There's no business like snow business

7. November 2023 | Text: Hubert von Goisern

Hubert von GoisernAs I write, it's the 5th November 2023. At the end of October, a week ago, the Ski World Cup season opened at Rettenbachferner in Sölden – an event rightly criticised for its questionable justification amid strong winds. (Up until the snow-rich eighties, the season opener always took place in December, in the French Val-d'Isère and it was known as Critérium de la première Neige, the Criterion of the first snow.)

I wrote the following article at the beginning of March this year for the Austrian Ski Association magazine "Ski Austria", at the request of their editorial team. There were no guidelines, but they had clearly expected or hoped for something different; perhaps something more euphoric and less critical. In any case, the piece didn't find its way into the following issues and now that the next World Cup season has already begun, publication is no longer to be expected. Since I'd already written it, I decided to at least make the article available on my website in its original form.
Kind regards,


When we were boys and as soon as there was enough snow on the ground, we would take every opportunity to hurry to the "Leiten". We laid out a track, built jumps, fetched hazelnut poles from the edge of the forest and set up a slalom.

There was a chairlift in town too, but our "Leiten" had everything we needed. Being outside in winter is still right at the top of my list of wants and needs. I always found and still find dancing snowflakes on a landscape covered in glittering crystals and bathed in sun- or moonlight irresistible. At the weekend our father, who worked as a certified volunteer referee at many events, would sometimes take us with him to ski races or ski jumping.

I had to race too. Yes, had to! Although I liked skiing through the "Stangl" of the slalom, I didn't have the ambition to compete in races. But there was no way around it. In my first race, I finished second to last. I must have been 7 years old, because I could read. And to my shame, the result hung on the fire station noticeboard for a whole week and for all to see, including anyone on their way to school.

It soon became clear to me that many of my schoolmates were more athletic, courageous and above all better coordinated than me. But I found the division of talents to be fair: I was better at painting, singing and playing music. I discovered that to some extent one could make up for a lack of talent with lots of practice and training when I decided to emigrate to Africa at the age of 22. Aware that a "snow fast" lay ahead of me, I wanted to try my luck again and found work for my "last winter" as a lift attendant and piste patroller on Krippenstein.

It was perhaps my most wonderful winter. Five months, on skis every day! Even on my days off. When I turned my back on the snow and on Austria in April 1975, I believed myself to be approaching the ranks of the World Cup stars of the time: Annemarie Moser-Pröll, Franz Klammer, Gustav Thöni and Ingemar Stenmark.

After seven years of travelling, I returned as Stenmark and Klammer were still chalking up victories and Marc Girardelli's star was on the rise – just as mine was on stage. And in the euphoria of success, sold-out tours and all that time spent in studios, a great deal was cast aside, including skiing – I became estranged from the whole sport.

I often caught myself regarding skiing as something very peculiar. All these people in glaringly bright clothing, with boards on their feet, masses scurrying around on the pistes and mountain slopes. They suddenly seemed like a pest infestation. Especially in view of the white bands of artificial snow during winters with little of the real thing.

On top of that there are the many serious injuries in ski racing. Of course, you can argue that other sports have also become more extreme and unhealthy, but the stories of injuries that almost every ski racer has are more gruesome than in any other discipline. The removal by helicopter of athletes who have fallen has become an inevitable part of the sport – with comparatively modest prize money at stake. While superstar Aleksander Aamodt Kilde raked in €500,000 last season, the average pro golfer earns more than 2 million Euros each year and top golfers earn 100 million Euros – without any notable risk of injury, but without hero status either. But that's another story.

Gone are the days when skiing was fun above all else. Gone too are the days when Putin sat in a chairlift with an Austrian chancellor at Arlberg and left tracks in the snow that were not yet bloody. Last winter the Russian president and his Belarusian counterpart Lukaschenko took to the slopes in Sochi. We know that nothing good came of that.

And gone are the days when the World Cup was an Austrian championship with international participation, when skiing let our feeling of self-worth climb sky high and suggested to us a "global significance". Winning the Nations Cup thirty (30!) times in a row bordered on the obscene. That's why I'm pleased for the Swiss. With "Odi" they once again have an exceptional athlete who is a pure joy to watch. Yes, one man's suffering is another man's joy. It has always been this way. For example, in 1972, when an earthquake of rage rumbled through Austria when our Karli Schranz was excluded from the Olympic Games – a fate he incidentally shared with Annie Famose, a French ski racer. The Swiss paper NZZ wrote: "The golden age of Sapporo was as much a community-building event for this country as the moon landing was for the world." It's proof that when it comes to ski racing, Switzerland can certainly keep up with our level of pathos.

However, the notion that races can go ahead at all is now anything but a given. In the last World Cup season, almost every fifth competition had to be cancelled and there's seldom snow on our "Leiten" in Goisern.

I took up skiing again when it came time to teach our children the sport – and since then I haven't let it go. It is a magnificent way of recharging body and spirit and feeling the relationship with the natural world.

As our children began to make their first sweeps, I came to appreciate the small lifts – the ones that are now closing one after the other because they can't survive without financial help. (Meanwhile the big ski resorts can skim off the cream of funding money.) Where is the next generation to find their joy in skiing? On the black runs of the Rettenbachferner? Or in front of the TV?

Hubert von Goisern