Hannes Richter

Austrian Places

Hannes Richter

Skiing Nostalgia in Lower Austria

Our correspondent Markus Reiterer continues his series on these special Austrian places with a story to tell. For this issue, his wife Mathilde Reiterer-Ertl co-authored the article.

He was a one-eyed teacher and painter, a pioneer and sculptor, Czech and Austrian, an author and an army captain. At 61, an avalanche smashed his bones to smithereens and some counted as many as 80 fractures. He survived and eventually died in 1940 at the age of 84.

Perhaps most importantly, he was the inventor and first methodologist of modern Alpine skiing and organized the first ever slalom race in a place called Lilienfeld. His name was Mathias Zdarsky. In 1888, the great Norwegian explorer, sportsman, scientist, Nobel laureate and diplomat Fridtjof Nansen had crossed Greenland on skis. It took him an amazing 49 days with a small team and only a minimum of supplies.

Mathias Zdarsky was deeply impressed by this achievement. He immediately ordered Nansen’s book and a pair of Norwegian skis – willing to try them out in his Alpine environment. It is important to realize that while the mountains around Lilienfeld are not too high, their slopes and flanks are rather steep. The Muckenkogel, for example is the regions highest mountain and reaches 1.248m (4094 feet) above sea-level, which is not even one third of Austria’s highest mountain the Grossglockner (3798m, 12460 feet).

However, when you hike up Muckenkogel (especially during winter) you will notice that it is breathtakingly steep. Zdarsky quickly realized that Nansen’s classical Norwegian ski equipment might work well in Norway or Greenland, but given the sharp inclinations prevalent in the area, it just would not work in the Alps.

He started to analyze, experiment and exercise in increasingly hard terrain. He realized that the main problem was the link between the shoe and the ski! The binding he knew from the Norwegian skis worked pretty well in flat areas. It was, however, of not much use in steep terrain. As it did not provide much of a lateral hold, the foot would slip from the ski in a sidewise movement, making it impossible to steer the ski. Attempting turns was a bonewrenching exercise. By 1896, Zdarsky had developed his new binding.

This so-called Lilienfelder Binding, as it was patented, prevented the foot from slipping off the ski. It was essentially this invention that became the basis for modern ski bindings. That way, Zdarsky was able to steer his skis and ready to advance into ever more Alpine terrain. At first, he was being laughed at. A big debate ensued between those sticking to the Norwegian school of telemarking, and the increasing number of those, who saw the benefits of Zdarsky’s technical revolution.

In 1898, he founded the Internationale Alpen-Skiverein (the International Alpine Ski Association). Witihin 15 years it had reached a membership of nearly 2000! In January 1905, Zdarsky succeeded in pulling off a remarkable feat. He invited followers of the Norwegian style to take part in – what he called – a Vergleichsfahrt (a “comparative ride”). For that ride he chose a very impressive location: the so-called Breite Ries on the Alps’ easternmost mountain above 2000 meters in altitude, the Schneeberg (Snow Mountain).

Those familiar with the Breite Ries know that it is steep - very steep! Even with today’s infinitely more advanced equipment, the gateway to the couloir of the Breite Ries is a challenge that only experienced skiers attempt. It is hard to imagine what it was like to ski there for the first time in history with Zdarsky’s equipment – no matter how much advanced it was. His success in this comparative ride was striking. With this, his technique and his inventions had proven their superiority in steep terrain.

On March 19, 1905, two months after his historic victory on the Breite Ries, Zdarsky organized the first ever ski slalom race on the slopes of the Muckenkogel with24 people participating. Until today, on the weekend closest to March 19, a nostalgic ski race is organized at the very same slope using the old style equipment: ancient wooden skis, the Lilienfelder Binding and only one stick (rather than two). Today, Zdarsky’s name is still omnipresent in and around Lilienfeld.

You will find a Zdarsky hut, a Zdarsky slope, a hike dedicated to Zdarsky’s inventions (among other things he is credited with inventing the bivy bag and developing an early firstaid kit), a Zdarsky Panorama hike, and Zdarsky’s tomb on his old estate. As almost everywhere in Austria, the next monastery is just around the corner.

Lilienfeld’s Cistercian abbey is particularly beautiful. Founded in 1202 by Leopold VI of Austria, it houses an impressive library, some remarkable relics, a botanical garden, which was established in 1826, and a socalled xylothek. The xylothek (from greek xylos = wood, and theke = repository) is best described as a library of wood. The book-like objects contain specimens of a tree and they are made of the same tree’s wood and bark.

All in all, the monastery’s xylothek consists of some 130 artifacts produced towards the end of the 1700s. Above the monastery, a triangular treeless meadow, surrounded by deep forests will catch your eye: the so-called Spitzbrand. The story goes that the masterbuilder of the monastery sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his support in erecting the abbey. He hoped that he would find a way to trick his way out of the deal with the devil, but did not succeed.

As soon as the monastery was completed, the devil arrived to cash in his prize. He took the master-builder’s soul and escaped through the ceiling. His tail, however, crashed into the mountain above the monastery, cut out a triangle leaving no trees behind. No tree has ever grown on the spot again where the devil’s tail had hit that day. So here is some good advice: if you deal with the devil, you better have a viable exit strategy.


© Markus Reiterer and Mathilde Reiterer-Ertl