SI Vault
William O. Johnson
November 25, 1974
Have you ever discussed life with a working yodeler? Have you heard about the doughty 14th-century Tyrolean Countess Margarete Maultasch, whose name in English (and, some say, her face in any language) translates as "mouth pocket"? Have you ever heard of that elusive Alpine critter called the Kasermandl? One can do, hear and perhaps even see all of these in the back valleys of Austria.
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November 25, 1974

Footloose In The Land Of The 'kasermandl'

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Doktor Scheibl said, "That is done all over the countryside for fear of ghosts on the loose. It is to protect the people who use the door from bad spirits. There is holy water involved, too."

There were also odd arrangements of dried wreaths of moss and flowers, with tiny mirrors, tacked upon some of the ancient barn walls. "That," said Doktor Scheibl, "has to do with the days from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6, a dangerous time of year when trolls and ghosts and Kasermandls are all around, but the letters C M B are initials of the three kings, and they will protect you. On the Rauhnacht, the rough night, it is believed that if you are in a stable at midnight without the animals knowing of your presence, they will be speaking among themselves. If you are able to overhear them talk, they will tell you what your future will be. However, if the animals discover that you are eavesdropping, you will die definitely within one year. This all dates from Germanic times. The mirrors on the wreaths are very important. If a bad ghost sees himself in the mirror he will be frightened by his own horrible appearance, and he will run away into the night."

There were no ghosts, no talking animals on the slopes of Serfaus, although there were lots of 19 C?M?B? 74s over the doorways of the caf�-huts on the mountain, where gourmand goulash is the specialty.

The skiing at Serfaus is, in a word, lovely. It is not difficult, only mildly daring and not half so dramatically flung out over vast square kilometers as at Saalbach. Much of the area is above the tree line, where the runs are creamy smooth, with slow moguls and magnificent scenery. On some days you can ride the T-bar 1,510 meters up the Plansegg through thick clouds, then emerge at the top in blue sky and sunshine, with all of Alpine Europe arrayed before you. Then you ski down, roller-coasting the moguls, out of the sunshine and down into the clouds again, as if on a plane dipping in to land through fog. Once the skies clear, skiing above the trees is endlessly pleasing as well, though perhaps too easy for most experts to enjoy for more than a couple of days. The only run that is marked expert lies just beneath old Peak Furgler. One slips off a chair lift onto a mountaintop arrival trail as desolate and lonely, on a normal weekday, as the top of Annapurna. Far across the valley, lying white and treeless below and beyond, are the Plansegg slopes, relatively crowded for Plansegg, though empty by comparison with the favorite tourist runs in the Alps. But up here, with old Peak Furgler gazing benevolently down, there is a rapturous sense of really skiing the Alps.

The presence of the mountains is absolute. There is no sense of humanity, of population, of mankind's mark. You drop down the Lazid trails, a bit mogully and quite steep, but clean and open. On your left, there are peaks and avalanche steeps where no one has skied and no one can. It is an exhilarating drop to the valley floor, where there is a long and gradual runout back to a lift up the other side.

Over there, after a cup of Bouillon mil Ei in one of the mountain huts, one takes a short T-bar up a rise, then begins a long run down through the trees, into the forests, past thickets and stands of fir and pine. This trail, deep and steep with an ever-changing pattern of dips and drops, leads you back to the sleeping village, where, as you trudge through the street, alive with the day's joys of skiing, you may hear that the wind has begun to rise up among the sunset summits you have just departed. You will be walking past the ancient barns redolent of cows, past the brightly lighted skating rink and the darkened ninth-century church, past a late-working peasant dragging a sled heaped with hay. And then, if you are fortunate, you will run into Doktor Scheibl. If so, he will lead you, as he has others, to the Geiger Pension, a tiny hotel sheltered from the cold and falling darkness.

Inside, Doktor Scheibl will greet a robust old woman with a cotton-gray head. She is Frau Geiger, midwife of Serfaus, and she will inform you that all her teeth are her own, that she has 10 children, 34 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren and has delivered more than 500 babies in her lifetime. And she will tell you of the olden times and the present times in her village.

Though Serfaus still seems more medieval than modern, there are about 2,500 guest beds there now and tourism is the local industry. There are eight lifts and 16 runs, but Frau Geiger said, like Hans, in Saalbach, "When I was young, skis were unheard of. Then in 1909, to our great surprise, a band of skiers arrived. They had climbed up on skis from the valley. Oh, how we celebrated! They were Bavarians and we gave a great party for them. My husband, though he was not my husband then, played the zither. I was 16 and I danced with all the Bavarians, again and again. It was not funny, the Bavarians danced very hard, even though they had skied far that same day. They were our first skiing tourists."

Frau Geiger paused, sipped some wine, sampled some cake and said, "Even after that fine night, skiing was not important in Serfaus for many years. We used skis for something besides having fun. We used them to smuggle things in and out of Switzerland. All the best people in Serfaus were good smugglers. They would bring leather ropes and such over the mountains at night to the Swiss and return by dawn with sugar and coffee. Of course, the best skiers were the best smugglers. Many of them became ski instructors in later years."

The yodeler at the Tyrolean Night festivities later that same evening in the cellar bar of the Furgler Hotel was a strapping fellow with a chest like a barrel and a neck like a stallion's. Hans Lichter, age 40, wore Lederhosen and was considered one of the finest yodelers in Austria, a professional for many years. Herr Lichter was asked how one yodels and he said, through Doktor Scheibl, "It is a combined thing of holding a note in your throat and moving your tongue. I started yodeling at the age of five, then stopped at the age of eight, then started again at the age of 18. I took some lessons to speak clearly the words of songs, but no lessons can really help you yodel. Either you have it or you don't. You really can't tell whether your voice will break right to be a great yodeler until you are 15 or 16 years of age. I was a woodcutter before I became a yodeler. As a young man I was very thin, but as I yodeled more and more and developed my lungs and my throat I became bigger, and soon I had this very big chest and this very strong constitution.

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