Midwest Sportsters (especially Alpine skiers) fortunate enough to participate in this coming September’s trip to Vienna, Budapest and Prague will hopefully be able to reserve at least part of one day of the Vienna leg of the trip to visit the birthplace of downhill skiing, as we know it, in nearby Lilienfeld, Austria, just 40 miles west of Vienna.
I had the honor and privilege to film and write about Lilienfeld when I first visited that charming village in the late 1970s. Anyone who cares even the tiniest bit about Alpine skiing should put Lilienfeld on his or her “bucket list”.
A Czech émigré named Mathis Zdarsky (his cousin lives in Coon Rapids, Minnesota) moved to Lilienfeld in the late 1800s. He was a true Renaissance Man, having invented solar heating for swimming pools, accomplished as a farmer and so much more. He also liked to ski, but felt the Scandinavians who visited Lilienfeld to
ski Lilienfeld’s 9,000-foot-elevation mountain, the Mockenkugl, were doing it “all wrong” with their “skinny-skis”. Telemarking, he felt, had to be improved.
Zdarsky created wide skis, the precursor to those on which we ski today, including parabolics, which replicate Zdarsky’s idea even more. He also invented bear trap bindings. With his new skis and bindings, after years of perfection and manufacture,
Zdarsky began offering free skiing lessons every weekend to any Viennese who would take the 40-minute train ride to Zdarsky’s farm hill on which they would ski, then herringbone up the hill to ski again. I had the honor to ski that hill in 1979 and 1985, at the bottom of which Zdarsky is buried, surrounded by a white picket fence. It’s like skiing at a shrine, which it truly is, to Alpine skiers.
The King of Norway traveled to Lilienfeld in 1901 to investigate Zdarsky’s inventions and new skiing methods and proclaimed Zdarsky to be the father of modern-day skiing. Zdarksy also created the world’s first slalom course and races, with skiers using only one pole instead of two, to navigate that Mockenkugl course’s 80 gates.
A museum was established in the early 20th century to extol the virtues of Zdarsky’s ski-oriented achievements and I had the honor to write the words on a plaque that still hangs in the museum, stating the “United States Ski Writers Association proudly acknowledges and applauds Mathias Zdarsky for his singular achievements creating Alpine skiing as we know and enjoy it today”. The United States Ski Writers Association, (USSWA) of which I’ve been a member since 1971, has now morphed into the North American Snowsports Journalists Association (NASJA).
If you DO have the good fortune to visit Lilienfeld, even for only a couple hours, please contact my friend Heinz Eppensteiner, who heads the Lilienfeld Tourist Bureau and will be thrilled to welcome you. Heinz speaks impeccable English and would be delighted to meet you, especially if you’re from Minnesota! If you do connect with Heinz, please give him my best wishes. We exchange Christmas cards every year.
Bottom line: Visiting Lilienfeld, the Zdarsky Museum and Zdarsky’s final resting place will be the most significant visit you’ll ever make, attuned to Alpine skiing.
Just visiting Vienna will, in itself, provide you with goosebumps filled with history. If you can, take in an opera at the Stadtsoper, visit as many historic sites as possible and consume as much schnitzel and kraut as humanly possible (not an Austrian combined recommendation, but I like that combination!).
Safe and happy travels!
Editor’s note: You can reach Barry at [email protected]. He welcomes ideas for future columns and is available as a speaker at club functions