I found my first winter alone on a mountain in the Alps near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It was there I lost contact with some girls I wanted to talk to, German girls the age of
university students (I was young then), laughing and poking fun at each other. In typical fasching style they had balloons on their ski poles. One of them wore a Viking helmet, another a two-pointed clown hat and still another had large breasts painted over her sweater. Another yelled at me in a lovely German accent, "My name is Gabby. I'll see you down below. Let's talk!" She'd known immediately I was American. She was tanned and smiled broadly from under her navy ski hat, shapely in a bright yellow ski suit. I was interested.
Her friends laughed at her and they shouted directions to each other in German and then started bickering over which way was right. I took the ski trail on the left. They followed me at first, but must have turned off course.
I never saw them again.
Thinking the girls would catch up, I stopped at a turnout on the trail. A few minutes later it was clear they had taken another direction. I cheered myself that it didn't matter; the trails would merge down below, and hopefully I would catch them. In any case, the day had turned sunny, and the sky a deep, high-altitude darkening blue. Against this, gray granite peaks reached above the snow. It was so clear up there that I could see plumes of fine powder snow drifting off the rocks like spiraling steam. It was deceptively soft-looking, almost feathery. But I'm always suspicious when things seem too clear. The winds had to be hard up there, bitterly cold, and the fine, drifting white reminded me of something else, but I couldn't focus my memory on what the comparison was. I'd think about it later. I lowered my ski glasses and continued to slip down the run, with the wind beginning to rap and ruffle in my ears.
I began to perspire and became breathless in the thin mountain air. A cloud of fog, long and worm-like was coming up from a ravine just below me, and I dropped into its darkness for some moments, feeling the sudden cold, and then flashed again into sudden brilliant daylight. But the trail narrowed, and veered between two steep walls of snow, and there I was struck by a profound silence. Again it was cold. All sound, even that of the wind, was muffled. The trail-tunnel created a darkness and cast a premonition of loss into the air. The fir trees above, medium and dark green, were on a higher level above the icy walls at this stage in the course — tall, distant, and processional, like priests standing in a stiff ritual. They looked down at me, seemingly unimpressed and disdainful of my irrelevant size, age and weight. The walls of white closed around me, leaving very little light, and only enough space to maneuver straight down.
I was alone and felt swallowed.
In this dark, dreamlike state which lasted at least five minutes, I wondered if I were actually conscious, and was afraid that this vertigo had actually overcome me. But the darkness shot me suddenly into blazing light, a broad boulevard of snow and a major run to the base below. The Alpine valley, with its chalets, mosaics of colorful parked cars, descending mountains and trees all around looked static, peaceful and solid. I stopped to admire the view. It was then I heard a sound like thunder, welling up from below, and up into my body. A few skiers who had stopped below looked at each other, and talked inaudibly, except that I heard the word, "avalanche." With all thoughts quieted by this summary judgment, I skied down to the lodge, and stopped for lunch, waiting for a report. Ravenously hungry, I ate bratwurst and sauer kraut on the sun-warmed deck. Leaning back lazily, I looked up to see a trembling jetliner being consumed by an approaching cloud. But the warmth and food were satisfying. I fell asleep, and woke an hour or so later to see that the lifts had been stopped. A waiter came by, asking if I'd ordered glüwein and germknodle. I said no, but I'd take it anyway.
Polizei were arriving in big green utility vehicles and ambulances began to pull up, their blue lights flickering. Some men were arguing below and a woman was shrieking and pointing at the mountain, tears running down her ruddy face and flattening the fur lining on her ski jacket. Rescue teams, looking like military squads in their coveralls, wasted no time in mounting the ski lifts, with very long skis, shovels and bright orange sleds, their radios popping on and off, with loud, sputtering bursts of German breaking the crowd's chatter. And then there was an announcement in German: "Ladies and gentlemen: The ski lifts are closed. There has been an avalanche. Please leave the skiing areas to make room for the rescue teams."
The polizei deployed out into the parking lot and the street below directing cars into special lanes. Horns began piping. An explosion of activity was erupting bordering on panic, and I watched in a dream-like state as a millipede of metal pushed its way to the autobahn. More clouds moved in and it became cold. Many skiers stayed on, anxiously awaiting the return of relatives or just a sense of outcome. Some talked nervously and kept glancing back at the mountain. Some found humor and laughed defiantly. And then I thought back on the plume of snow drifting into the sky at the top of the mountain. The same fine, rising shape had come off a bull I'd seen in the San Joaquin one winter. He was prancing nervously in a yard, as I watched while leaning on a country fence. He came nearby and it made me very uncomfortable. He passed with a bulbous stony glare. He seemed to be looking for something, perhaps a target, and the steam curled off his back into the winter air. He was all body, triumphantly muscular and propelled by an appetite for — who knows what? The earth shook as he passed, a thumping, rumbling noise not unlike the sound I'd heard today — the sound of ponderous weight underfoot, like that of the avalanche. I thought of the minotaur, the Greek mythical bull-monster whose hunger could only be assuaged by eating children. And here at this mountain, with a physicality suggesting a bull in winter, and a labyrinth of ski trails, thick woods and icy passages, young women may have been taken, too.
The first stretcher came down on the lift with two rescuers ready to release it to the ambulance crews. Covered in blankets with white fingers overlapping, it was no one recognizable to me. I was looking for a hint of yellow, Gabby's marker for the day, hoping, of course that she was not among the victims, and hoping for a conversation. And then came the announcement, first in German and then in English, "If you have no business here, please leave now, so the teams have room to work." I waited anyway, until compelled away by an inquisitive look from a polizist. I clumped off in my boots and hailed a taxi. At the pension, I packed up my books, cigars and brandy and walked to the bahnhof.
That night I rode the train to Munich where I took another pension. I went out to eat schweinehaxe and sip dunkelbrau, then walked in the cold night air, stopping at a few bars to hear music. Fasching was going into full swing at this point and garlands of revelers were everywhere. I saw a group of men and women coming out of a beer hall, staggering and laughing and pushing. One man got down on his knees and a woman in green sweater, her face glowing red, hoisted a bottle and mounted his back. Then the woman next to them got down on her knees and a man mounted on her back. The couples shrieked with laughter and stumbled on.
As I walked alone, I heard giggling and sensed a happy mischief between men and women and gays in the shadows of parked cars and unlit doorways. The myths of Bacchanalian revelry and the preying monsters that ravaged country sides seemed more real to me than ever. Only these "myths" would probably last longer and would have more permanence and truth than the headlines I was to read at the Stuttgart bahnhof the next day, where the papers would be filled with the sweet, cynical faces of lost youth; the deaths of five young girls was a story reverberating throughout Bavaria and then Baden Wuerttemberg — a potential national tragedy.
I considered the mountain again, or the bull or the minotaur or whatever it was, and began to understand such revelry. It wasn't just about music and drinking and sex, but about the warmth of action and pleasure and friendship in the face of an unknown surrounding coldness, which can snatch a young girl up from a ski trip, or obliterate a city — both organisms being fragile and good and beautiful, like delicate spirals of snow lifted into a dark blue sky, which becomes black as it reaches into winter, endless winter.