Austrian ski instruction retains 'old school' flavor

The snow was falling and blowing furiously at the base of the Axamer Lizum, a vast winter playground above this Tirolean capital, where most of the Olympic Alpine skiing events were held in 1964 and 1976. People huddled inside the base station and other little cafes.

Gregg Wong, a sportswriter with the St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press, had just come down what may have been the women's Olympic downhill -- who could tell? -- and pronounced the descent an instrument landing all the way. ''The snow's great , but I couldn't see a thing,'' he reported.

Fortunately, I had to remain below to do an interview with Hugo Nindl, 1974 World Pro Skiing champion and now director of the Birgitz ski school here. ''Don't go up; it isn't worth it,'' Hugo told me right off, counsel that I immediately took to heart.

I had come to ask Hugo, who had known a lot of American skiers and ski resorts between 1969 and 1975, if the Tirolean ski instructor of today is the same person as the bronzed, dashing drill sergeant many of us remember from yesteryear.

Beginning perhaps with Sig Buchmayr, who started the first ski school at America's first ski resort -- Peckett's at Sugar Hill, N.H. -- back in the 1920s , one could trot out a list of Austrian imports who became almost legendary in the annals of American skiing. They lasted until well into the '60s. By then, enough Americans had learned that ski instruction wasn't a bad way to spend the winter, and the Austrians and Swiss returned to the Alps. Those Austrians who did remain generally became so Americanized that it's hard to remember what was legend and what was reality.

Did we really spend all morning contorting our bodies into ''commas,'' doing endless repetitions of exercises designed to keep the body from ever standing straight again, all the time being told that unless we caught on pretty quick, the likelihood of our being mistaken for skiers was not good?

Those were also the days of the ''cheap European vacation.'' People would come back from a week in the Alps talking about ''their'' marvelous ski instructor, who never left their sides for almost the entire week, showing them the best runs and the best restaurants for maybe $10 a day.

Conditions have changed since those halcyon days, and I wanted to know whether the fun-loving, if slightly sadistic, Tirolean ski instructor had too. A few days earlier, Siegi Draxl, supervisor of the ski school at Seefeld, had told me that in his 17 years in the business the kind of individuals becoming instructors had not changed much. The only real changes, he said, are the qualifying exams, ''which are much harder.'' Instructors must now speak two languages (usually German and English) and at Seefeld, a Nordic resort, be able to teach both Alpine and cross-country.

Hugo generally confirms this appraisal, yet observes it's ''more of a business than it used to be.''

Like many of his colleagues, he spends much of the summer drumming up group business through foreign travel agents, particularly in England and Sweden. But he is sharply critical of ski school directors who, to keep tourists coming and cash registers ringing, lower their once demanding standards. Hugo is not an admirer of the so-called ''fun'' ski school, an increasingly popular idea among business-hungry ski schools in the United States.

In fact, if you take a ski week with Hugo (around $49 for six days' instruction presently), be prepared to learn, for they're not going to let you putter around. ''We're still very strict in the ski school. People have to learn a lot in a week. Fun? Yeah, sure, we have fun. But first they're having to learn how to ski. If after six days they're still skiing the same, people are unhappy.

''We have exercises every day. Lift the uphill ski, holding the poles in front like so. Many exercises! A beginner has to go up on top of the mountain the fifth or sixth day.''

Hugo says many ski school directors don't work with their instructors much during the season and ''some are not as good as the guests.'' But Hugo is a man of the old school. He expects his instructors to have their pupils up there lifting their uphill skis every day. No days off because a guest is ''tired.'' When that happens, he may have to come and convince the reluctant pupil personally that he or she belongs up there on the peaks, becoming ''a skier.''

Maybe that's one reason most Americans take a private lesson (about $16) and spend the rest of the week just skiing. But those who tough it out, are likely to come away not just with their little pins, but with the knowledge that now, in fact, they are ''skiers.''

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