Our author attempted to learn the Nordic Combined discipline without any previous experience in this type of sport. He travelled to Tirol for his premiere. He learned how to defeat gravity and the lassitude of one’s own soul. And returned a happier person for it.
Just before my very first jump, just before I plunge into an abyss of ice and fear, I receive a disturbing piece of information. The man who has been explaining the intricacies of ski jumping to me for the past hour, has never done it himself. I had asked my coach Karl Heinz Eder, 45, head of the ski jumping school Wörgler Flughunde, what his first time was like. “There never was one,” Eder replied, “I only came here because my children wanted to try it out. This isn’t for me.” With these words ringing in my ears, Eder leaves to walk down the narrow stairs as I sit alone on the iron bar above the 30-metre high jump.
My gaze follows him as he leaves. I look at my skis. I then look past the tips of my skis at the two tracks that lead steeply down the jump, before they disappear into nowhere. I can see the last part of the snow-covered jump hill. Strictly speaking, this isn’t snow at all, but loosely connected pieces of ice. I look at the tiled roofs of Wörgl, into the smoking chimneys. How I wish I was down there right now.
“What is going through your head right now?” asks Eder. He has to yell the question, because he is already thirty steps down. It makes him sound rather abrupt. “WHAT IS GOING THROUGH YOUR HEAD RIGHT NOW?” The echo reverberates through my mind. Panic attacks, flashes of emotion, shredded thoughts. Maybe Eder is the sensible one to never have jumped? And why does he want me to do it? Why is he the boss of a ski jumping school? Am I going to tear my cruciate ligament? Break my nose, or even my back? How on earth did I get myself into this situation? WHAT IS GOING THROUGH MY HEAD RIGHT NOW?
„Will I break my nose? Or my back?“
I already know the answer to the last question. I was mad about sport as a child. I enjoyed taking part in sport more than watching others doing it. My greatest heroes were the Nordic combined athletes. Pallid, taciturn men who weren’t content with just flying down a jump hill in tight-fitting spaceship enterprise suits. No, they went on to throw themselves into a lung-busting cross-country ski run. This excessive zealousness appealed to me. It is not only the combination of ski jumping and cross-country in the Nordic combined discipline. But the desire to experience fear, the need to push oneself to tortuous limits. It is hard to find anything more demanding for both body and mind. Now aged forty, it seemed to me that the time had finally come to make this dream, or nightmare, come true. I allowed myself one day to learn both ski jumping and cross-country skiing. I had never done either. And Tirol seemed to be a good place to try them out. After all, this is the venue for the Nordic World Ski Championships 2019. The adventure appealed to me. An escape from our cotton-wool society, in which we have kitted ourselves out with three-point seat belts, sofa landscapes and ergonomic mousepads.
My bravado dissipates, however, on the morning of my trip to Tirol. I wake up, without having really slept, which isn’t a great start. In the car, I hope that it breaks down, or that the weather will turn bad, but nothing happens. And when I get out of the car at the Wörgl ski jumping facility, the sun is still shining bright in the sky. It wasn’t particularly easy to find a ski club where a beginner like me can try out his luck. I had to phone around quite a lot. Only the Wörgl-based “Flughunde” were prepared to take me on. I look up at the three ski jumps. It looks as if the mountain is poking its tongue out at me three times over.
Karl Heinz Eder pats me on the shoulder in greeting. It already feels a bit like a stress test: Am I tough enough? Apparently yes. Training begins. To start with, I just ski down the run directly beneath the jump table to get a feel for the skis and the slope. Then the downhill squat: knees bent deeply, back straight, look forwards. Jump training. You jump with your whole foot, not just with the balls of your feet. Lean your upper body forwards. Lift your toes, so the skis point upwards. Somehow it seems the only thing I have to remember are Eder’s words. Then before things start to get serious, I have to sign a disclaimer that waives Flughunde’s liability, should I injure myself, or even die! I understand why this is important for Eder. But that doesn’t make me feel any calmer. “You can’t stop once you’re on the hill, you can’t get off the track with your skis,” says Karl Heinz Eder. “You can’t brake. You have to keep the uncontrollable under control.
This is irritating for a safety-conscious person like me, who checks every morning twice whether the stove is switched off and gets a colleague to proof read every e-mail, to ensure that not even the smallest grammatical error slips through the net. Even while I am sitting on the bar, I consider the fact that I could just give up. But I also don’t know if I can manage to detach the incredibly long skis from behind the bar and place them on the stairs next to me without accident. Besides, I don’t want to make a fool of myself in front of Eder. What is greater, the fear of the jump or the fear of embarrassing myself? And why am I so afraid in the first place? What is this panic all about? Do you really have to put yourself through all this?
„I hear cracks and crunches? Is that the ice? Or are those my bones?“
Without really making the conscious decision to do so, I let go of the beam, squat down and ski into the lane. Oh, oh God, oh God it is steep! I’m getting faster and faster. That’s it, the uncontrollable, but I have no idea how to control it. I hear roaring in my head, or is it the sound of the skis on the track? I race, no, I am being raced, then somebody pulls the jump away suddenly. I am in the air, but then I land on the ground again, it cracks and crunches (the ice? my bones?) I ski down the jump hill, come to a stop somewhere, where the snow turns into a green meadow. I was only in the air for a split second – and I can’t wipe the grin off my face for several minutes. I already start to understand why some people dream of being able to fly.
It’s an age-old dream. Norwegian Sondre Norheim, a skiing pioneer who also built the first ski bindings, managed to jump 30.5 metres over a rock jump back in 1860. The first ski jumping competitions, organised by the king of Norway, took place in the country as early as the 1870s. The first ski jumping outside Norway took place in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, on 2nd February 1891, where a snow-covered manure pile was used as a jump hill. Today there are 20 ski jumps in Tirol alone. They extend steeply into the air, visible from afar. Monuments of human daring.
At some point during the course of the morning at the Wörgl-based “Flughunde” facility, ski jumping develops a bit of a fun factor for me. But I always get one thing wrong. I jump too early. I jump too late. I don’t manage to jump at all. I can’t keep my skis horizontal in the air. Before my tenth and final jump, I spend a little longer sitting on the bar at the top. I try to think of everything I have learned so far. This time when I’m on the jump table, I don’t feel any fear, but rather a state of anxiety, I jump off and let my upper body lean quickly forwards, something propels me into the air. This is high, this is really high. I try and keep balance with my arms, and just as I’m about to start screaming, my skis touch the ground again. Sheer terror causes me to fall on my back and slide down the entire hill and into a plastic fence, which finally brings me to a halt. My jump seemed like 20 metres, but it was only 8.50 metres, says Karl Heinz Eder. But that doesn’t matter. The knowledge of having survived envelopes me in a warm, powerful haze. I feel strong and invincible and throw my arms around my ski-jumping instructor in farewell. I almost feel sorry that he has never experienced this himself (the reasons for which he does not want to share with me. Maybe he felt he was too old when he took his children to Flughunde, or maybe he is just too scared). I feel sorry for all those who have never experienced ski jumping. I would like to do it all over again right now.
But I have to keep going and have an hour’s drive ahead of me to get to Seefeld, host of the Nordic Ski World Championships 2019. 34 lifts and cable cars, 44.5 kilometres of cross-country ski runs, 1,114,937 annual overnight stays, a small town. The young, slim, wholesomely refreshing Hannah Ellgass with her light brown hair and ruddy cheeks suddenly appears in the middle of this world of ski tourists, who stomp around as if they have concrete blocks attached to their feet, alongside traditional clothes shops, real and fake alpine huts and an eclectic mix of functional clothing. A winning smile plays constantly on Hannah’s lips. Hannah says: “So you want to learn cross-country skiing?”
„Long skis are best for this exercise in public ridicule.“
I fall over just trying to get into my bindings. Two narrow skis and two very long ski poles are the perfect equipment for this exercise in public ridicule. It is a challenge in itself to not get entangled in my own gear. I know, of course, that there is no shame in falling over, as long as you get right back up again. But what if I fall over again, before I have even managed to get up properly? A young girl who is being pulled on a sled by her mother along a nearby trail, stares at me intently. Her eyes are filled with dismay, possibly even disdain. Learn to walk yourself first, I think to myself. Why are so many people satisfied with the fact they have learned how to use an oven, get to work without accident and feel uncomfortable at parties during the course of growing up – and feel that is enough in life? Why not try something completely new in middle or even old age? Hannah Ellgass doesn’t teach me the classic cross-country technique, but skating style. You push the edge of one ski diagonally into the snow to push off, and glide forward on the other, while digging down vigorously with both poles at the same time. The pole are used at every step with the 1-1-technique. On only every second with the 2-1-technique. I feel as elegant and lithe as an old deckchair with rusty hinges that you take out of the garden shed and try to open up for the first time after a long and hard winter.
One thing gives me courage. It is not always the most talented athletes that win. People used wooden boards to glide over the snow over 4,000 years ago. The Norwegians even had their very own ski gods, Ullr and Skadi. They probably always used the parallel technique to propel themselves forwards. It was not until the 1970s that a Norwegian policeman, Pauli Siitonen, breached the regular rules: he kept one ski in the track and pushed himself away with the other, the so-called half skating step. Siitonen won several popular races with his technique. American Bill Koch professionalised the “Siitonen step” and won a bronze medal in 1982. The cross-country skiing establishment despised this new technique. But the skating technique established itself in Seefeld of all places, where I am today. An incredibly undulating trail was set for the 1985 World Championships, because nobody believed that it was possible to surmount steep climbs with the skating step. Nevertheless, almost all skaters, including the winner, Sweden’s Gunde Svan used the skating technique. One of the few diehards of the classic style was Greek pop singer Costa Cordalis, who ended up finishing last.
„The ancient Norwegians had two ski gods.“
I walk past Seefeld’s two big jump hills (where I was fortunately not accepted as a beginner!) A training session is currently underway. One athlete after another throws themselves down the slope and is in flight for several seconds, as silent and weightless as the shadows that pull them inexorably down back into the valley. I think back to my 8.50-metre “hop” and can hardly believe what people are actually capable of achieving. Then things suddenly start to work out for me. The trail drops gradually away, I suddenly feel myself start to glide and seem to have much more strength in my arms. I can no longer tell where my hands end and where the ski poles begin. Everything flows as if there were no friction between ski and snow, as if I wasn’t even touching the ground anymore. I normally always worry about something or another. But now I’m at one with myself, and if I have any thoughts at all, I immediately forget them, as they fleet through my head like clouds scudding through the sky.
Hannah Wagner interrupts my euphoria: “How about a little contest at the end?” She suggests a three-kilometre section of the World Championship trail. “Perhaps you can complete it in 15 minutes.” I start and stumble over the first few metres, because I want to prove myself too much. I am completely out of breath after only a third of the section. And then the ascent begins, which seems to lead directly into the horizon. At some point, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to unbuckle my skis and run up the mountain on foot. My shoulders and upper arms are burning, my heart is pounding so much, it feels as if my head may burst.
„I lie in the snow for the second time today, and for the second time it feels great.“
Modern-day man is not only afraid of danger, he is also afraid of effort, so he sits limply on his office chair and couch as if he had no bones. But aren’t we missing something? Do not we need to experience a bit more resistance every so often than just the gentle counter-pressure of a computer keyboard? Isn’t it an adult’s prerogative to let off steam? Isn’t it great to really feel your body? Even when it bellows with pain? I keep going, and keep going, along the downhill run that offers no respite, the next ascent, the long and flat gliding section. A couple of cross-country skiers turn around to look at me because I groan so loudly. This isn’t sport. This is a battle. My mouth is full of blood. Are my lungs bursting? Or have I just bitten my tongue? With sweat running into my eyes, I can hardly see the approaching finish line and almost sprint right into the back of Hannah Ellgass. I fall to the floor. “You took 15 minutes and 8 seconds,” says Hannah Ellgass, “that’s a start.”
I lie in the snow for the second time today, and for the second time it feels great. I can’t tell you when I felt this happy last and enjoy the feeling of my aching muscles. Each and every one of them. Hannah Ellgass stands over me, the evening sun makes her hair shine, I swear it almost looks like she’s got a halo. And she really is a heroine, a role model who has inspired me to excel myself. Karl Heinz Eder did exactly the same. I learned completely new skills and techniques today. And a whole new side to my personality. I conquered my fear, my physical lassitude and the lassitude of my soul. I learned that I am capable of doing much more than I think I am. And this knowledge will help me in everyday life. It may only have been for two moments over the ski jump and on the cross-country ski trail – but I flew twice today.