Book Review – The God of Skiing

“For a sport so present in the now, it’s the memories that make it important. Those long moments lost to a turn, and the feeling of flying when you are thinking of everything and nothing at the same time.”

The above passage is from Peter Kray’s novella, The God of Skiing, a glimpse of the spirit Kray paints in an absolute must-read for anyone on planks and snow, or for those with curious insights of the people and places that surround the sport.

Almost all skiing books are nonfiction guides with aspects of the where, when and how. I can count the great ski literature on one hand, and this is the best written in years, perhaps since Hemmingway’s short stories. Ski alpinism is probably the greatest story to tell, and yet, the least told.

“You could always lose things. Sometimes I think those things are for loosing. Like life, no one figures out how to keep them in the end. But if you ski then you have that forever. Nobody can buy that. Nobody can pay somebody to do that for them.”

The fictional novella is about alpine legend Tack Strau, a collegiate racer who floored the ECAC (Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference) and held an eye of the US Ski Team for his win-or-crash style. Like many ghosts in this sport, Strau disappeared, as in vanished. That is, until some years later when he reemerges in Jackson Hole, the narrator meets up with him, and a journey begins. There is a component to “Eddie and the Cruisers” echoed in the storyline, but anyone who has actually lived this life knows this is not an odd paradigm. Perhaps for those of us that somehow held the pen long enough could appreciate this component. It is those that are left to tell the tale, and in some ways our moral obligation to do so.

The God of Skiing - Peter Kray
The God of Skiing – Peter Kray

Fritz Stammberger is on the cover of the book. Those of a certain age familiar with the time and place know the name. He was one of the first ski mountaineers in the world. I lived in Carbondale, CO just a few years after Fritz made the first descent of North Maroon Peak. Our school had a photo of the local Aspen legend in the hallway. In mountain towns, skiing was as much of a school sport as football is in other parts of the country. At that impressionable age we all had our heroes, they just didn’t all wear sports jerseys. It was there learned to ski at age five just down the road from Aspen, CO at Buttermilk. Living in the Snake River Valley, I remember when Fritz went missing in the Himalayas attempting a solo descent of Tirich Mir in Pakistan. I was too young to remember all the details, but his legend was very much alive when I lived there. Nearby North Hayden Peak (also known as Ski Hayden – 13, 316′) has a face named after Fritz, known as Stammberger Face.

Skiing is made of gravity and speed. It’s dying all the time’.
The sheer passion of alpine skiing and it’s origins are echoed like a back drop throughout the book, and this odyssey takes the reader around the world from Chile to Austria and the various characters in those places. The heart of the story takes place in Jackson Hole, a place where the community is very much a part of the mountain.

 

Author Peter Kay has created a living gallery in words, with gripping and riveting detail. The book follows through a history unique to this world. From the 10th Mountain Division of Camp Hale, to Bill Brigg’s first descent of the Grand Teton — the same year Fritz made the first descent of North Maroon Peak. In it’s day, Camp Hale was home to the secret ski division known as the 10th Mountain Division. The 10th Mountain was dealt the impossible task of taking Riva Ridge in the Italian Apennines from the Nazis. The division sustained enormous casualties, and many of those veterans returned to Colorado after the war. Among them; Ffridl Pfeifer – founder of Aspen, Pete Seibert – founder of Vail, Larry Jump – Arapahoe Basin (along with most of the 87th Regiment) and numerous others from the 10th Mountain Division shaped much of the Colorado ski landscape.

While the book follows the fictional life of Tack Strau, it embroils a very real embodiment of the sport itself and the people that surround it. There is a little bit of Tack in all of us, and for the most part Tack forms the common bond of many people I have known in this sport, such as Steve Romeo. Most notably however, are the heroes we find in this sport and the huge impact this genre imprints on our own lives. The underlying story of this book brought back many of my own memories.

Years ago when I worked at Keystone / Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort, it was of a time when employees and locals would have bonfire keg parties at the base of the mountain among the cold and the clouds. Sometimes marching to the summit of Lenawee Peak beneath the closed lifts at night under a full moon. It was before the I-70 shit-show that it is now, and the influx of out-of-state newcomers that came to find this passion, but will never know what it was once like. There were legends that paved the modern ski industry and ski mountaineering, before many of us migrated to the backcountry like angels with clipped wings.

The stakes have certainly gotten higher in recent years. Faux crowds posing for selfies and the commercialized aspect of what the industry has become make it harder to find the Tack Strau’s. Occasionally you can still find them on a chairlift, but more often on hut trips, and the backcountry. There is a deeper, more profound aspect if you actually live it. In the past few years we have lost many legends, and, on a personal level, a few friends. Confronting our greatest fear is talking about that. Celebrating a life that few have known.

You can literally feel the passion in this passage through time and unique way of life. Few people in this world actually live their life, but everyone dies. The fact is, people that have lived their lives on the mountain come back changed every time, as if branded by the hallmark of the mountains. Author Peter Kray will take you on a journey, around the world following the life of Tack Strau and the lifestyle of the sport like few have seen it.

This novella is beautiful and captures the reader from the very beginning. It’s an alluring, skillfully crafted, fast read. The book has been called The greatest ski novel ever written”, I can certainly pour a glass of wine and read this book all over again – it’s that good.

The God of Skiing

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