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Austria: Ernest Hemingway in Schruns

Hemingway was a young man then. Twenty-six years old and built like one of the Andalucian fighting bulls he admired, he was a man of strong appetites and vast weaknesses when he caught the fourth train from Paris to Bludenz, Austria where he then transferred to the electric spur line which climbed to Schruns in the Montafon Valley.

It was early afternoon when the train pulled into the small Austrian village where his wife Hadley and son Bumby were waiting expectantly next to the tracks. Hemingway had many reasons to celebrate his return to Schruns. He had just signed a contract with Scribners in New York to publish “The Sun Also Rises” and as the train slowed for the station, he could see the snow was soft, cold and deep. Photos of that era show he was tanned and fit but describing himself, he recalled. “In the winter in Schruns I wore a beard against the sun that burned my face so badly on the high snow, and did not bother having a haircut. Late one evening running on skis down the logging trails Herr Lent told me that peasants I passed on those roads above Schruns called me “the Black Christ.” He said some, when they came to the Weinstube, called me “The Black Kirsch drinking Christ.”

Manfred Lorenz Contemplating White Out from Madlener Hut

Manfred Lorenz Contemplating White Out from Madlener Hut

“The Black Kirsch drinking Christ” had plans that February afternoon. Perhaps, because of his guilt, he needed to write a good, honest piece of work. He wanted to write simple, strong sentences that spoke of complex things. And when the writing was done for the day and the dinner dishes were cleared away he wanted to drink Enzian schnapps distilled from mountain gentian with Herr Nels who managed the Hotel Taube. Or, he would drink the strong local wines and gamble behind shuttered windows at the Taube’s stammtisch with the village banker, the public prosecutor, the Captain of Gendarmerie and Herr Lent the head of the ski school. But most of all he wanted to finish “The Sun Also Rises” and escape to the Madlenerhaus. There, while the lantern flickered and the wind howled around the refuge, he would think of men like Dos Pasos and Murphy and Chink Smith and regret they would not be there with him as they had the year before. When the storm cleared and the avalanches quieted, he would skin high into the Silvretta Gruppe below the Piz Buin from where, if the snow was good and stable, he would ski the untracked Jamtal-Ferner down into the Jamtal Valley to Galtur and back to Schruns. And then he saw his wife and son and his plans disappeared beneath an avalanche of guilt.

`”I should have caught the first train from the Gare de l’Est,” he would later write. “But the girl I was in love with was in Paris then…and where we went and what we did, and the unbelievable wrenching, killing happiness, selfishness and treachery of everything we did gave me such a terrible remorse I did not take the first train or the second or the third. When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her. She was smiling, the sun on her lovely face tanned by the snow and sun, beautifully built, her hair red gold in the sun, grown out all winter awkwardly and beautifully, and Mr. Bumby standing with her, blond and chunky with winter cheeks, looking like a good Vorarlberg boy.”

“Oh Tatie,” she said when I was holding her in my arms, “you’re back and you made such a fine successful trip. I love you and we’ve missed you!”

In 1999 Schruns is still very much a small Austrian village set in the shadow of the spectacular Silvretta Gruppe. Tschagguns, its companion village, sits a mile and a half across the Ill River which Hemingway described as a pebbly trout stream but it is Schruns where he spent his time and where Hadley skied on a hill behind the Hotel Taube where the chamois wintered. If the chamois have been pushed into the high peaks, Schruns is still marked by narrow streets, century old facades, frescoes on white stucco walls, weathered bridges across the Litz River and warmly lit weinstube where locals gather to drink the local white wine and escape the intense snow storm that has settled over Western Austria. Taking the hotels, food and skiing into account, it would be easy to linger in Schruns for a week, or like Hemingway, for three months.

Plaque on Hotel Taube, Schruns

Plaque on Hotel Taube, Schruns

Shortly after arriving in December of 1924 he wrote writer Harold Loeb, “the grub is excellent and there is a good red and white wine and 30 kinds of beer.” And later in the same letter, “I’m in such shape already you wouldn’t know me. Hard as hematite and at least twice as fast. (The Hotel Taube) Cost practically nothing–85,000 crowns a day for full pension and heat 15 or 20 thou extra. Best looking country you ever saw and swell hikes.”

Now as then, the Hotel Taube sits a short walk above the Schrun’s train station. Arriving in late December, Hemingway rented two rooms. One in front faced the Kirchplatz and offered views of the mountain and one that faced the garden in back where Bumby would play on sunny afternoons. Three quarters of a century later, the Hotel Taube still faces the Kirchplatz. A plaque commemorating Hemingway’s stay is mounted to the left of the hotel’s front entry, but the original, five story stucco structure has been remodeled since 1924 and the owners now confess they do not know which rooms he occupied. However, the slate covered “stammtisch,” or local’s table, where he drank and played poker still dominates a corner of the Taube’s old wood paneled bar, and at the risk of offending the locals, I slide into a seat and nod to the waitress.

Church in Tschuggans

Church in Tschuggans

Though I admire Hemingway’s writing, I did not come to Schruns to chase his legend. At least not intentionally. But Hemingway helped put Ketchum/Sun Valley on the map, and after the ski tour below Piz Buin and down Jamtal Ferner into Galtur was described to me, I could not say no. First I wanted to ski the massive Silvretta Nova–the vast interconnect which fills the high peaks above Schruns, St. Gallenkirch and Gaschurn. If the Silvretta Nova’s twenty eight lifts and hundred kilometers of marked pistes existed when Hemingway wintered here, he might never have settled in Ketchum. Here steep bump runs roll, dive and twist down forested gulleys while perfectly groomed boulevards lead to empty quad lifts. A deep winter storm, however, has buried the Silvretta Nova beneath two feet of cold powder and only a fool would risk the passes that lead to Switzerland. With the visibility alternating between murky and opaque, the trees offered superb skiing and on the last run of the day, I followed “Zigjam’s” untracked terrain back to Gaschurn.

Austrian Fraulen Tree Skiing

Austrian Fraulen Tree Skiing

None of this existed during the winters of 1924-26. Skiing was in its infancy and skiers were forced to hike for their turns. Superstitious locals believed only “foreign devils” were foolish enough to challenge the high peaks. Since no lift existed, Hemingway would first travel by sleigh up the Montafon to Partenen. Herr Lent, his guide, was once partners in a base wax business with Hannes Schneider, the great Arlberg skier, but Lent was a reckless gambler and lost heavily at poker. To satisfy his gambling debt to Hemingway, he was obliged to lead the writer from Partenen beneath the stars up to the Madlenerhaus. In the early morning they shouldered skis and packs and followed the dark trail up toward the shining snowfields.

“Climbing was fun and no one minded it in those days.” he wrote.
“You set a certain pace well under the speed at which you could climb, and it was easy and your heart felt good and you were proud of the weight of your rucksack. Part of the climb up to the Madlenerhaus was steep and very tough. But the second time you made that climb it was easier, and finally you made it easily with double the weight you had carried at first. Hemingway would hire porters to carry kegs of red wine up to the Madlenerhaus.

“The porter’s skis were short and they carried heavy loads,” he would recall. “We competed among ourselves as to who could climb with the heaviest loads, but no one could compete with the porters, squat sullen peasants who spoke only Montafon dialect and climbed steadily like pack horses.”

In March a narrow road winds through deep avalanche debris and eliminates the three thousand foot hike from Partenen to the Madlener Haus. Set on a small plateau beneath the Silvretta reservoir, the two story refuge has also changed. Electric lights, central heating and flush toilets have replaced the original lanterns, wool blankets and outdoor privys. Hot meals, cold schnapps and a howling wind mark the evening hours and with snow accumulating at an inch an hour, we contemplate the morning’s climb across the pass beneath the 10,850 foot Piz Buin and down to the Jamtalhutte above Galtur.

Manfred Lorenz Navigating through a Whiteout

Manfred Lorenz Navigating through a Whiteout

“I remember all the kinds of snow that the wind could make and their different treacheries when you were on skis.” Hemingway observed. “Then there were the blizzards when you were in the high alpine hut and the strange world that they would make where we had to make our route as carefully as though we had never seen the country. ”

“Will the new snow block our way,” I inquired of Manfred Lorenz, our guide.

“In the morning, we will see.” he replied in a low, faint accent. Had he lived seventy years ago, Lorenz would have been admitted to Hemingway’s inner circle. A superb skier and man of few, but well chosen words, Lorenz inspires unfailing trust. That night an alpinist up from Galtur recalled how Manfred Lorenz once played Hemingway in a film made for Austrian Television. Outfitted with old equipment and shot from a distance, Lorenz made a series of elegant, lonely turns down the glacier. Like the writer himself, Lorenz has accomplished many things in a brief time. By nineteen he had climbed both the North Face of the Eiger and North Face of the Matterhorn as well as many of the seventy-four, 3000 plus meter peaks in the Silvretta Gruppe. Because he was too young at nineteen to be admitted into the Society of Austrian Bergfuhrers, in his case alone, the other guides simply waved the age requirement. Since then Lorenz has climbed Broad Peak, Hidden Peak and Cho Oyu in Nepal. Weather once forced him off within sight of the summit of K-2 and now with the wind hammering at the Madlenerhaus’s windows, he quietly suggests we play “Max,” a dice game short for “Maximum.

Manfred Lorenz Tree Skiing

Manfred Lorenz Tree Skiing

The rules are simple. Roll two dice then pass, raise or call. The winners brand the losers with a blackened wine cork while the losers pay for rounds of apricot, blackberry and plum Schnaps. After the sixth round we stopped congratulating ourselves on the benefits of the fruit juice that tainted the pure alcohol. Observing that the schnapps had obliterated our inhibitions, Reinhard Zangerl, the hut manager, brought a tray of the local mountain cheese, that was strong and good and left a suspicious smell on our hands. The cheese and schnapps made us forget about our blackened faces and we crowded onto the dance floor and polkaed to taped Austrian folk songs.

Perhaps it is a tradition to gamble and drink at the Madlener house. Poker was Hemingway’s game, red wine was his drink and while the sputtering candles lighted the faces of Herr Lent, the hut keeper and other alpinists, he drew an ace to fill a royal flush. That night he won 430,000 kronen. A photo taken that year catches him outside the Madlenerhaus with John Dos Pasos and Gerald Murphy. He is impossibly young, thin and tanned and projects power and selfconfidence.

In a letter written a short time later, he confessed, “We’d just done a hell of a glacier trip–a climb on skis to 3200 meters. And such a blizzard my genital organ to wit, penis, pecker, cock or tool froze or damn near froze and had to be rubbed with snow. Jesus it was cold. Then ran 5 miles down the face of the glacier in under 12 minutes. Wonderful country. The Silvretta.”

Lovely Fraulein Winning at Maximum

Lovely Fraulein Winning at Maximum

I remember every minute of those dark early morning hours. Rising often for water to drown the promise of morning’s bruising hangover, I did not sleep long or well and when the dark gray dawn finally showed through a crack in the shutters, I dressed and walked into Manfred Lorenz’s freezing room. He too was awake, leaning on one elbow and staring out his open window at the heavy flakes which spiraled onto the polished floor.

It took a full day for Hemingway to skin along the east shore of the frozen Silvretta Stausee and up to the Wiesbadener Hutte where he then turned down the Vermunt Gletscher back to the Madlener Haus. That morning, seven of us stepped into the cold, hard white out. In places the snow was fifty centimeters deep and Reinhard Zangerl offered to pull us behind a Skidoo to the Wiesbadener Hutte. When a few of us protested that the writer had not, and would not now, allow himself to be dragged by a snowmobile our guide explained. “Time is important. We must take the pass today, before the snow gets too deep.” But Hemingway had not done it and taking the rope I felt guilty.

Manfred Lorenz Guides Client through Whiteout

Manfred Lorenz Guides Client through Whiteout

“We built the ability to do it and to have it with the long climbs carrying the heavy rucksacks.” he wrote. “We could not buy the trip up nor take a ticket to the top. It was the end we worked for all winter, and all the winter built to make it possible.” Following willow stakes that marked the route, we passed other skiers who materialized out of the fog and falling flakes like silent, brightly colored specters. Retreating off the Vermunt Gletscher, perhaps, they knew something we didn’t. Hemingway called the second winter he spent in Schruns,”the year of avalanches.”

“We became great students of avalanches,” he remembered, “the different types of avalanches, how to avoid them and how to behave if you were caught in one.”

That year Herr Lent wired a group of German clients that the avalanche danger was too high and not to come. When they came anyway he refused to take them out. “One man called him a coward and they said they would ski by themselves,” Hemingway recalled. “Finally he took them to the safest slope he could find. He crossed it himself and then they followed and the whole hillside came down in a rush rising over them as a tidal wave rises. Thirteen were dug out and nine of them were dead. The Alpine Ski School had not prospered before this and afterwards we were almost the only members.”

 Galtur Consecrated Ground

Galtur Consecrated Ground

I trusted Manfred Lorenz as I trusted myself, but climbing beneath the Piz Buin’s towering north face, I wondered what would happen if a chute suddenly settled above us, sending an avalanche roaring out of the whiteout. Sliding one foot in front of the other and listening to the hiss of the skins beneath the snow while the heat and sweat filled our jackets, we climbed the steep faces into the rolling clouds. It was past noon when the grade slackened and we broke out on the pass between the Ochsen and Jam Valleys. Manfred had carried a thermos of tea in his pack which offered hints of rose hips, oranges and pico as we drank from a communal cup and stripped the skins off our skis. A short steep drop opened onto the upper neve and avoiding the sheer rock faces, we pointed our skis into the fall line, and dropped through the clouds where the visibility suffered and time stood still.

“……there was a great glacier run,” Hemingway wrote. “forever straight if our legs could hold it, our ankles locked, we running so low, leaning into the speed, dropping forever and forever in the silent hiss of the crisp powder. It was better than anything else.”

And the deep snow climbing up our thighs and spilling over our shoulders was truly better than anything else and as our skis floated from turn to turn, we broke out beneath the clouds as a shaft of sunlight appeared far down the Jamtal.

It was past noon when we reached the Jamtal Hutte which sits on a protected ridge six kilometers above Galtür. Manfred Lorenz’s father has managed the hut for thirty years and when Manfred was seven, on weekends he would climb from his home in Galtur. Herr Lorenz once worked as a guide and that heritage, as well as Manfred’s youthful association with the climbers and skiers who overnighted in the Hütte had a profound influence on his future. Because we did not want to cool off, we lingered in the Jamtal Hütte only long enough for a bowl of soup, then followed the snow covered road through deep avalanche debris, down to Galtür.

If Schruns is small, Galtür is smaller. Crowded onto a rock promontory at the headwaters of the Paznaun Valley and dating from the twelfth century, Galtür is dominated by a centuries old church, a dozen dairy farms, immaculate hotels and unbroken snowfields. There is a reason for Galtür’s lack of urban sprawl. Locals have long memories about avalanches that explode out of the towering peaks and crush houses the owners were warned not to build in the first place.

Evidence suggests that Hemingway stayed in Galtür’s Hotel Rössle
Set in the center of Galtür, the Rössle is decorated with weathered wood veneers and immaculate warm rooms. Dining in the Rössle’s dining room, I did not know Hemingway was fond of venison when I ordered the Hirschfilet in Wacholderrahm. Served in a room that dated back to 1681, it was a superb dinner, graced by fine wines and rich desserts which mirrored his love of food.

“We were always hungry and every mealtime was a great event.” He wrote. “Sometimes for dinner there would be jugged hare with a rich red-wine sauce and sometimes venison with chestnut sauce. We would drink red wine with these even though it was more expensive than white wine.”

Set in the shadow of the 8760 foot Ballunspitze, Galtür ski area offers a dozen lifts which access some of the best off piste skiing in the Silvretta. Lift lines are virtually nonexistent and between the marked pistes, are hundreds of acres of trackless tree skiing. With visibility down to twenty feet and skiing limited to feel as much as sight, we followed Manfred through the forest and across the Kopsee Dam. A harsh wind ia blowing up the valley and we slipped into the woods below the dam that led to Partenen. Here, in the foothills of the Silvretta, Hemingway would have rejoiced in the deep powder between the trees, the short steep drops and the narrow road which snaked toward the village. Though Hemingway only spent two winters in the Vorarlberg, it was not the skiing, or the food, or hotels that finally made him abandon the Montafon Valley. It was his affair with his wife’s best friend Pauline Pfeiffer.

Meeting Hadley at the train station, he lifted Bumby into the crook of one arm and studied the surrounding sunlit peaks. Winter lay hard on the Hochjoch, Schwarzhorn and Tilisuna Seehorn. He was pleased to see the Hotel Taube had sent a porter to carry his bags, and he put his free arm around his wife and walked slowly up the hill to the corner room with the big stove, big windows and big beds with good blankets. Decades later, he wrote about those final days in Schruns. “I loved her and loved no one else and we had a lovely magic time while we were alone.” he remembered. “I worked well and we made great trips, and I thought we were invulnerable again, and it wasn’t until we were out of the mountains in late spring, and back in Paris, that the other thing started again.”

A year later, Earnest and Hadley Hemingway divorced.

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