Going Down Fast!

The Swiss look at American skiiers
More

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In