Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Discipline, Austrian Style: Hiking in the Rain with Pepi Stiegler

I first heard of Pepi Stiegler when I went out to Jackson a few years ago. He's a friend of my friend, Jonathan, and we had been hoping to get in a ski tour all together. The timing didn't quite work out on that visit, and this time, as I was driving up to Jackson, I managed to connect once again with Pepi, and we agreed to meet one morning for a hike.

It turns out that its been raining in Jackson for the last three weeks, much to everyone's dismay. My friend Nato, who loaned me not floor space or a couch but a full on honest to god GUEST ROOM, (for which I said thank you with buttery eggs and my favorite pasta for dinner), is sick of bad weather, over skiing, can't golf in the rain, and feels like he lives in Washington State right now (although his garden looks amazing thanks to all the moisture).

I didn't care that it was raining, to be honest, I've been going a little nuts wanting to ski and hike, and I feel a bit rabid if I don't get outside. I have a rain coat, and I hoped that Pepi would be up for meeting anyway even though it rained all night through the night in a torrential deluge which made the rivers rise significantly.

I had seen some of Pepi's skiing in Jon Jay's "Olympic Holiday", a great picture on the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, where the men's downhill had a hike-in start, and the snow looked like they'd groomed it with a bunch of folks snowplowing old avy debris, it was lumpy and frozen and full of huge chunks of hard snow. The crashes were terrific and terrifying.

Pepi and I met up despite the threatening weather, I was so happy to finally meet him, I'd heard so much about he, and his daughter Resi, who is now recovering from her second knee surgery and is getting ready to go into hard core rehabilitation aimed at getting her back on skis and racing this season.

We hiked from Pepi's house with Natos two dogs, Ruby and Bodi straight up Snowking as the mist turned to drizzle. Pepi is strong and hikes with the regular stride of a confident back country man, despite his 72 years and the fact that he has Multiple Sclerosis to contend with, he is hale and hearty, still every inch the athlete.

Driving over, I hoped that we would have things to talk about, even though we both love to ski, that topic can get easily exhausted, and I was curious where skiing would lead us, what kinds of things we might find to say to each other as we walked along.

As we walked up the trail, the rain increased, and our happiness at being outside amplified. Pepi is easy in his spirit, easy to talk to, and glad to be out and moving around. Every inch the gentleman, he checked in with me frequently to see if I was up for an adventure in the rain, as it began to come down with a purpose when we started into the switchbacks. The rain and the excellent company just made me want to hike more, and we headed up into the clouds with the two dogs loping along ahead of us and not another soul in sight.

We found common ground in our training back grounds, although Pepi lived it at a much higher level than I did, and was a member of the incredibly disciplined Austrian ski team, and we started to chat about discipline in training ski instructors, a topic I feel a bit passionate about.

I believe in hard work and in training with intent to learn as much as I can, to gain a continuously evolving clearer and clearer understanding of every aspect of the sport, whatever that sport may be, including ferreting out your proclivities for blocking learning and removing them.

Pepi told me that he feels that while he loves discipline and comes from a very disciplined environment, that is not what the American public wants, they want FUN.

I told him that I agree, the public wants fun. And it is the instructors job to teach the public how to have the MOST fun. How to be a great skier, how to play in the snow well.

But I also feel that while the public can say, hey, make it fun, the instructors should be lining up for discipline. We shouldn't be whining that its not fun. It is our job to learn and understand the concepts, to dig deeper to ask more, to find the process of discovery and the discipline to train fun in and of itself. To put ourselves in the same position as our clients all the time robs us of a certain level of professional obligation.

Yes, skiing in and of itself is fun. Great trainers can make the hardest work fun, which makes working hard that much easier. But there is something to asking more from ourselves because this is our job. Being willing to get to work, to apply some discipline, to go again and again, to be able to withstand critique and criticism.

I think that being able to understand what our clients want does not remove our obligation to understand our sport and passion to its depths. The season is short. There is work to be done. To have the vast knowledge that we all need in order to communicate well with our clients, we need a modicum of discipline. We need to be willing to get to work. And we need to be able to take the work we've done and translate it into the language of the guest, applying knowledge we have gained through specific, disciplined work, investigation, and training to the every day language of play in the snow.

Pepi and I talked about this, about what it was like to train at an Olympic training center, versus what it is like to take the average PSIA clinic, versus what it is like to be a member of the paying public. We had a wide ranging conversation, which was fascinating, while we tromped up onto the ridge in the pouring rain.

We did acknowledge that perhaps we are coming from a different perspective than many, Pepi made a remark like; "Just two crazy athletes jabbering on about discipline while hiking through freezing rain for hours while everyone else is inside." I noted that they were either smarter than we were or missing out on the lovely sensation of hiking in the rain with good company. Pepi unscrewed his thermos and we enjoyed a mug of steaming milky tea under the umbrella of some pine trees after gaining the small summit.

These days, Pepi is touring more than skiing in-bounds, the footage I've seen of him skiing, in Olympic Holiday and in Dick Barrymore's "Last of the Ski Bums" was all of him hucking himself off of huge cornices in leather boots. Pepi could go big. I love to watch these films, his ability to carry the line without reaching for the landing, his willingness to live in the air is breathtaking.

When the snow flies again, you can bet I'll be knocking on his door. We made some tentative plans to go ski around in the Beartooths next season, and tour around Colorado a bit in the spring as well. Fingers crossed, I have a new ski buddy, we move at about the same pace, and we both like to hike in the rain.

It was an honor and a privilege and a thrill to hike along side him, and even better to realize hes another friend, someone who wants to live his life outside, share it with his kids, kill his tv, and share his tea.

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