Ernest Hemingway: Ski Nomad

“There were no ski lifts from Schruns and no funiculars. You climbed on foot carrying your skis and higher up, where the snow was too deep, you climbed on seal skins that you attached to the bottoms of the skis. At the tops of the mountain valleys, there were big Alpine huts….The most famous of these high-base huts were the Lindauer-Hutte, the Madlener-Haus and the Wiesbadener-Hutte.”
– Taken from ‘A Moveable Feast’, Ernest Hemingway’s rich memoir of getting started in Paris in the 1920s.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) lived a life of diverse adventures. When he was a young man, he took many ski trips with his 1st wife, Hadley Richardson. Hemingway had a tangential engagement in WWI. He served as an ambulance driver and infantryman with the Italian army. Given the fact WWI ended in 1918, Hemingway’s involvement was short-lived –he was only 19 years of age at the time.

There was the “Beat Generation” that emerged after WWII, but there was the “Lost Generation” that came into being after WWI. Ernest Hemingway was a leading member of the “Lost Generation” and this short essay will reflect on his younger skiing years – rarely embodied in the “Beat Generation”.

From 1921-1926 Hemingway, his wife Hadley Richardson, and their son Bumby, lived in Paris. When Paris winters were wet and cold, they took to Schruns in Austria to ski (the winters of 1924-1925 and 1925-1926). When in Paris, Hemingway and Hadley hobnobbed with the literary high mucky-mucks such as Stein, Pound, Fitzgerald, Ford, and others, but it was to the winter beauty of the Austrian Alps that they often turned to for oxygen of the soul and literary inspiration.

Hemingway’s breakthrough novel, The Sun Also Rises, was written in drafts when in Schruns. In the final chapter of A Moveable Feast, Hemmingway writes “We loved the Vorarlberg and we loved Schruns. We would go there about Thanksgiving time and stay until nearly Easter.”

Ernest and Hadley began their skiing days together in Switzerland and Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites when Bumby was near birth. But it was to the spacious Montafon Valley in Austria where Ernest and Hadley turned to ski when Paris was not pleasant to live in. Schruns and Tchagguns were their preferred ski treks.

Ernest was in his mid-20s and Hadley was in her early 30s at the peak of their ski years. The Hotel Taube in Schruns was their winter home. Hadley and Ernest were fortunate that Walter Lent had started a ski school in the area. Lent was a disciple and friend of the ski pioneer Hannes Schneider (1890-1955). Lent took them to the high glaciers and superb ski runs – no lifts in those days! They trekked to the high alpine huts and experienced scenic delights, Madlener-Haus a favourite ski trip.

Many of the Austrian huts mentioned by Hemingway are beauties worth the visit as hikes in the summer or ski trips in the white-clothed winter. Hemingway mentioned the dangers of avalanches. He completed courses in avalanches with Lent, who saw 13 buried (9 killed) in an avalanche when Lent did not heed his own sense of mountain safety. Lent was called a coward for not taking guests from Germany to places he should not have taken them—sadly so, he lived to regret this intimidation. Lent’s ski school took a dive afterward and, in many ways, Ernest and Hadley became his only students.

Hemingway makes a gentle dig against the Roman Catholic Church by mentioning a man killed in the avalanche “was refused burial in the consecrated ground by the local priest, since there was no proof he was a Catholic”. He also mentioned attending a Christmas play in Schruns by Hans Sachs (a passionate Lutheran of the 16th century) he wrote a glowing report of.
Hemingway was called “the Black Christ” and “the Black Kirsch-drinking Christ” by many of the locals given his dark sun-tanned skin, thick black beard, and delight in kirsch. Sadly so, as the final chapter of A Moveable Feast ends, the seemingly idyllic relationship between Ernest and Hadley comes to an end as Ernest cavorts with another woman. As Hemingway reflects on such a path taken, he says in retrospect, “All things truly wicked start from an innocence”. This wisdom reveals experience – serious errors on the slopes leading to tragedies, serious misreads of relationships leading to similar results.

EH 8093P 1925 Ernest, Hadley, and Jack (“Bumby”) Hemingway. Schruns, Austria. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The marriage of Ernest and Hedley came to an end in 1927 but Ernest continued his ski journey. He continued mixing and melding, in a suggestive and not to be forgotten manner, the relationship between skiing and life, the apt and ample lessons of skiing formative for the journey.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936) is a layered short story of a man and woman (Hemingway’s final wife?) on a big game hunt. The man becomes injured and infected with gangrene. He seems to be near the end of his all-too-human journey and his relationship with the woman is tense and feisty. As he ponders his future fate, his mind turns to earlier phases and stages of his journey. His first reflection is on his ski years post WWI, and a Christmas Day in the high alpine above Schruns. The simple and exhilarating ski descent on the glacier and time spent in Madlener-haus, a tale told of those in WWI, the German-Austrian tensions by Herr Lent. Herr Lent had seen much tragedy in WWI and gambling became his addiction, his common refrain “sans voir” (unseeing) his reality.

Hemingway, in his deft and sensitive way, walks the reader into the deeper inner life of a much-admired ski instructor, the ghosts of his past ever haunting him. While enemies in the war they share post WWI a common interest in skiing. Hemingway does not flinch from going to such places as the ailing elder of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, the memory of Schruns still very much alive, its message ever deepening.
“Cross-Country Snow” (1925) is a charming and shorter tale than “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, the classical Nick Adams Hemingway persona at work.

Nick and George take the funicular up the mountainside. They jump off and ski down the white powder, “like a shot rabbit” – the Arlberg, Christy and Telemark their descent styles. The ski trip seems to be in Switzerland. A German-speaking waitress, in obvious anxiety, is pregnant with no ring on finger. It is these small touches in a Swiss “Weinstube” (a restaurant that serves wine) that Nick and George notice, Hemingway ever the alert observer.

Both men have thoroughly enjoyed their day on the white gold, pub, dinner, and fine wine a fitting finale. What next? Shall they go from hill to hill, village to village, ski run to ski run, ski bums that live such a life? Or was such a cross-country snow ski but part of a larger vision of life? Nick and George have fuller goals and responsibilities, education, family, and much else, skiing is just a pleasurable hobby or avocation. They can romanticize the ski dream, but both realize there is much more to life. Such is the gist of the varied issues pondered in “Cross-Country Snow”.

“An Alpine Idyll” (1927) is a surreal sort of short story. It begins with Nick and John coming down from a lengthy period of spring skiing in the enthralling Silvretta Alps. Nick and John have been too long in the snow and bright sun, the valley in early spring and much hotter.

The title has an ironic twist and bends to it for two reasons. First, the lingering spring skiing in the Silvretta seems to be much desired by those keen to be on the slopes and enjoy nights spent in high huts. However, a good thing indulged in too long can lose its sheen and luster.

Nick and John sum up their thoughts and feelings in the Inn after a hearty “Ski-heil” by saying, “You oughtn’t to ever do anything too long”. John concludes with “Too damn long—-It’s no good doing a thing too long”. Hemingway’s message cannot be missed in this short story.

Second, there is a tendency to idealize the ski world of the Swiss and Austrians, the people living a halcyon mountain life, Rousseau style. When Nick and John descend from the initial idyllic ski trip that lasted too long, they notice a funeral of sorts. They continue to the Inn, good ale and food served and John rather weary from too much sun and skiing. The tale is soon told of a peasant whose wife died in the densely packed snow mountain in the winter. He had no way of getting her to the town for a burial, her body soon froze. He put her standing up in his work shed, her mouth open, a lantern in her mouth when he had to cut wood. This was his reality from December to May. The innkeeper insists “These peasants are beasts”. The priest and sexton do their best to make sense of a bizarre situation. So much for a Swiss idyll! Nick and John having indulged too long, the peasant and his dead wife offer a picture of Swiss mountain life not often noted in the tourist brochures.

There is no doubt Hemmingway was one of the finest writers of the 20th century, his style of writing was accessible, plain, and readable. Many of the stories he tells have subtle significant insights and truth-telling ways. Hemmingway, in his 20s, spent much time in the Alps and could not resist the tendency to tell ski stories – each tale well told and packed with wisdom.

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