Z√ºrs, a village with a population of only 60, is situated in a valley 6,000 feet up in the Austrian Arlberg. It has, nevertheless, a rate of growth that rivals Phoenix, Arizona—for in the last five years the population has doubled, chiefly, it is reported, as a result of the efforts of the baker and the village schoolmaster.
It has become commonplace that at the beginning of the second week in December every year the serenity of village life is abruptly shattered by the noisy arrival of over 500 members of the Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin ski clubs, who converge on Z√ºrs from all over Europe and even more distant points. The majority arrive by special trains from the three universities immediately after the end of the winter term. The ski party is, however, by no means confined to members of the universities, but is open to their friends. Every year there is a large contingent from Vienna University. Other skiers arrive from Munich and Paris, Geneva and Rome, and there are even one or two aspiring American businessmen who forsake their Wall Street desks for a pre-Christmas skiing holiday.
From both Oxford and Cambridge there are always Commonwealth, American and other foreign students, many of them Rhodes scholars. This year, in fact, there were several Indians who joined the party. At the fancy dress ball, which takes place every year, they paraded around the room dragging a Portuguese in chains with a placard bearing the words: "What happened to Goa?" While this was going on, an American who had not traveled much outside Anglo-Saxon countries turned to the person sitting next to him and said, "Be a prince and give me a light for my cigarette."
"Vat do you mean, 'Be a prinz'? I am already a prinz," replied the other in a rich Austro-Hungarian accent while giving the startled American a light.
The Irish, from Trinity College, Dublin, numbering about 100, are by far the largest non-English group in the party. A girl was overheard on the ski slopes having the following conversation with a Cambridge student:
"Why is it that the Irish do not take part in the ski races?"
"They're always too drunk."
"But why do they come skiing with Oxford and Cambridge?" No answer was forthcoming to this, for nobody, not even the Irish themselves, can give an explanation of when or how the association with Oxford and Cambridge came about. As the Prime Minister, Mr. Macmillan, observed recently, speaking on the immigration bill: "The Irish are an anomaly."
The Oxford University Ski Club book is of little help in explaining the mystery. For the last entry in the book states: "Secretaries of the club have in recent years been lazy in writing accounts annually of the club's activities: I trust this will not continue." The entry is dated 1937 and thereafter the pages are blank. No mention is made of the Irish skiing with Oxford and Cambridge before the war. So the mystery remains.
Whenever or however the Irish joined, the Oxford and Cambridge Ski Club was founded in 1922, with the object of holding an Oxford-Cambridge race every winter. In the 1930s the club had only 30 or 40 members—all male. Fortunately, times have changed, and over a third of the members are girls. In 1959 about 400 people came with the Ski Club to Z√ºrs. This year the figure has jumped to well over 550, and the club fills all the hotels to capacity.
The large number of members is not surprising, for there are few, if any, other places where it is possible to have a vacation for the price of this one—less than $5 a day. This includes staying in a first-class hotel, all meals, unlimited use of all ski lifts and four hours' ski instruction a day. The only extras are ski equipment and alcohol. Certain members find that the latter item, in spite of the fact that bar prices are very reduced, exceeds all other expenses put together.
It is only because the club goes to Z√ºrs out of season that it can be given such favorable rates, for normally the hotels would not open until just before Christmas, by which time the party is over. The resort regards the party as an investment for the future, although as a result of the large quantities of alcohol consumed it probably even now breaks even. In addition, Z√ºrs gains much free publicity in the English press, and also in certain European publications that report the Oxford-Cambridge race.
A near washout
Attractive prices quite apart, there are other reasons the club has come to Z√ºrs 10 times in the postwar years. For in addition to being an open, sunny valley, without any trees to obstruct the skier, it is one of the few places in Europe that in normal years can guarantee adequate snow conditions from the middle of November on. This year, however, everyone arrived in time to see torrential rain washing away what snow there was. The F√∂hn, the warm south wind from Italy, prevented snow forming. Many people suggested going elsewhere in search of snow. A few telephone calls, however, soon established that it was also raining at 9,000 feet on the Zugspitze in Germany, at St. Moritz, Switzerland and Cervinia, Italy. Meanwhile, the English papers arriving daily in Z√ºrs told of 20-foot snowdrifts in Scotland!
Fortunately, in Z√ºrs the rain turned to snow after two days, and thereafter 10 days of cloudless skies amply made up for the initial washout. (Several of the more famous Alpine resorts, such as Zermatt and Klosters in Switzerland, had no snow at all after the rain. Consequently, the cable cars that carry skiers up to the ski lifts on the higher slopes where snow could still be found, had to give round-trip tickets for the price of single ones: for unless one wanted to cut up the bottoms of one's skis on the numerous rocks and then walk for half an hour or more through muddy meadows, it was necessary to admit defeat and go down with the sightseers in the cable car.)
The previous year, when the Ski Club was in Z√ºrs, a gay figure frequently was seen skiing in evening dress. He was most conspicuous waltzing, sometimes on one ski, in and out among the beginners on the nursery slopes, now and then doing somersaults with his skis on. Beginners were much encouraged by the frequent and usually spectacular falls of this quaintly dressed figure, who was none other than Toni Sailer, ex-Olympic ski champion. Although Sailer has become a professional—he was in Z√ºrs to make a movie—he still behaves much like an amateur. His approach to the sport is nonchalant and lighthearted, and as a result he can be seen to enjoy it tremendously. Many another professional skier deems it an achievement to be able to say, "It's been two years since I had my last fall." Toni Sailer needed no such false pretensions and could be seen emerging every few minutes from a snowdrift with a broad grin on his face. It is reassuring to know there are exceptions like this to the usual attitude of the professionals.
Indeed, one of the factors that undoubtedly contributed to an Oxford victory this year in the Oxford-Cambridge race, which consists of a downhill and a slalom between two teams of six skiers, was the remembered advice from Toni Sailer that a small tot of Fernet Branca or Underberg should be taken before the race to relax the stomach muscles, which otherwise become very tense in the last moments before the downhill begins.
Although the race is still the official reason for the ski party, the majority of those who come on it have no interest in entering. Every year there are over 100 beginners who derive just as much enjoyment out of floundering on the slopes for two weeks in Z√ºrs as those who have come to race. Sports do not have to be competitive to be enjoyed. This is particularly true of skiing.