Warm Memories of Cold War Skiing

When it’s cold here in Napa I grab a pair of gloves before I head out for a morning walk. It was cold this morning, so gloves were required. The pair I don date back to the winter of 1986. I bought them for a ski week in Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. I’d never been skiing before, but the ski-week package included five days of lessons so my lack of experience was no barrier to enjoying our vacation. It also included three meals a day, and a room at what was then known as the General Walker Hotel which, as I understand it, was returned to the German government in 1995, and torn down in 2000.

Berchtesgaden is infamous as the approximate location of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, a site we easily resisted the temptation to visit while in the area. Infamy aside, the entire area is just what you’d expect from the Bavarian Alps. Spectacular mountain vistas, crisp, clean air, charming villages, and lots of snow, at least most of the time. Unfortunately, our ski week was in March and snow was in short supply on the gentle slopes right next to the hotel. So, on the morning of our second day, we all climbed onto busses and headed for a nearby higher-elevation ski area known as Rossfeld. While there were one or two gentle runs at Rossfeld, on balance skiing for a beginner was far more challenging there than it had been back at the General Walker, so challenging that by the third day Kerry decided long, brisk walks in and around Berchtesgaden and nearby Königsee were preferable to the risk of a broken limb. I can’t say that I blame her, but I stuck it out. There are undoubtedly more than a few German and Austrian skiers who wish I hadn’t.

The gentlest slope at Rossfeld, one made just for beginners like me, was a bit deceptive. After travelling slowly down a gradual incline for a few hundred meters, the slope changed suddenly to what seemed to this rookie like a sheer cliff. At the bottom of that cliff was a line of skiers waiting for the lift back up the hill. I was grateful for the line of skiers as they were the only thing that kept me from careening farther down the “slope.” I can still see the looks of horror on their faces as they realized I was completely out of control and about to crash into them. My stopping “technique” was akin to bowling, with me as the ball and the unwitting locals playing the role of the pins. After a few humiliating mass wipeouts I resolved to simply ditch well before reaching the line in spite of the danger involved. That shift in approach “worked” in the sense that the only injury I risked each time was to myself.

In spite of the challenges Rossfeld posed, I must say the week went too quickly; a daunting, exhausting, and invigorating week like none other I’ve experienced. And in spite of enjoying ourselves, we never really caught the skiing bug. In fact, Kerry and I have only been skiing once since our trip to Berchtesgaden. We headed up to Lake Tahoe, a different expression of the same alpine theme, from Davis during my first year of law school. Melanie was born almost exactly 9 months later. While our week in the Alps was a memorable experience, our second and last ski trip was certainly more fun, and ultimately more productive, than our first.

In front of the General Walker Hotel in March of 1986

In front of the General Walker Hotel in March of 1986