The one fact we all refuse to face about learning to ski—forever turning our well-tailored, stretch-pantsed backs on it—is that it is easy. Easy. There you have it, out in the open at last. There is really nothing tough about skiing. There has been nothing tough about it from the beginning and, if she could find a pair of bifocal goggles, your grandmother could ski the Valluga. Just a touch of Hacker here and there, a little bit of the old Schwups Schwups and she could make it from the top of Austria to the bottom. The thing is, anyone can ski anyplace, which is exactly what this old man has been saying for years. And at last, glory be, the world is starting to listen to him.
He is Austrian, of course, and he lives in a beat-up pink stucco barracks on top of the Arlberg Pass. For 35 years St. Christoph has been a Mecca for student instructors, those crazy people who want to learn how to teach other people to ski, and they have struggled up the pass to get the word from the old man. It has to be a labor of love, for once they get there he books them into a tiny room that smells of boiled cabbage, he barks at them, belittles them, browbeats them, orders them around like an old general, pounds their psyches full of dents, rearranges their personalities and teaches them to ski. When they leave to go back down into the valley they are perfect. The name Professor Stefan Kruckenhauser leads all others in ski instruction; he is to the sport what Sigmund Freud, a countryman, was to the shrinking of heads.
Kruckenhauser did not invent skiing, although some of his disciples will dispute even that point. But he was one of the first men to figure out what principles made it work, sometime back in 1932-33. If he could patent all the innovations he has made since that time, legally put his name on them and sell them, he would be richer than J. Paul Getty. But that does not bother him. Getty has his oil, which is not very romantic stuff, and the professor has his mountaintop and an amplified megaphone to yell through. The professor has a kingdom.
It is particularly fitting, now that he is 64 and still teaching, that suddenly more and more people are starting to listen to him about skiing being easy. History will note that this new wave of respect began last year with two events: 1) the successes of the French and Jean-Claude Killy, whom the professor definitely did not invent, and 2) Kruckenhauser's dramatic appearance at the 1968 Interski congress last spring in Aspen, Colo. with a movie that shows what he did discover.
February 24, 1969
Skiing professionals have the tendency to make their sport sound mysterious, full of weightings and unweightings and secret rotations of shoulders, knees and backsides. Five minutes with an instructor usually convinces any beginner that he will never make it. Nonsense, the old man told the congress. Look: Killy skis in the simplest style possible, right? He also skis well. Don't all racers ski simply? And then the professor unpacked his film and showed the delegates from 19 nations the shots he had taken of a gang of raggedy Austrian kids who had never skied before. And there they all were: all spraddle-legged, holding their arms way out, turning where they wanted to turn on the hill—all skiing and having fun. This, said Kruckenhauser, is what I have been trying to tell you all along. These are my Stemmkinder (the stem-turn kids). And my Schwupskinder (the oops-turn kids). Kids don't ski with their legs together; they ski with them apart. They ski this way because this is all they know. Now then. If we can only get our instructors to forget everything and ski simpler, skiing as a sport is suddenly available to everyone. In brief, we should all learn to ski like the kids.
The film frankly shocked the Interski congress and started an argument that is still raging. But it also started a minor revolution in ski instruction that is catching on more and more this season.
Back in his mountain hideout a couple of weeks ago the professor sat down and explained the whole thing. He did not give an interview. Nobody interviews the old man—they get what turns out to be a kind of audience. He strides in, three-quarters of an hour late, sits down and orders a slivovitz. Everything that follows is a monologue, a one-man show punctuated with frowns, scowls, smiles, wide sweeping gestures of the hands and periods when he suddenly jumps up from the table, almost knocking over the glass, and demonstrates by jumping up and down.
Kruckenhauser has a beige, windburned face, deeply lined and creased like a relief map of the Tyrol, a nose like a baked potato and tufts of white hair puffing out just above each ear. At the start of our "interview" he looked around the room and then leaned across the table as though he were about to deliver the secrets of the Austrian atomic bomb. "Now then," he growled. "Understand all that I am about to say. Get it right."
In a way, the professor began, all this ruckus about the new method of wide-stance skiing is all his fault. It is clear that this theory pleases him immensely, and anyone who does not agree can quit skiing and take up raising pansies.
First off, he had started skiing at 18, back in 1923 when hardly anyone taught anyone—people just hauled off and skied. But that was not enough. Kruckenhauser was a student of gymnastics, and part of his studies at the University of Vienna centered on the theory of movement. "I got to know about skiing," he said. "I was so fascinated by it that I became a crazy ski fan. And while I got interested in skiing as such, I also got interested in the question, 'How does it work?' I became a movement theoretician." He figured out all the movements by applying what he learned from photography, which was his other great love. And Kruckenhauser, who is probably the world's first serious ski photographer, began to prove with his pictures what made skiers work.
The Kruckenhauser now-you-see-it, now-you-do-it method took shape from 1934 to 1936 but became even clearer after 1950 when, for one thing, photography got a bit better. "The study of movements took a long time," the old man says now. "One person does it this way, the other does it that way. You have to establish a real basis. There can't be any variations." By 1934 Kruckenhauser had become both a gymnastics professor at good old Vienna U. and a member of the national board that conducts the exams for ski instructors. "As a professor at the university I had a little money and a lot of enthusiasm," he says. "Now I have even less money and more enthusiasm." Still, the Kruckenhauser thing caught on.
"But the real breakthrough for us here in Austria came after the Second World War," Kruckenhauser says. "Austria was kaput. We were hungry. We started to examine everything from the beginning. Everything was a question mark. The time after a war is always a very good time. We looked into a mirror and said, 'How lucky I am to be alive.' " And as a result of this examination, in 1955 the old professor changed the shape of the ski world with a new look.
Kruckenhauser introduced an entire new style of skiing, a legs-together, wriggly, snakelike way of going down the hill, using hip movement and heel thrust from the waist down. He called it Wedeln—literally, wagging the tail—and it swept the world like no other form of skiing before or since (SI, Nov. 25, 1957 et seq.). Americans called it parallel—not very romantic of the Americans—and other countries called it other things, but Wedeln was the in thing. For the first time the new style brought grace and elegance into the sport. Everybody wedeled. Well, that is everybody who could already ski. Instructors all wedeled, and students everywhere thrilled to the sight. But the thing is that very few good skiers could wag their tails properly, and very few beginners could wag their tails at all, being preoccupied with the more basic business of just standing up. Wedeln is a tricky business, only for the supplest. And after a few years it was clear that Kruckenhauser had created a monster.
Having finished a second slivovitz, which is a sort of transparent dynamite, and switched over to a very dry Gibson on the rocks, the old man tells what happened next: "Skiing with your legs together is a stylish thing, a fashionable thing, because it is beautiful. But it has nothing to do with efficiency or economizing. That is why neither the children nor the racers ski that way, nor do the millions of people who ski only occasionally, the Sunday skiers. In track and field, for instance, it is only time that counts. And there is no fashionable form of swimming. But skiing the Wedeln looks great. I would be a fool if I said I didn't want this skiing fashion—this dance on skis. I am very pleased that people want to ski elegantly, but it is wrong for the beginner and wrong for the Sunday skiers. It also is completely wrong for those who want to become racers. And children don't ski like this..." Kruckenhauser held his hands together, palms out. "They ski like this." He held his hands far apart.
But when Kruckenhauser published the official Austrian book on skiing in 1957 he did not mention that part. "I did not dare to add the pictures which would show the beginner in this wide-stance, because at that time everybody wanted only to ski parallel," he said. "I told my ski instructors, 'You will have to ski more simply for the beginner.' But it didn't help. Now, I knew that I had to start a crusade, that I had to fight when I didn't even want to fight myself, to fight my own elegant style. And then I found the proof I needed in the children. I filmed children and I said, 'Look at this. They can't ski any other way.' I had known it long before I used children for my demonstration, but nobody believed me then."
Ski instruction, that insular world, has not been quite the same since. Not only did Kruckenhauser bring his film to the Aspen congress, he brought along nine little apple-cheeked Austrian waifs who got out on the hill and wide-stanced everybody to death, turning easily and whooping it up. Those who did not believe the old man had only to go out on the hill and look at Kruckenhauser's Kindergarten.
Kruckenhauser leans back at the table in St. Christoph and lights up a cigarette, his first in months. "The reaction at the congress was shock," he says. "But those delegates who think—and there are quite a few who do—said, 'This is very interesting. We want to try it. We believe this is a true reform of the beginner's training.' " The professor puffed out a cloud of smoke and smiled slightly. Then he got in his little dig: "It was not a shock to the French, of course. The French were never very interested in the elegant style of skiing. Even a French skier who is not very good likes to feel like a racer.
"If you watched the piste here on a Sunday afternoon and looked at all the Sunday skiers, you would experience their enthusiasm and the fun they have when they ski. Eighty percent of those skiers ski wide-stance. Even those who ski parallel keep their skis apart. But the majority of ski teachers don't know anything but this elegant style and they used to force the poor beginner to learn it in their way. And the beginners did not make any progress."
Well, they will now. It seems clear that the old man has done it again: touched off another revolution in ski instruction. People are already adopting their own names for it in various nations. In the United States they are already complicating it, which figures. But it is still the old man's game: ski like the kids do it. Wide-stance it up a bit and have fun. Look a little sloppy if you must, but get those legs apart and keep your balance.
The wide-stance will carry one through ski life, through the beginning seasons, even into the portly years when one is what the professor calls' 'shaped by prosperity." Wide-stance builds confidence, and if one still wants to look slavishly stylish he can later take Wedeln lessons.
And in Austria, that great snowy factory of ski instructors, the old professor has added a few touches all his own, which Americans might well copy. From the wide-stance, arms-held-out start, beginners slip into a little thing called the Hacker—not to be confused with someone who plays golf poorly. It is pronounced "hock-ah" and is simply a quick heel thrust to the downhill side to bring the skier to a virtual stop. Once almost stopped, it is easy to jump around into a turn, however sloppily. And if that does not seem easy—and one must never worry about it—there is always the downhill stem, in which one stems the downhill ski just before going into a turn and then turns.
Kruckenhauser's kids who do the Hacker well are called the Schwupskinder, which really means something like the oops-kids, and the movement is just about what it implies. The Hacker is the first move of a Schwups. First the heel thrust, then the little jump and then, oops, the skier is suddenly going nicely around the turn.
And, as a final touch, Kruckenhauser recommends keeping beginners on short skis until they have got the idea and have decided that this game can really be fun after all—something nice in 1.50-meter skis for ladies and 1.70 for men.
And lest anyone think all this sounds too easy, that Kruckenhauser has gone and uncomplicated a sport that likes to feel exclusive, remember all those Austrian ski instructors. They still are laboring up that Arlberg Pass to study at the master's feet. As chairman of the national Austrian ski instruction plan the old man certifies 150 to 200 new teachers a year and sends them out into the world with the wide-stance. He has taught some 2,500 in the past 30 years: of the 5,000 instructors now in Austria, about half have passed his exam, the others must still face the professor and serve as assistants while waiting. All of them must come to Kruckenhauser sooner or later if they want success, and he says, "Those who don't show enough talent don't stay with me very long."
Then, draining the last of the very dry Gibson, the professor slams both hands down on the table and everyone in the room jumps. There. The audience is over. That is the end of his story. And he gets up, shakes hands and walks out of the room. But it is not exactly the end.
Next day there he is on the mountain behind his old barracks, working with his instructors. It is 10:30 a.m. and they have been waiting for him since 9. He has been on the telephone. He has five phones and he hates every one of them. He takes the class away from the barracks because, sure enough, his wife is going to lean out of an upstairs window and yell through her own megaphone that he is wanted on the telephone again. Now he starts to work the student instructors in typical Kruckenhauser fashion by yelling: "Los! [start], Halt! [stop]. I told you not to start before I say 'Los!' you Trottel [fool]. I told you to wedeln three turns in the wide-stance and then close your skis. That was a lot of garbage, Schwarz. Get up there again. Are you napping up there on top? We'll never finish today if you keep taking vacations." At noon they all troop into the barracks for lunch. Whatever it is, it will taste like boiled cabbage. Practice starts again at 2. At 4, when it is dark, they go in. "I have tea with my instructors," the professor says. "I live with my instructors. Mao or Hitler can live apart from their people, but I cannot. Between 5 and 6:30 p.m. I am with the younger instructors. We repeat theory, show slides and films. We have a discussion, then we have dinner. Very often we show films again at 8, and most of the films are commented on by me. This will last until 9 o'clock. I hardly ever get to sleep before 11 or 12 o'clock."
"We don't mind when he talks tough," said one of the instructors on the hill. "We know he is very good, and when you want to learn something you don't mind the yelling. And we all love him anyway."
As if that were not enough, the old man goes every Friday to teach skiing and gently browbeat the kids at St. Jakob elementary school down the pass near St. Anton. That is because he knows' the kids are leading the way and he watches them closely in all their unpracticed, natural moves.
Standing on a hill above the school, with the slanting sun on that craggy face, the old man says: "It is necessary that skiing have a dictator. A coach who has absolute dictatorial rights. You can't handle such hard jobs with functionaries who do their jobs on an honorary basis. Take my son-in-law, Franz Hop-pichler, the Austrian national team coach. He has a contract, that reads like this: 'It is not important how much money I make, but I have all the say. Also, nobody can fire me during the next four years. I can only be fired if I have raped someone or stolen 200,000 schillings. Otherwise, nobody can fire me. I can quit at any time. Nobody can give me any orders. I am the one who decides who races where. I make the decision where I will take my racers.' Before Hoppichler there were honorary functionaries. Hoppichler now gets a salary, but I can tell you it is a ridiculous sum. He gets 10,000 schillings [$400] a month as a civil servant and he has to care for a wife and four children."
The old dictator nods wisely to his kids as they flash by. He adds an occasional scowl and a "Hup!" He has been keeping up this pace—promoting skiing and photography—for all his life and it has not made him rich. He even has to borrow pretty ski sweaters to be photographed in because he gives all his other sweaters away to people who need them. But much of the world now skis his style, which he feels is a sort of special reward.
Kruckenhauser is enormously sturdy—built like a Vienna fireplug. But last June he had four heart attacks within 14 days. "I was buckling on the floor, writhing with pain," he says now. "I had to be alone when these attacks came. Once I was in a car. I drove into a meadow and waited until it was over. It takes about 20 minutes. After all, I am a biologist, too. I stopped smoking right away. I used to smoke 30 cigarettes a day. Once when I had an attack I went up into the attic. But the fourth time, unfortunately, my wife saw it. She called the doctor. He came and I said, 'My dear doctor, I know exactly what you want to say and what I have to do. I have to eat your little pills. I cannot smoke. I stopped already. I have to eat less. I must exercise.' " And, having browbeaten the doctor like everyone else, the old man shrugged. "It is difficult not to smoke and not to eat too much," he said. "And as for exercise—where should I take the time? I ski too well and that is no exercise for me."
He looked around his Austrian mountaintop kingdom. "It is not so important in life," he said, "when one has to die. But it is somehow important that one has had some fun during the time when one has lived and that one has produced something. It is the most beautiful thing in life when hobbies can become jobs, and I was very lucky that way. Everything else is wurst. The Chinese have a proverb," he said, as though Austrian ski instructors frequently quote old Chinese proverbs. " 'A man must have planted a tree, fathered a child and written a book.' Well, in my life I have planted about 100 trees, I have written five books and I have fathered four children. That's why I can say, peacefully, at last, 'O.K. Finish.' "