Snow Devils Lurk and Daredevils Soar in an Alpine Wonderland

Sunday, January 26, 2020 | Filzmoos, Austria

Filzmoos's traditional winter Perchten festival dates back centuries.
These days, feats of glory rarely go unrecorded. But on this chilly night high in the Austrian Alps, while Markus arced gracefully through the sky, our cell phones failed us.

For Nina and me, it was the last night of a five-day stay with Markus, his girlfriend Vroni, and his parents at their chalet in the little alpine town of Filzmoos. Eager to make the most of our final day, we had skied since just after dawn—not as early as it might sound, this being winter in central Europe, but early enough to give us over six uninterrupted hours of blazing trails through the deep powder that had fallen steadily during our entire stay.

That evening we had only returned to the cabin well after darkness fell, after closing the day with our usual ritual: We would take one last gondola ride up to the mountain's frigid, windswept peak then, amid the murky dusk and driving flakes, we would glide half by sight, half by feel over the moguls to the lights of the nearest ski hut. Having skipped lunch to maximize our skiing time, there we would dig enthusiastically into some of the doughy, buttery local delights we had
discovered on this, our first visit to Austria. Nina could easily pronounce the names of the dishes (though she giggled at the funny mountain twist on her native German) but I focused more on the task at hand, washing down one plateful after another with tall flagons of beer.

Our good friend Markus and his family hosted us for the week.
We would follow the meal with more beer, plus local pine schnapps and game after game of Nageln, or "nailing" (the double-entendre exists in German, too, I learned). In this traditional mountain game, two players pass a hammer back and forth, taking turns trying to whack a nail into a tree stump with the hammer's narrow rear blade. The loser drinks. (Depending on the player, the feat either grows harder or easier the more schnapps one downs.)

Finally, bellies full and heads abuzz, we would trundle back out into the gale, fish our skis out from the snow bank, and strap in for the day's final, reckless ride down the mountain. Nina, a cautious beginner even in daylight ("This body is a temple, I have to protect it"), picked her way gingerly down the mountain behind the rest of us, cursing me for ever signing her up for such foolishness.

The night before, New Year's Eve, we had returned home to eat raclette and drink champagne with Markus's parents, then staged an impromptu family photo shoot in traditional Austrian outfits.

On New Year's Eve, I broke out the Rolleiflex for a photoshoot in traditional garb.
The night before that had been the midnight torch run, organized by Filzmoos's ski patrol. Markus, a former ski patrol member, had talked his old comrades into letting him join them—while bringing his American friend along to boot. We worked our way down the darkened mountain over several hours, pausing for rounds of schnapps, Nageln, and traditional songs at each ski hut along the way. All of us were skiing tipsy by the time the town's lights came into view. We were issued torches and hasty instructions on how to zig-zag in an interlocking weave pattern down the hill's final pitch, while the residents of Filzmoos regarded the spectacle from below. Blinking back the schnapps haze, I drew on the many, many minutes of ski lessons I had accumulated throughout my life and managed to avoid the injury or embarrassment of a fiery crash.

The preceding night had been capped by sledding, and our first night in the town by Filzmoos's winter Perchten, a centuries-old torchlight parade in which town residents parade in handmade wood-and-fur masks and body suits intended to scare away evil winter spirits. The costumes, which were elaborate and more than a little bit horrifying, can reportedly cost thousands of euros to make and are passed down through families for generations. Only in Markus's company would we ever have managed to see such a sight, which is well off the traditional tourist routes.

Perchten mask
Markus had also done well by us in Vienna, where we had begun our trip with his enthusiastic tour of the city's best sights and eateries. The schnitzel and pies were as delicious as promised, the downtown shops just as elegant, the museums just as grand and fascinating. I even got the chance to stop in and see one of my photos that was on exhibit at the Weltmuseum.

But until the day I die, the image that will be burned into my memory from our trip to Austria was Markus's ski jump.

Back to that cold winter's night on the hillside beside his family's cabin: Markus had a plan, and enlisted us to shovel snow for hours in the wind and cold. Already sore from successive days of skiing, he and I shoveled until our arms and backs burned, while Nina and Vroni molded and packed snow according to his specifications. Even his mother came out and supervised the works for a spell. As the jump grew higher, Markus climbed the hill above, carving out a narrow chute on the slope. After more packing, a final inspection determined the jump to be sound, and Markus grabbed his skis.

At the top of the hill, he strapped in and, without a word of warning, suddenly leapt and swiveled his ski tips down the steep slope. As we scrambled back, fumbling in vain for our cell phones, Markus blasted downhill.

We all sucked in a breath as he soared off the jump's edge, and time slowed to a crawl.

Christmas decorations in downtown Vienna
Markus arced upward—three, four, five meters above the roadway far below. Knees and skis locked together, arms outstretched, he held perfect form: a picture of grace suspended in the darkness. And then... he began to tip backward, little by little, then faster still. Arms windmilled, a shout rang out, but nothing could be done. By the time he landed in the massive snowbank on the opposite side of the road, just an instant after it had all begun, Markus was perfectly inverted; he pierced the snow headfirst, like a glorious alpine lawn dart.

Seconds later, we had fished him out—though the snow was packed deep into his every orifice, he was otherwise miraculously, impossibly unharmed. Spitting snow, he assured us he was fine, then sputtered, "Did you guys get that on video?!"

Our phones could never have captured the moment's beauty as well as memory could anyway.

With heartfelt thanks to the entire Haas family for their generous hospitality.

My Rolleiflex photos from Austria are available here: 2018 Rollei - Austria.

The streets of Vienna at Christmastime

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