“A Hausberg, or ski commons, is a place to re-affirm the roots of the sport, born not of commerce, but of athletic and aesthetic idealism, something that’s done not for money but for love, for the physical ideal it represents, pure and simple.”
By Bob Berwyn
* some interesting comments on this essay at a Telemarktips discussion thread.
In German-speaking Alpine regions of Europe, many towns have a place name for their local ski hill; it’s called Der Hausberg, translated literally as the House Hill, or home mountain. These proper names probably evolved from a generic term simply describing the mountain closest to town.
Often, these slopes aren’t the biggest bump on the local horizon. The main criteria is easy access from the heart of the village, within walking distance of homes, schools and shops.
A few mountain towns in the American West are also favored with in-town ski areas that could fall under a similar definition. Howelson Hill in Steamboat Springs comes to mind, as does Snow King Mountain, in the heart of Jackson Hole, and even Aspen Mountain.
But cultural and economic development patterns in the American West, along with a more expansive mountain topography, led to a municipal grid that’s markedly different from the cozy villages nestled in narrow Alpine defiles. Instead of dense residential clusters around a central market square or church, our exurban Western towns are more often spread lengthwise along a highway, for ease of commerce, or sprawled expansively across broad mountain valleys, where you can live the ranchette dream. Indeed, many Old World immigrants came here for those wide-open spaces. I know I did.
Even so, a Hausberg can exist outside narrow geographic parameters, maybe as an expression of a state of mind among ski-crazy residents of a given locale. Even if you can’t walk to the lifts, you think of your home hill as the place you know intimately.
I learned to ski in Saalbach, an Austrian village where the Hausberg was a gently tilted churchyard in the center of town. The field served as a cow pasture in the summer, and the old T-bar was owned and operated by the farmer who grazed his cattle there in the summer.
I moved to the American West in the early 1980s and ended up in Taos after hearing that the mountain was wicked steep. Since Taos Ski Valley was the only ski area nearby, it was the de facto Hausberg for us, and it exerted a magnetic pull that was based in part on the charisma of its founder, Swiss-born Ernie Blake, who created both the mountain and the village at its foot.
In a vignette that’s unlikely to be repeated in the current corporate ski industry era, Ernie used to answer the phone himself if you called in early for the snow report.
“Zis is za janitor shpeaking,” he would say in a thick Swiss-German accent before giving a no-nonsense account of conditions.
After a few seasons, I moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, where I had the honor of sharing the mountain with Dave McCoy, another legendary American ski pioneer who developed not just a ski area, but like Blake, helped build a community of skiers around his lifts and trails.
Now I live in Summit County, Colorado, where my Hausberg is Arapahoe Basin, a small mountain that skis big, tucked just below the Continental Divide near Loveland Pass.
If it’s the people that define a Hausberg, A-Basin fits the bill. Many of the staff at the area have been working there seemingly forever. Alan Henceroth, the area’s current boss, started on ski patrol and worked his way up through the ranks. And it shows. On busy days, I’ve seen him dishing out chili in the lodge rather than sitting at his desk. If the week starts out with a powder day, chances are Henceroth will be carving first tracks up on the mountain. On a quiet weekday, it often feels like I know most of the people lined up in the maze.
The Hausberg is where you know every little crinkle and hollow; where the old Poma used to cut diagonally across the grain of the mountain, and even where the wildlife trails wend through the woods back to the parking lot. It’s the place where you sneak away on a gray Monday afternoon, when nobody else feels like skiing, where you ride up alone, enveloped by the familiar folds of a mountain that you’ve skied hundreds of times. The snow looks firm and slick from afar after a mid-season dry spell, with the gaunt bones of the snowpack showing through, all the fluff scoured away by wind.
But you know how to pick through the leftovers, where the sun hits just right and where the last remnants of soft stuff might lie hidden in a steep and twisted glade. It’s where – like a surfer – you follow the ebb and flow of the seasons, where you can tell what day and month it is from how high the sun rises above the ridge at noon. And sure enough, after poking around, you find the goods. It’s the transitional snow of early March, not quite corn yet, tilting toward granular, but still infused with a tinge of its crackling powder essence. You realize, after a few swooping turns, that you’ve never skied snow exactly like this, even though you’ve spent 10 seasons and probably somewhere close to a 1,000 days on this mountain.
My Hausberg is where I’ve watched Dylan, my 12-year-old son, grow up as a skier over the past five years. He made his first turns ever on these slopes and already knows most of the mountain like the back of his hand. This is where I’m passing on the legacy of skiing that was handed to me by my dad. And this brings me to the crux of what I’m pondering. As I think about all the turns I’ve made here with my son, I realize that this about more than just skiing down a mountain.
Why does it all matter? Skiing is a sport that forges community, cutting across political lines and ethnic distinctions and ideological boundaries. That’s important for the American West, a region that has long been managed as a resource-rich colonial outpost by an East Coast government. A Hausberg,, as a community commons based on sport, is one potential starting point for building a sense of regional identity, a step on the way toward self-determination.
For a brief historical reference, let’s zip back over to Alps and back in time a few centuries when a peaceful mountain farmer named Andreas Hofer transformed into a ferocious warrior. Hofer managed to unite a disparate band of mountain tribes from the high Tyrolean valleys – the Zillertal, the Oetztal – and not once or twice, but three times fought off Napoleon’s army near the Bergisel, the site of what would become the Olympic ski jump near Innsbruck.
A Hausberg, or ski commons, is a place to re-affirm the roots of the sport, born not of commerce, but of athletic and aesthetic idealism, something that’s done not for money but for love, for the physical ideal it represents, pure and simple.
Now, it might be fair to say that I’m desperately looking for some sort of deeper meaning for what is essentially a form of play, to give some significance to my own pursuit of soft snow and fresh tracks. But I’m not the first to make this argument. E. John B. Allen, in his studious look at the history of skiing in America, draws deeply from a philosophical well of sports idealism. Allen finds this underpinning in the Scandinavian concept of Idraet, which gives skiing, and other sports, an intrinsic philosophical value and, therefore, some cultural significance, distinct from any economic value that can be derived from the activity.
Giving the sport some idealistic weight is important in an era when the skiing commons, like so many other spheres of modern life, is increasingly being corporatized and commercialized. By that, I’m referring specifically to the Big Business model of the modern ski industry, where bottom-line profits and quarterly reports to shareholders sometime overshadow everything else.
Maybe this business-oriented approach to organizing society is a necessary step in the biological and cultural evolution of our species. But that shouldn’t rule out the fact that there are other ways to build communities, based on other equally legitimate values – social equity and environmental justice, for example. Those values also include skiing as a cultural legacy that’s practiced for its intrinsic values, not just as a way to squeeze dollars out of tourists.
Filed under: Summit County Colorado Tagged: | Dave McCoy, Ernie Blake, Hausberg, Mammoth Mountain, roots of skiing, skiing and riding, skiing community, Summit County News, Summit County skiing, Taos Ski Valley