“For a short time, we’re free to glide, carve, dip and soar. It’s pure play, harmony of man and nature …”
By Bob Berwyn
*Originally published in New West in 2007
I want to tell you about an old song by Austrian singer and songwriter Wofgang Ambros called Schifoan. Translated, the song title simply means skiing. But the lyrics to this three-minute ditty capture so much of the feeling of a good ski day that it became a sing-along anthem in this ski-crazy mountain country, not to mention a karaoke favorite.
In the first verse, Ambros describes the joy of strapping his boards to the car roof on a Friday afternoon, the giddy anticipation of seeing snow-covered mountains on the horizon, and his determination to catch first chair in the morning to ensure first tracks — but not before stopping at the mountain hut for a Jagatee (hot tea with rum).
The crux of the song is in the rousing refrain. Since Ambros sings in Austrian dialect, it’s not easy to translate. There are several words that don’t have an English counterpart. But the gist of it is easy enough for any avid skier or snowboarder to understand. When you’re flying down the hill with the sun shining on a spray of snow, you’ve got the whole world in your hands. It’s that universal, all-suffusing glow of a good powder day that he captures so well in the lyrics and rollicking melody.
Wolfgang Ambros performing live in 1998 in St. Pölten near Vienna, Austria with Georg Danzer, leading the audience in a rousing version of Schifoan, and it’s pretty clear that every single person knows the lyrics.
I first heard the tune shortly after it was released in 1976, playing it over and over on a scratchy portable record player while living my first ski bum season. I worked in a U.S. Army hotel in Garmisch, Germany, vacuuming hallways and lobbies, emptying ashtrays and setting up the dining room for breakfast before sunrise. I’d return for an evening pearl diving session in the restaurant kitchen, sunburned, tired and happy. It was somewhat grueling and mindless, but man, did I ski. Every day. All day, and sometimes even at night when my schedule allowed. I went back to the city and back to school after that season, but I left my heart in the mountains, knowing I’d be back to reclaim it.
And the song? With every word and inflection etched into my brain for life it became a personal ski anthem, so it’s not surprising that I listened to it once again recently, driving up along the Snake River to Arapahoe Basin to make some of the first turns of the 2007-2008 season. I rolled the car windows all the way down and cranked the stereo as loud as I could, never mind those blown-out speakers. I sang along at the top of my lungs: Schiiii-foan!
I have less hair than I did back then, a lot less, but the cool wind blowing down the valley felt as good as it always has. I have more money these days, but only a little more. I’m smarter, but only a bit. I have a better job, I guess — at least my mom thinks so. And while I don’t ski every single day, I still manage to get my ya-yas out.
I’m a ski bum at heart. Always have been and I have the stack of season passes, along with the memories, to prove it. I’ve gathered them up, from Garmisch, Lermoos, Taos, Mammoth, Purgatory, Wolf Creek and, most recently, from the cluster of resorts in Summit County, Colorado, where I made a stand. Where I settled down to a “respectable” profession.
Where I raised a son who now has the same passion for skiing. Where I lost love and searched on for that heart of gold. Where I made and lost good friends. Where I broke bones, triggered avalanches and downed a few pints and then some. Where I suffered through droughts, and where I skied powder up to my eyeballs.
All this and more warbled through my brain as I veered into the A-Basin parking lot to begin another year on the slopes. As if that thought wasn’t scary enough, I actually had everything with me I needed: Gloves, jacket, hat, poles, pass, boots … so no excuses this time, but I’ve been know to leave the house without a crucial piece of gear. I even brought my iPod so that I could play my ski song on the way up and back down the mountain.
So I walked out of the lodge into the bright sunlight, rubbed a bit of wax on the bases of my boards, latched up my bindings and skated toward the lift, raising a pole to greet a friend. His smile says it all. Times and technologies have changed, but the essence of what we do on snow-covered mountains has not. For a short time, we’re free. Free to dance, glide and swoop, to carve, dip and soar. It’s pure play, harmony of man and nature.
It matters not that on this day the blanket of white came from the nozzle of a snowmaking gun. Sure, there’s only one run open, but with the thin early season cover, I can feel the texture of the Earth through the bases of my skis, up through the soles of my boots, in my ankles, knees, solar plexus and right up to the tip of my pom-pom hat.
I marvel at the newness of it all. After all these seasons, the first day is thrilling as it ever was, and the joy rises inside, filling me until I know that I am right where I’m supposed to be, at home, in the mountains.
The last verse of the song finds Ambros once again putting his skis on the roof of his car, this time with a heavy heart, knowing he’s headed back toward the flatlands. But he sneaks a last glance up at the snowy peaks, suddenly gives in to his feelings, and decides to extend his weekend.
“What the heck,” he sings in Austrian country twang. “I’ll stay Monday, too.”
I know the feeling. I gave in to it a quarter century ago, when I decided to move to the mountains to build a life that included daily devotion to the majestic peaks and glacier-carved valleys, the forests and streams, with never a regret. In fact, I found strengthening affirmation of my decision each time I stood atop a snow-covered peak, and in each genuflection on my way downhill.
“Get a grip. It’s only skiing,” I try to tell myself, shaking my head and grinning inside.
But my soul knows better. Laughing, it calls me on for one more run, just one more.