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.
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.