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.
The front valleys will be getting all the attention at the peak of next ski season when the 1976 Winter Olympics come to Innsbruck in February. Tourists will swarm into Austria, since an Olympic-season is always a fine time to combine spectating with a skiing vacation. But the crowds of the first can dim the joys of the second. The secret is to seize the best of both settings.
With the Olympics as a bonus, one either starts or stops at Innsbruck. For the rest of the trip, it is better to avoid the spots with the glossiest reputations and the flossiest accommodations. Stay away from the famous pistes, from sprawling St. Anton and swinging Kitzb�hel. Avoid the zing of Z�rs, the bright lights of Lech. It is true that you will miss the spine-tingling thrill of plunging off St. Anton's grand peak, Valluga, and have to forgo the excited cries of the mating crowds at the tea dance in Kitzb�hel's Caf� Tenne. But in their place you can find more, much more, if you turn off the autobahn into some of the less celebrated villages of the Austrian Alps. Travel up the Zillertal, up the Valley of the Saal, up the Valley of the Inn, and you will come upon marvelous skiing trails and relatively unplumbed wells of charm in teeming Saalbach and tranquil Hinterglemm, in the ancient village of Serfaus, in the hustling tourist trap of Mayrhofen and the lovely glacial hamlet of Hintertux.
Saalbach lies in a valley truly blessed for skiing. A fine complex of runs and lifts rises on both sides of the Saal River, unmatched in sheer size and variety except by the greatest ski areas of Europe and America. The intricate interconnection of cable cars, chairs and T-bars zigzags upward, offering some 30 different lifts to well above the tree line. On a sunny day you may stand on the West Peak before an almost surreal array of mountain tops, a veritable sea of summits that surges off toward Switzerland, Italy and eternity. The runs from the West Peak are nearly as fine as the view, a steep and mo-gully descent down one side or a long, rolling journey down the other—down into trees, down for four miles or more to the gentle tourist village of Hinterglemm, deep at the end of the valley. There are many more trails above Hinterglemm, but first you might pause on the terrace of a restaurant, sun-splashed and cheery, and order a stein or two of beer and a shot of Vogelbeerschnaps. It may be that a nearby table of ruddy-faced fellows—visiting Rotarians from Salzburg?—will burst into song, in perfect four-part harmony. It has been known to happen here.
Above Hinterglemm, on the east side of the valley, the skiing also is lilting and harmonious, open slopes falling prettily between stands of pine and old cow barns. There are several runs, none terribly hard, most of them the sort of dropping-waterfall trail that enlarges the ego and massages the soul. Each of them curls back down to the rustic village. From there, perhaps after another draught of that mystical Austrian beer, one rises on chairs again up the opposite side of the valley. Now it is sunset and you can ski back to Saalbach, a mile or two on apricot-tinted snow. There, in the wood-paneled St�berl of the Hotel Kristall, you order a steaming mug of J�ger tea, the famed hunter's tea laced with rum and schnapps, and a bowl of whipped gorgonzola cheese and butter to spread on your breadsticks and toast.
All of this is easy enough, a mere exercise in skiing hedonism, and it is readily available to anyone. But let us slightly broaden the perspective, add a different dimension to skiing in the hinter-valleys of Austria. Let us reach beyond sheer enjoyment for a deeper appreciation of what we have here, for folklore and history, Austrian peasant life and mountain superstition. Let us meet the Herr Doktor Ernst Scheibl.
Doktor Scheibl appeared unexpectedly early one morning at the Hotel Kristall. He was a burly bear of a fellow with a thick black beard, snapping dark eyes and a baggy green loden jacket that he almost never removed. Doktor Scheibl spoke superb English, was able to yodel quite well and eventually displayed an impressive grasp of Austrian history, rationalist philosophy, Alpine skiing techniques, schnapps "burning" (distilling at home), Renaissance art, all forms of discotheque dancing and countless tidbits concerning points of interest far off the beaten ski trails of Austria. He was called Doktor because of an Austrian custom honoring academic degrees below Ph.D. level (his were in philosophy and High German), and he had come, he said, from the national chamber of commerce in Vienna to help make a trip through Alpine back valleys more comprehensible with his translations, explanations and advice.
At breakfast Doktor Scheibl drank only black coffee and, while others ate, spoke pleasantly, with scholarly emphasis. "Since you are taking a ski tour not many Americans take, let me tell you a ski fact not many Americans know. Once upon a time, the story goes, there was one Countess Margarete Maultasch of the Tyrol. As it is told, in 1363 she was 45 years old and notoriously homely. Her name means 'mouth bag' or, as you might say, 'pocket mouth.' The countess married twice despite these handicaps, but in 1363 she bequeathed all of the Tyrol to a friend, Rudolph IV, of Austria's celebrated House of Hapsburg. This was a political, not a romantic, move. And thus much of the magnificent Alpine skiing for which Austria is now so famous came to us thanks to the wise decision of Countess Pocket Mouth. That is a fact little known outside of Austria."
Doktor Scheibl paused, as if waiting for questions, then rolled his eyes and said, "A pity, however, that it was not a matter of romance!" He yodeled softly to make his point.
Later that morning, skiing the endless runs above Saalbach under a golden Alpine sun, stopping occasionally to sink, beer in hand, into one of the dozens of canvas deck chairs set in rows in the snow, the Doktor fell into conversation with a tough old mountaineer named Hans. Hans was a native of Saalbach and long a guide, both winter and summer, in these Alps above the Saal River.