The American GI's have made their reputations on the skiing slopes of Switzerland. They have achieved in Swiss eyes an almost unearthly prestige for sheer, unbelievable foolhardiness. The Swiss are a cautious people who do everything methodically and well—especially skiing, which is their national pastime. But the GI's, with their reckless insistence on running the highest and hardest courses on their first days on skis, have delighted rather than dismayed their Swiss hosts.
The GI's have set a dangerous and unhappy, precedent for other Americans. There is now a tendency to disappointment on the part of the Swiss if an American decides to follow the practical course of learning the sport step by step on easy slopes instead of trying to cram two years' training into a four-day army leave on a mountain.
"Why, the GI's always go right to the top, even if they can't ski," a Swiss is likely to say to an American who wants to spend his first few days on a "nursery slope." But the more thoughtful Swiss will tell you it's a good idea to get out of the way if you see an American uniform on skis coming down a slope.
"Chances are," one Swiss guide warned, "it is a GI who doesn't have the least idea what he's doing, except going down fast."
Any guide or instructor at Davos can tell you of innumerable cases of GI's who have insisted on ascending the top of the famous Parsenn run and trying the straight fourteen-kilometer descent to the bottom. "I am never surprised at the number of broken legs," one hotelkeeper, with the air of an oracle, told me. "The surprising thing is how many of those lads actually got down in one piece."
This bravado has impressed the Swiss more than all the war stories of American heroism combined.
It is something they actually can see and goggle at.The skiing exploits of the GI's in Switzerland immediately after the end of the war are epic.
In his modern medical clinic in Saint-Moritz, Dr. Paul Gut spends almost all of the winter months treating sprains and fractures for overambitious or unlucky skiers. The clinic is well situated, close to all the more frequented ski trails.
Dr. Gut is an expert on avalanche disasters, rescue operations, and all types of winter misfortunes, and is one of the bone specialists who are to be found in every Swiss winter resort. Special SOS telephones are located on the highest and most remote ski or climbing trails, connecting directly with rescue services. Rescue teams, who must pass state examinations to qualify for their jobs, are stationed in strategic chalets along the more popular ski runs.
The doctor divides what he calls the "normal" 'type of winter sport accidents into three classes: broken limbs, freezing, and avalanche disasters. Among his general recommendations for utility treatment is a shot of cognac, to be carried for emergencies in the rucksack—a much better plan for pain-killing, it seems to me, than the morphine ampoules supplied by the American Army. The best preventive for broken legs, he claims, is adequate pre-season training, particularly climbing, since ski lifts mean less muscular conditioning and training through the sport than in former years.
Once a sportsman is on the ski slopes, Dr. Gut's advice is short and to the point: "In going down, use the head and an immaculate ski technique."
The agile little doctor is an expert on how to dodge avalanches, and on how to get out of one if you don't dodge fast enough. Avalanches are seldom a concern for normal skiers or tourists. The incomparable ski runs frequented by tourists in Switzerland are carefully laid out, and are not danger areas. But the really inveterate skiers who go in for crosscountry hikes (such as the eight-hour summer ski trek over the glaciers in the Swiss Jungfraujoch) are vulnerable.
"It is difficult to escape an avalanche once it starts rolling," Dr. Gut explains. If you see one coming and can't escape, the first rule, he says, is to pull off your skis and sticks and throw them away, because they serve as anchors to pull you down and hold you down. "Fight to get to the surface and to the edge," he advises. "If you are covered, fight to get room around your elbows. Put your hands and arms in front of your face like a boxer when you go down."
Another bit of advice is offered to skiers who have escaped only to see a companion buried by an avalanche. "You can help by digging in the snow with the tops of your sticks. Before you start out to get help from the valley for a friend covered by an avalanche, especially if dusk is approaching, mark the place of accident in points -the spot where the victim was caught and where he was last seen before he disappeared in the snow."
In such an emergency the rescuers are a doctor and the avalanche hounds, those remarkable Swiss dogs trained to smell their way down to a person covered by an avalanche. The remaining members of the party are encouraged to make soundings for the friend with their sticks.
Like the rest of the Swiss resorts, Saint-Moritz had a difficult season last year. British visitors, who have always predominated in Swiss tourism, have declined alarmingly in numbers, because of English travel and financial restrictions. The Swiss count the British as primary tourists in both winter and summer. The hoteliers also complained last year that wine had not sold as it had in previous years, and there's a standard maxim in Swiss hostelry: "If the cavedoesn't go, it's a bad season."
The Swiss have their own system for estimating the value of a tourist season. Visitors are counted in terms of Logiernächte—that is, the number of beds slept in each night. That means that anyone spending a month in Saint-Moritz will be counted thirty times. The tourist office contends that this is only fair since, they say, other countries obviously have similar and equally mysterious ways of arriving at their tourist figures.
While the number of beds slept in by native Swiss rose from 1,480,000 in the three winter months of 1938-1939 to 2,626,000 in tourist centers in 1947-1948, the number slept in by foreigners dropped from 1,879,000 to 1,492,000 in the same period.
Tourists or no tourists, the Swiss pour into the mountains every week-end. Because the country is so small, only one tenth of the size of California, almost everyone is close enough to a mountain to spend a day or two a week skiing. It is estimated that close to 800,000 Swiss ski, one fifth of the total population. Trains are crowded with skiers on week-ends, and special buses, equipped with special ski racks, leave every Sunday morning or a day in the mountains, returning at night with an exhausted and wet lot of passengers.
Wengen is the headquarters for the Association of Swiss Ski Schools, which plays such a prominent role in the education of both foreigners and Swiss. There are about 650 mountain guides and 550 ski "professors" at the various resorts, all of whom must, have diplomas and take annual refresher courses and examinations. In addition, there are 1500 part-time Swiss instructors, and some cantons have their own licenses, comparable to a medical or legal shingle. in the States. Some of the Swiss instructors switch to mountain climbing in summer, but most tend their small farms or work in hotels during the warm weather.
Although the rescue services in Davos report that they sometimes get as many as ten or fifteen emergency calls a day on a busy week-end, Christian Rubi, the executive secretary of the Association of Swiss Ski Schools and a fine skier himself, states that there are only fifteen or twenty fractures in a normal Wengen season. "Fifty per cent of these could easily be prevented by controlled skis. We have two thousand skiers a day during the season. Out of fifteen or twenty thousand runs a week, I think we have perhaps one broken leg.
"Soft snow is the most dangerous. You might think that if the snow were soft, you could fall and not get hurt, and that hard snow would be dangerous. It is just the opposite. You have control on hard snow, but you break through the soft snow and stop too quickly, and you can't turn or control your skis so well."
Mr. Rubi finds that leg injuries lead the list, followed by hand, arm, rib, and head injuries -which are very rare. "When we have two feet of snow during the night, everyone rushes up the mountain the next morning. Then they all ski down, like fools and twist their legs."
Wengen is a good example of how the Swiss prepare for accidents. The men who make up the patrols are professionals hired by the season.
Ski patrols ride up the mountain with every train and follow each batch of skiers down the slopes. When they spot an accident, they ski to the first SOS telephone and call for a stretcher-toboggan. Thirty to forty minutes after an accident, the casualty is in a hospital. The sledges are kept in chalets along the slopes, and an adequate number wait at the top. They are equipped with mattresses, hot tea, blankets, hot-water bottles, bandages, splints, medicines, and other emergency supplies. Two men handle the sledges, one at each end holding on to long wooden handles. A good ski patrol goes down the wily slopes with an injured man in a sledge as easily and quickly as most individual skiers.
"A man is wrapped in blankets, gets a hot-water, bottle at his feet, a warm drink, and a splint, and arrives at the hospital a short time after the sledge reaches him," Rubi explains. The patrols get plenty of amateur help from other skiers, as there are few activities with as much esprit and interdependency OS skiing.
The sledges in Wengen are Canadian luges (Canadian type, but made in Switzerland) and the Bernese mountain sleds which the farmers use to carry their wood to the villages. Every winter, a British ski club in Wengen called "Downhill Only" donates a couple of sledges to the rescue service. The British tourists, being a clubby lot, restrict non-British membership in Downhill Only to 10 per cent, but any nationality in distress is permitted to utilize the donated rescue sledges.
If a casualty is serious, the Swiss are ready with superservice. "If a man is injured on the long runs above Davos, he is made comfortable on a luge and carted down the hill," Rubi continues. "If he doesn't want to go to the small clinic at Davos, he's skied right to the train, put aboard still in his luge, and taken to Zurich, where he is removed to the hospital. Thus he goes nonstop from an isolated ski run near Davos to a modern hospital in Zurich without being moved from the luge, which would be painful and might aggravate his injuries."
Language is never a barrier to a foreign skier in Switzerland. The Swiss have three official languages of their own, and handle almost anything that comes along. Ski instructors shout instructions to pupils as they shoot past on the slope, changing the language from minute to minute to suit the nationality of each passing student. Rubi has published a dictionary of ski terms in four languages. The problem is more complicated on the ski trails, as a speeding skier isn't likely to stop 'to hunt for his own tongue on multilingual signboards. The practical Swiss solve this with pictures. A pretty train painted on a sign means you're approaching tracks, and a sign with a wavy line warns of bumps. The GI's don't bother about either.
It was in Wengen that I was most seriously impressed with the impact of the GI's in Switzerland. A Swiss friend talked me into taking the cable train to the highest slope on the range. As the train pulled slowly up the mountain, I watched with growing alarm as the skiers flew around narrow edges and bounced across the fearsome Wengen bumps.
"Charley, I honestly don't think I ought to try this the first time out."
"But the GI's do it all the time," he protested, with surprise written all over his face. "They've never been on skis before and they go right to the top and go down."
I remained silent for the remainder of the ride lest I destroy this great Swiss illusion about Americans, but just before I started down the slope, fear prompted me to reopen the matter.
"Charley," I asked, "those GI's who have never been on skis and go right to the top - don't they ever break their legs?"
"Oh, all the time!" he replied happily.