of hotel jobs are advertised for EU citizens only. My "Est-ce-que vous cherchez de personnel?" continues to elicit "No, we are not looking for any staff at this time." I try like hell to get a job in a patisserie; I really do bake great French tarts. Debriefing one night at the local microbrewery, two Americans introduce themselves. One happened to score a job filming weekly freeskiing events. The other rented a flat three months ago and has suffered refusals ever since. Chamonix attracts so many international ski bums, he says, that the police raid bars and restaurants daily for illegal workers.

All around town, broad-shouldered mountain men wearing harnesses are sitting down at cafés or jaunting toward the trams with ice axes and fat skis on their packs, all deeply tanned and laughing. I know in my heart that they have just skied 7,000-foot powder runs and will soon be on their way to cavort with blonde Frederikas. The fantasy appears to be reality-for everyone but me.

My physical state has rapidly sunk to the level of my ragged psyche. Lack of sleep has left me with a cold and bags under my eyes. Barely able to afford baguettes, I've watched my enthusiasm plummet with my blood-sugar. Exhausted, feeling defeated, I sit in the plaza, look down at the cobblestones, and say, "This is shit. Scheisse, scheisse, scheisse."

The next day, I stand on the side of the freeway for four hours trying to hitchhike to La Grave, where life is supposed to be simpler and the skiing just amazing. It doesn't bother me that no one can give me a ride, though. I don't really want to go there. I (sniffle), I want to go home.

The hamlet of la grave, population 600, sits on a large terrace across a river from the ski area. Fields and pastures surround it. Stairs wind up among stone houses perched above the road in varying states of disrepair. It's a one-fromagerie town. And it sits humbly below a 12th-century church with no more than a couple dozen people walking along quietly at any time.

It takes all of a half hour to inquire at every employer in town: the hotels, the closet-sized ski shop, the grocer, the but the hot spiced wine wears off. At 4:30 a.m., with my zipper thermometer reading 15 degrees Fahrenheit, some mountaineers come to check the posted avalanche report and spot me. Hmm, they probably think I'm sleeping here. Dawn lasts three decades.

Le Chamoniard Volant, a $14-per-night boarding house, isn't much of an improvement. The dark, three-story gite is so full that three people crash on sweat-scented mattresses in the front hallway. A heavyset kid from Marseilles sleeps on the bunk above me and snores. Like a dying cow he snores. The rest of my roommates include a heroin addict who screams at the hostess, a sad-eyed Algerian girl in a doo rag who I never see leave the building, and a Portuguese security guard who, eerily, knows my name before I introduce myself.

Stepping out onto the street the next day, it is obvious I need a dose of positivity. I need to ski.

Above me are the mountains I dreamed of, the prickly white peaks that literally define Alpine, their features having inspired the very terms glacier and couloir and arête. The Y-axis of the chaotic rock spires reaches some 12,000 feet over an X-axis of just two miles. Their beauty hurts. To ski the 7,000-foot runs, I need a 400-dollar-a-day Chamonix Guide. Which I can no longer afford.

Instead I hop on the Brévent tram and find myself on sun-melted rivers of slush. The '60s-era lifts creep along at the rate of inflation, while unrestrained Euro-punks tear by. One five-foot-tall kid with blaring headphones keeps pulling back-flips off a cat track and smacking down amid groups of snowplowers. I might as well be at Yahooligan Resort in California. I quit after two hours.

Over the course of the next two days I make the rounds, from casinos to trinket shops. I try the grocery store bulletin boards and the employment office display, where dozens of hotel jobs are advertised for EU citizens only. My "Est-ce-que vous cherchez de personnel?" continues to elicit "No, we are not looking for any staff at this time." I try like hell to get a job in a patisserie; I really do bake great French tarts. Debriefing one night at the local microbrewery, two Americans introduce themselves. One happened to score a job filming weekly freeskiing events. The other rented a flat three months ago and has suffered refusals ever since. Chamonix attracts so many international ski bums, he says, that the police raid bars and restaurants daily for illegal workers.

All around town, broad-shouldered mountain men wearing harnesses are sitting down at cafés or jaunting toward the trams with ice axes and fat skis on their packs, all deeply tanned and laughing. I know in my heart that they have just skied 7,000-foot powder runs and will soon be on their way to cavort with blonde Frederikas. The fantasy appears to be reality-for everyone but me.

My physical state has rapidly sunk to the level of my ragged psyche. Lack of sleep has left me with a cold and bags under my eyes. Barely able to afford baguettes, I've watched my enthusiasm plummet with my blood-sugar. Exhausted, feeling defeated, I sit in the plaza, look down at the cobblestones, and say, "This is shit. Scheisse, scheisse, scheisse."

The next day, I stand on the side of the freeway for four hours trying to hitchhike to La Grave, where life is supposed to be simpler and the skiing just amazing. It doesn't bother me that no one can give me a ride, though. I don't really want to go there. I (sniffle), I want to go home.

The hamlet of la grave, population 600, sits on a large terrace across a river from the ski area. Fields and pastures surround it. Stairs wind up among stone houses perched above the road in varying states of disrepair. It's a one-fromagerie town. And it sits humbly below a 12th-century church with no more than a couple dozen people walking along quietly at any time.

It takes all of a half hour to inquire at every employer in town: the hotels, the closet-sized ski shop, the grocer, the butcher, the bakery, and the fromagerie. Most places are fully staffed by two people. But at least the proprietors respond to my inquiries in French and often add a heartening bon courage to their refusals.

The next day, I call Gary Ashurst, an acquaintance who has been guiding La Grave for 17 winters. In less than an hour, we're riding the tram with his friend Ramsay Thomas, an American Chamonix guide.

The tram reaches its terminus in a half hour, then two short T-bars stretch to the summit. It's 7,095 feet down, all ungroomed, all unpatrolled, all unnamed. The main route, below the seracs of the Glacier du Rateau, is essentially a steeper version of Chamonix's famed Vallée Blanche, without the crevasses. We skate onto the summit glacier. Across the valley, knife-edge peaks cut into the skyline. There is no one else in sight. When we stop, the world is silent.

"Don't fall here," Gary says, pushing into a 40-degree couloir. Ramsay follows. The chalky chute is 100 feet wide at the top and it narrows with each turn. I start out hesitant, but soon find a rhythm, confidence increasing as the walls tighten. Three-quarters of the way down, I see the chute funneling over a cliff.

There is no turning back, so I commit to skiing well. I focus on the minute adjustments of each second-the angle of the ski edge, my center of balance, the feel of the pole plant. When the strip of snow pinches to the width of a ski length, I sideslip slowly down to Gary and Ramsay, who are uncoiling ropes and catching up on old times. It seems so normal for them to rappel here that it seems just as normal for me. We slip into our harnesses, lash skis to backpacks, and slide backward down the precipice to the top of another, easier, chute. Some 2,500 feet later we coast onto the shoulder of a road.

I'm elated. Now this is why I ski. I want to tell them how for three weeks my worries and hopes and fears and frustrations had been congealing and sticking to everything but over the last two hours all that gook had turned to mist and floated off into space and..."YAAAAAAH HOOOOO!"

That night, with my last euros in my pocket, I return to a B&B I'd solicited work from earlier. When I tell the owner, a middle-aged brunette with a bright face, that I have inquired about jobs everywhere but to no avail, she smiles and says, "My son lived in Sun Valley one winter, so I believe you have to be nice to travelers. Come back tomorrow night. You can wash dishes."

The next evening, I am introduced to the two cooks and three waiters and shown how to use the dishwashing machine. We sit down to a four-course dinner with wine and then work an utterly lazy three hours, everyone goofing off and doing their best to translate bad jokes. En français: What's the difference between a woman and a swimming pool? There isn't any. Both are much too expensive for the amount of time you spend in them. It's a very French, very sexist joke, to be sure, but it reminds me that, while I did knock off a 7,000-foot descent, the pert Scandinavian component of my dream has gone unfulfilled. Oh well, for the first 20 seconds of my trip, I don't care. butcher, the bakery, and the fromagerie. Most places are fully staffed by two people. But at least the proprietors respond to my inquiries in French and often add a heartening bon courage to their refusals.

The next day, I call Gary Ashurst, an acquaintance who has been guiding La Grave for 17 winters. In less than an hour, we're riding the tram with his friend Ramsay Thomas, an American Chamonix guide.

The tram reaches its terminus in a half hour, then two short T-bars stretch to the summit. It's 7,095 feet down, all ungroomed, all unpatrolled, all unnamed. The main route, below the seracs of the Glacier du Rateau, is essentially a steeper version of Chamonix's famed Vallée Blanche, without the crevasses. We skate onto the summit glacier. Across the valley, knife-edge peaks cut into the skyline. There is no one else in sight. When wee stop, the world is silent.

"Don't fall here," Gary says, pushing into a 40-degree couloir. Ramsay follows. The chalky chute is 100 feet wide at the top and it narrows with each turn. I start out hesitant, but soon find a rhythm, confidence increasing as the walls tighten. Three-quarters of the way down, I see the chute funneling over a cliff.

There is no turning back, so I commit to skiing well. I focus on the minute adjustments of each second-the angle of the ski edge, my center of balance, the feel of the pole plant. When the strip of snow pinches to the width of a ski length, I sideslip slowly down to Gary and Ramsay, who are uncoiling ropes and catching up on old times. It seems so normal for them to rappel here that it seems just as normal for me. We slip into our harnesses, lash skis to backpacks, and slide backward down the precipice to the top of another, easier, chute. Some 2,500 feet later we coast onto the shoulder of a road.

I'm elated. Now this is why I ski. I want to tell them how for three weeks my worries and hopes and fears and frustrations had been congealing and sticking to everything but over the last two hours all that gook had turned to mist and floated off into space and..."YAAAAAAH HOOOOO!"

That night, with my last euros in my pocket, I return to a B&B I'd solicited work from earlier. When I tell the owner, a middle-aged brunette with a bright face, that I have inquired about jobs everywhere but to no avail, she smiles and says, "My son lived in Sun Valley one winter, so I believe you have to be nice to travelers. Come back tomorrow night. You can wash dishes."

The next evening, I am introduced to the two cooks and three waiters and shown how to use the dishwashing machine. We sit down to a four-course dinner with wine and then work an utterly lazy three hours, everyone goofing off and doing their best to translate bad jokes. En français: What's the difference between a woman and a swimming pool? There isn't any. Both are much too expensive for the amount of time you spend in them. It's a very French, very sexist joke, to be sure, but it reminds me that, while I did knock off a 7,000-foot descent, the pert Scandinavian component of my dream has gone unfulfilled. Oh well, for the first 20 seconds of my trip, I don't care.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • No HTML tags allowed

More information about formatting options

Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.
All submitted comments are subject to the license terms set forth in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use
Google+