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Apres-ski till you drop

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Wendy Dunaway Wall
Globe Correspondent / December 7, 2003

ST. ANTON AM ARLBERG, Austria -- Legend has it that Alpine skiing began in the craggy mountains surrounding this petite village in the Tyrol region of Austria's Alps. More than a century ago, the world's oldest ski club formed here, and it has been nearly as long since famed skier Hannes Schneider began teaching his graceful art in 1907. While locals were perfecting their turns on the mountain, they were also refining what goes on after a day on the slopes, resulting in one of the world's most spirited apres-ski scenes.

At least that's what I had been told. Frankly, I was skeptical.

As a former ski industry representative who traveled the world promoting US skiing, I have strong opinions about the differences between resorts in Europe and those in the States -- even though I had never actually skied in Europe. As part of that role, I circulated brochures containing a list of 15 ''Top Reasons to Ski and Snowboard in the USA," my favorite being ''mountains of lively apres-ski bars and restaurants." For years, I was needled by Europeans charging the inaccuracy of this statement. St. Anton, they said, would show me once and for all.

We start our journey on a train from Munich, riding three hours through snowy white fields that seem to lead nowhere, with the occasional horse, fence, or barn breaking the silent landscape. Small blips of towns -- each anchored by a spired or domed church -- whiz by. Near one village, mittened skaters crowd onto a frozen lake, in a scene reminiscent of those painted on the region's famous Christmas ornaments. Later, two parallel lines vanish into the distance, the distinct footprints of skis.

We reach our chalet-style condos in the Nasserein section of town, where other members of our group have begun trickling in. Our posse is a hodgepodge of 15 Americans: seven St. Anton veterans and eight newbies.

After a long night of sleep, and armed with bright yellow walkie-talkies, we take to the mountain. At the top of the Galzig lift, we get our first true view of the surroundings: miles of white, and a starkly contrasting blue sky. Steep and jagged in spots, most of the mountaintops below us resemble gobs of melted marshmallows topping steaming cups of hot chocolate.

Typical of European ski resorts, St. Anton offers on- and off-piste skiing, meaning there are a handful of designated ''runs," with the remainder of the vast mountain available for skiing at your own risk. Ropes and signs are few when compared with those at the typical US resort, and the resorts rarely mark rocks, or even the occasional stream. Although the hardcore members of our group are fully prepared for this unrestricted freedom with avalanche beacons and shovels, I am not. At one point we hear the distinct sound of a helicopter motor. When we finally see it, we notice something dangling on a long rope: a skier being evacuated from a far-off section of the mountain. I vow to stay where my rescue would not require an airlift.

When the lifts close at 4 o'clock, we take a final run, which deposits us on the doorstep of the Krazy Kanguruh, the infamous on-mountain bar that Frommer's describes as a destination for ''the restless and reckless." Our arrival is innocent enough. We immediately find seats at a table in an outdoor corner, with the bar's trademark, a large yellow inflatable kangaroo, directly in front of us. A delicate pink alpenglow illuminates the peaks across the valley. We order gluehwein, sweet, hot mulled wine. From someplace inside the bar I detect a deep, thumping bass. After a few minutes I head indoors to the bathroom, planning to scope out the crowd along the way.

My arrival in the ladies room is less than graceful, due to an unlatched boot buckle that catches the doorframe, propelling me into a cluster of young women in sexy grunge-style skiwear. At the mirror next to me, a gorgeous twentysomething brushes her long, golden hair. She adjusts her carefully casual tight red T-shirt, nudging it into her ski pants, the top of which she leaves provocatively unbuttoned. Her face sparkles -- literally -- as a result of the light, glittery face powder she has applied sometime between skiing and this primping break. I check out my own hair -- slicked to my head -- and my makeup-free face. Round white owl rings have started to form around my eyes. My nose is Rudolph red. I unzip my fleece a tad, exposing the frayed collar of my turtleneck, and trudge back toward the table.

Just as I start to sip my gluehwein, which by now is only lukewarm, one of the Anton vets sounds a rallying cry: ''Let's go!"

We follow him into the bottom level of the Krazy Kanguruh. Having been here many times, he knows the drill, which involves pushing unapologetically through the masses. We hang up our coats, hats, goggles, and gloves, and I pull my fleece over my head and bat down my statichair. We overtake a heavy wooden table with equally solid wood benches coated in a dirty, wet film. Expecting to sit, I search for a napkin to wipe it off. Instead, we climb up onto the benches, one after another, with the shorter members of our group perched precariously on the tabletop. A loud dance tune instructs us to put our hands in the air. We obey. Then we begin to jump.

Two discos make up the dance scene at the Kanguruh, with the bottom level blaring dance remixes. A disco ball twirls from the ceiling, creating a complex mirage of flickering light, broken beer mugs, slippery ski boots, glowing smiles, and writhing skiers on the dance floor. Looking over at my husband, I notice he's engaged in a strange turkey-like dance, one that has resulted from his trying to master jumping and ducking at the same time, so as to not hit his head on the low ceiling or spill his beer.

Around 6 p.m., it is time to move on. It is dusk, and we've all begun to feel the effects of the gluehwein and beer. I cram my boots into my skis with a little too much oomph, thinking we're heading to town for the next apres-ski installment. Instead, we slip, slide, and tumble roughly 100 yards downhill to the Mooserwirt.

Hundreds of others have beaten us to the scene. Skis and snowboards litter the snow, the racks filled to capacity. From the side of a log cabin-style building spills a tiered wooden deck packed shoulder to shoulder with hopping, singing skiers and boarders. Outdoor speakers broadcast the sounds of global techno music in Portuguese, English, and, of course, German. A multisided yellow tent flanks the opposite side of the deck, one part of which appears to hang over a cliff.

I follow our leader into the tent, where a round of mystery shots -- some kind of schnapps -- appears. Some members of our party are gripping the overhead rafters, like kids hanging from monkey bars. The music spins so quickly that I cannot grasp the words, yet the Moosewirt regulars know them all -- and their accompanying dances -- by heart. After an obligatory shot, we head toward the ''cabin."

Inside, teeny white lights filter through pin-sized holes in the logs, which along with red, green, and blue flashing lights, lend a semi-Christmas aura. Downstairs, hundreds of skiers are packed together like asparagus bunches, making movement to the sounds of the famed DJ Gerhard nearly impossible. Directly in front of us, some college-age gentlemen have stripped down to their snow pants. After an hour, we decide it is time to move on.

Getting down the mountain presents unexpected challenges. A minimal amount of light from the village below projects a much-too-subtle glow onto the dark, icy, bumpy run. Gone, suddenly, are years of training, my careful parallel stance reverting instantly to snowplow. I fumble my way down the short mogul patch, then schlep my skis nearly a mile back to the condo.

On most evenings in St. Anton, I will learn, 8 p.m. means nap time before returning to town -- but not tonight. Our first night is celebrated in style with a group dinner of fondue, raclette, and red wine, followed by stints at two relatively calm bars, and a finale at the Post-Keller, a proper European disco packed with stylish youngsters and loads of misty smoke.

We say goodnight at about 2:30 a.m. I've survived day one of our weeklong vacation, and this is the damage: six hours of skiing, 10.5 hours of apres-ski. I can hear the ''I told you so's" from my European friends.

Wendy Wall is a freelance writer who lives in Denver.

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