Austrians to US: come over and enjoy skiing as it is supposed to be

Take heart, North America! There's nothing like a couple of great snow years to cover a multitude of concerns about "the declining quality of the skiing experience."

That's what the Austrians are discovering in one of their best snow years on record -- the second one in a row, in fact. Even before the dollar strengthened , Austrian ski instructors invited 350 of their American counterparts to come ski with them in the Tyrol this winter, then go home and tell their pupils what skiing is really supposed to be like. Smart, those Austrians, and what a sense of timing!

Imagine judging the quality of a ski day by something other than the size of crowds or the length of lift lines. And not just by the number of black diamond runs to be conquered or by the number of schussboomers unleashed on a limited number of skiable trails. Not even by the quality of those portable music packs , complete with stereophonic headsets for skiing in the wonderful world of sound.

No, skiing here this winter is very much back to basics. For example:

On a sunny morning I am standing at the top of the Kanzelwand gondola on a peak dividing Austria from West Germany. The slope below is at least a quarter-mile wide and groomed smooth enough to mask a pitch steeper than it appears. But my legs are not fooled. As we pick up speed, whooping and trying a tentative yodel or two, I force myself to look up in the brilliant sunshine and see nightfall about halfway down the long slope.

The white bowl is cut in two by the shadow of a great peak overhead; and in the rarefied, dry air, shadows are not the gray blurry things they are down where trees exist. Everything is stark: black or white, no intermediates.

In a split second of recognition I recall those first photos of the moon's surface. Here it is on a tilt -- and snow-covered! And we are racing across it, from daylight into night. As our skis glide into the great black shadow, everyone strains to open eyes wide enough so as to get a hint of where we are going.

But now the piste curves down to the right, past the bottom of a steep chairlift, narrowing more and more as the run drops toward the valley below. The surface grows harder and more rutted; our eyes seem finally to be adjusting to shadow when first trees appear, then a very strange sight in the middle of the ski trail.

Hanging overhead, can you believe, is a stop light! A traffic signal, if you will, to warn skiers if an avalanche should just happen to be approaching through a narrow ravine ahead. Sensors have been established about a mile up the ravine. When the snow begins to slide, the sensors trigger the traffic signal and its siren. Skiers screech to a halt at the light like so many speeding drivers at a railroad crossing.

Five minutes later, like a freight train on schedule, an avalanche rumbles by. A couple of years ago, says the local tourist office director, two tourists didn't take the signal seriously. They perished.

The signal is green this day, and one by one we take our turns schussing past the respected ravine. We ski down to the gondola base station, where we now have to wait for an hour and a half to get back on top.

But even as we grumble, we know that this lift line is different. It leads to being carried over an "avalanche ravine," back into sunshine, and onto a peak.There, after lunch in an Alpine hut, we must decide whether to ski over to Germany or not. We do, of course. Off to Obertsdorf!

Yes, it is amazing what a lot of snow and a lot of mountains can do for "the quality of the skiing experienc e."

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