Hardly anybody who spends time in Zürs will fail to hear the story of a stubborn local who once defiantly put Bernhard of the Netherlands in his place when the Dutch prince attempted to cut into a lift line. "In the mountains there is a simplicity of approach," says Florian Moosbrugger, whose family owns the 39-room Hotel Gasthof Post, where the Dutch royals stay. At this elevation, even language is subject to alteration. "You don't use the polite form anymore in the mountains," Moosbrugger says. "Everybody is on the same level here. Everybody is here for the same thing, to enjoy good sport."
Long before the X-Games made risk seem banal by turning it into the jackass's badge of honor, Arlberg skiers reveled in what Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, once called the "roughhouse mood" of the Austrian Alps. A 1931 film starring Leni Riefenstahl and titled Der Weisse Rausch ("The White Flame") caught the spirit of the locals, in footage of the unstoppable Riefenstahl, Hannes Schneider, and a cast of the Arlberg's 50 best skiers "herringboning up hills, jumping crags, and crashing into a snowy crater," as Hoving remarked.
"It's certainly still an off-piste paradise," says Urs Kamber, the director of the regional tourism board—an assertion confirmed by Happ when he explains his unusual, for an Austrian, decision to defect from home to live and work in Zürs. "Friends ask, 'Why would you leave Innsbruck?' " he says. "They think I'm crazy." That opinion could easily be confirmed should Happ ever take them out to one of his favorite runs, an off-piste slope called Antenne that starts on an ice cornice near an avalanche station and has a 2,300-foot vertical drop.
The mountains of Switzerland are better known and bigger than those in Austria, Kamber concedes. "In Switzerland there are at least 20 mountains that are more than 13,000 feet tall, while here there are none," he says. Yet the relative modesty of Zürs and Lech as a resort, its disdain for hype, its stodgy and anachronistic ethos of slow growth, has turned out to be a boon. "We tried to be St. Moritz, with polo on the snow, but this is not St. Moritz," Kamber says.
What Zürs has to offer, he adds, is not chic snow bunnies in Ugg boots or glimpses of Goldie Hawn, "but enough time and enough space." In fact, this vaporous phrase is the new tagline of the resort; part of it is actually true. ("People used to come for three weeks," says Moosbrugger. "Now they stay three days.")
It may seem rich to real skiers that this matchless opportunity has been squandered on the likes of me. Or so I imagined when I first shyly presented myself at the Strolz rental counter in the hotel basement. So I felt when the client who originally booked Peter Happ's services at the local ski school failed to appear. So I thought as I waddled to the towline and was handed a button seat by a local who keeps lollipops in the booth for his usual clientele.
One expects a hazing when coming to a new sport; when in my thirties I took up the equestrian discipline called three-day eventing, my instructors derived great amusement from the way balky mounts routinely launched me like a human cannonball. Yet, oddly, here in Zürs I encounter nothing but good fellowship, lucid instruction, and blind faith. I would not be the first to observe that the challenge at the core of skiing is to override instinct in the interest of waltzing with gravity. Simple phrases like the fall line seem to convey the counterintuitive essence of skiing, and why it is best to take it up young, before logic becomes an impediment to movement and reflex.
And yet, on day one I attain the bunny hill. I learn to snowplow and to turn. Both elated and exhausted by evening, I barely notice the feast being served at the hotel, which I later recall ran to five courses of such delicacies as consommé of guinea fowl, wild saddle of boar, pistachio mousse, and crisp Muhlpoint Grüner Veltliner Smaragd drunk in quantities. I sleep like a child.
On day two, a Monday, Peter praises my accomplishments and remarks that most neophytes wait for the third outing to take a real header. I absorb this information and proceed to spend Tuesday perfecting a Technicolor bruise above my right hip. On Wednesday I find myself viewing the village of Zürs from a moving gondola. The view is stupendous, the ride quite merry. When the second high slope has been negotiated, I can see far across the valley. It is then that I inquire how much a helicopter will cost to carry me out.
It will be obvious by now that my claim at the start of this narrative to be commenting from the bunny hill was not altogether true. In fact, I am in a completely different place. In my short time in Zürs I have continued to move steadily upward, physically but also in some unexpected psychic sense. I cannot be a pretty sight, curving clumsy wide arcs through corn snow, attempting to lean into hills and draw my skis in parallel and move my knees and torso in opposition and in rhythm simultaneously. If I am a nuisance to the experienced athletes racing all around me, they never show it. If my pace is boring Happ, the adrenaline addict, he betrays nothing. This may be because he is a thorough professional. It may also be because he senses how much I am going to love this sport.