The Powder Library: At Ease
U.S. soldiers get some R&R while skiing in Germany
Editor’s Note: Here at POWDER HQ, we’re sitting on a wealth of archive gold—more than 40 years of recorded skiing history. Rather than let those stories collect dust, we’ve decided to resurface our finest work from decades past. Here are transcribed words from stories published in past issues of POWDER. This story was published in 2008 (Volume 37, Issue 2).
WORDS: Tom Bie, PHOTOS: Mattias Fredriksson
On July 16, 2004, Army Staff Sergeant Arthur Mastrapa was waiting to use the Internet at Camp Anaconda, Iraq, about 45 miles north of Baghdad. Mastrapa was part of the Army Reserves 351st Military Police Company, which had been in Iraq for over 15 months. He was hoping to get online for a few minutes so he could finish booking a cruise for his wife’s upcoming birthday. Half of his unit had gone home the previous day.
“We were just walking around, going to the PX [Post Exchange], using the Internet,” says his friend, Staff Sergeant Michael Porter. “We all thought we’d made it.” But Mastrapa didn’t make it. An enemy mortar round hit the PX, killing him and two other soldiers. He was scheduled to fly home the following morning.
Sergeant Porter is telling me this story from the lounge of the Edelweiss Lodge in Garmisch, Germany—one of five Armed Forces Recreation Center (AFRC) resorts around the globe, and the only one located in the mountains. (The others are in Virginia Beach, Orlando, Waikiki, and Seoul.) He and a couple friends are here on leave, taking part in the Edelweiss’ “Operation R&R”—rest and recuperation—program, which gives active-duty soldiers the opportunity to stay at a European ski lodge for a fraction of what it would cost elsewhere. He wears a black memory bracelet with Mastrapa’s name on it—a constant reminder of his friend, and an all-too-common accoutrement on the wrist of American soldiers.
“This is exactly why R&R is so important,” Porter says. “Many of us have been through bad times, and you’ve got to decompress. You’ve got to. Especially if you can do it with your family. Because if you don’t see your family at some point during a tour, it can be really hard to reconnect.”
The AFRC used to operate four hotels in southern Germany—the General Patton and General Von Steuben Hotels in Garmisch; the Chiemsee Hotel on Lake Chiemsee; and the General Walk in Berchtesgaden. Each has served as a vacation getaway for thousands of skiing soldiers since the AFRC was established in the winter of 1945-46. In the spring of 2000, Army brass and Congress approved plans to consolidate, giving the four existing hotels back to Germany, and spending $80 million to build a new one—the Edelweiss. It was finished in 2004, just in time to provide a modern European escape for those serving in Iraq, which is only a short six-hour flight from Munich. Garmisch sits about 60 miles from Munich and 35 miles from Innsbruck.
Other than the name, there isn’t much German about the Edelweiss. Long, plain hallways lead to relatively drab rooms, a Starbucks sits downstairs, and the breakfast menu looks like it’s from Denny’s. Only dollars are accepted. In other words, it looks just how the soldiers want it to look. It looks like America.
Porter exemplifies many who are here: He’s a skier who grew up on the slopes near Lake Tahoe, California. His father was in the Air Force, stationed near Tahoe; his brother was in the Coast Guard; both grandfathers were in the Navy. He started skiing at a young age, and he is like many of the thousands of soldiers who have lived or visited Garmisch-Partenkirchen since the Allied forces took control of the region in World War II—he just wants to ski in Europe.
I was one of those visiting soldiers myself in the mid 1980s, having come down and skied on several occasions while stationed near Frankfurt, staying mostly at the General Walker in Berchtesgaden. But I didn’t really need the break. Being a U.S. soldier in Germany in the ’80s was akin to 18 months of discothèque duty—a European vacation with benefits. Today’s military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan has plenty to escape from. And nothing makes a skiing soldier feel farther away from the desert of the Middle East than dropping into a foot of fresh powder in the Bavarian Alps.
It’s early March and snowing hard in Grainau, a small village just south of the Garmisch that sits at the base of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. It’s been a good year in the Alps, snow-wise, but spring temperatures the previous week had pushed into the 60s, so the late season storm cycle is a welcome return to the winter. The tram that normally brings skiers up from the base at Eibsee Lake isn’t running, so I board the old cog railcar that slowly inches its way up and through the mountain itself, to a large amphitheater called the Zugspitzplatt.
Ten lifts are scattered about an enormous bowl, which sits above tree line and is relatively featureless, like the top of Loveland in Colorado, or the upper reaches of Oregon’s Mount Hood. It’s still early in the morning so the runs are un-crowded, allowing me to open it up Super-G style through boot-top powder, down a series of rollovers and gullies that eventually bring me to the bottom and to a lonely-looking liftie. Poking around the periphery of the runs, I find a number of steep side slopes where various kickers prove that the do-it-yourself freestyle scene is alive and well in Southern Germany.
As the morning unfolds and the snow continues to fall, more skiers who’ve braved the glacial pace of the cog train trickle down the mountain. I soon come across a small group of skiers and snowboarders wearing the telltale sign of the visiting soldier: desert camo. I approach them at the bottom of the lift, and on the ride up, learn that two of them (the two not wearing camo), are active-duty soldiers visiting from Iraq.
“We first called here like a month ago,” the tall one tells me. “And they said they were all booked. But when I told them I was deployed, they told me I could come anyway, that they’d make room.”
Therein lies one of the key components of the R&R program: They will always make room for those deployed. “General Bell contacted us about a year in to the war,” says Edelweiss marketing director Brad Hays, “about the same time the Edelweiss was being finished, and said, ‘We need to come up with a special program that works.’”
The program that came of those discussions provides two nights lodging, two dinners, and two breakfasts for $120 for a single, lower-ranking service-member. The program is only available to active-duty members serving at least a 12-month assignment in support of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Balkans. The program also lengthened the amount of leave time for solders coming out of Iraq, from four days to 10 days. “That changed everything,” Hays says. “Before that, all any of them had time to do was go to Kuwait or maybe hang at Saddam’s palace for a couple days.”
Though the bulk of visitors to the Edelweiss are in the Army, any member of the Armed Forces or “Friend of the Defense Department” can stay at the hotel. Captain Anthony Lewin is an Air Force fighter pilot from Park City who also flies commercially for Southwest Airlines. He’s served six tours in Iraq while on active duty with the National Guard. (Air Force units go for much shorter tours—four months at a time—because the airplanes require so much maintenance in the desert.)
Lewin is also a real skier and a testament to the sometimes-circuitous route people take to get to the military. He grew up in Breckenridge, where his mom was an instructor at Peak 9. He attended Breckenridge High School and skied in the 1980s for the Summit County race team. Then it was on the New Mexico Military Institute (where he was Owen Wilson’s troop commander). Finally he got an Air Force ROTC scholarship at New Mexico State. But timing was a problem.
“The moving Top Gun had just come out, so there was a six-year wait to become an Air Force pilot,” Lewin says. “I just couldn’t wait that long.” Instead, he punched out his junior year and entered Navy Flight School in Pensacola, Florida. “I graduated there and was flying F-18s a year later.”
He flew combat support in Somalia and in Desert Storm during the first Gulf War, “chasing bad guys out of the no-fly zone in Southern Iraq.” Lewin says there’s something special about Garmisch and the Edelweiss that goes far beyond the price breaks.
“Most of the military guys aren’t skiers because they don’t come from ski-demographic places,” Lewin says. “But the ones who come here with their young families, it’s an honor just to spend time with them. Especially the pilots—those guys live like vampires, taking off at night and going to bed at dawn. You go to another resort and you’re just another short-haired guy. Here, you have something in common. There’s camaraderie.”
By midweek, the storm has dropped nearly two feet of snow and is showing no signs of letting up. I head to Hausberg, the closest ski area to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. (Hitler commanded the mayors of the two towns to combine their names prior to the 1936 Olympics.)
There are two ways for skiers to access each of the five peaks that run north to south from the low point of Hausberg (4,355 feet), mere blocks from downtown Garmisch, to the high point of the Zugspitze (9,718 feet). You can ride the Zugspitzbahn—a small ski train that stops at the base of each hill—or you can ride a tram up anywhere along the way and take a series of ski trails and smaller lifts from the one peak to the next.
I opt for the peak-to-peak skiing option, starting at the Hausberg and ending at the 6,663-foot Osterfelderkopf. I find plenty of powder along the way, especially in the trees on either side of the famous Kandahar Downhill course on the Kreuzjoch. Above Kreuzjoch, I find an oversized playground of ridgelines, chutes, and gullies running down from the front of the Alpspitzbahn. Then I head to the top of the Osterfelderkopf to explore an ample supply of midday, untouched snow. The view from the tram reveals plenty of unskied lines out of the eastern side of the window. Ten minutes later I am looking down on the town of Garmisch and the Edelweiss Lodge, scoring face shots through the trees. It is 2 p.m.
Back at the Edelweiss that night I meet Captain Jeremy Singleton, a poster boy for military baddass-ness. Singleton is a strong, stocky West Point grad from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is the commander of a Blackhawk battalion in Iraq, a position that comes with significant responsibilities beyond protection of the troops under his command.
“Basically you’re signing for $150 million in inventory, and that goes down to every bolt and widget,” he tells us. “But I’m also responsible for the well-being of 60 people. Every facet of their lives is now yours. I have wives writing me emails. It’s hard. And because of that, it becomes even more important to take time off for yourself.”
Singleton started skiing when he was 6 in Pennsylvania’s Poconos, before moving on to Vermont, New Hampshire, and the family’s annual ski trip to Colorado. His parents lived in Switzerland for three years when they first stared dating.
“My mom took a job over here as a dental hygienist and my dad followed her because he wanted to be with my mom,” he says. “So they got the skiing bug big-time. Now I’m here to ski with my parents for the first time in nine years.”
As Singleton and I prepare for a night out in Garmisch, he tells us about the time snow fell in Baghdad. “It was the first time in recorded history,” he says. It only came down for a couple minutes, but we were all out there filming it because you just can’t comprehend how hot it gets there. We flew one day when it was 131 degrees. It’s like a convection oven—one big hair dryer. Then you put on your gear and get in the helicopter and you add another five degrees. I’ll go through two gallons of water in a six-hour mission and never even us the bathroom—just sweat it all out. So yeah, snow feels pretty good.”
The morning after my night out with Captain Singleton, the snow is deeper than it’s been all week. I head back to the Osterfelderkopf, where terrain features and powder pockets are now familiar. I find a surprising amount of untouched lines, and the three-day-old snow is still soft under my skis. Germany is likely the fourth or fifth country skiers would select as a European destination. But after floating through a five-day storm here, Garmisch has moved up on my list.
One of the not-so-secret secrets of European skiing is that locals rarely venture off-piste, leaving everything beyond the trail map for the rest of us. Germany is no different, so it doesn’t take much wandering to find untouched snow on my final run. Dodging in and out of the trees, through shaded pockets of fluff with half-empty gondola cars passing overhead, I was surprised to find so many quality turns late in the day and late in the season. And I felt lucky knowing that, unlike Captain Singleton, I could always come back tomorrow.
I find Singleton eating with his brother and mom back at the lodge after he’d spent his first day on the slopes with them. I ask him how it went and he responds, “I’m not looking forward to leaving, I can tell you that.”
I sit with them for a while and we talk about the snow and life in the States. Toward the end of the conversation I can see anxiety on Singleton’s face. “You’ll hear guys say that you need to be prepared before you come to a place like this, and now I know what they mean,” he says. “Even the super hard-cores, the guys who swear they love it over there will admit it. After a few days in the snow, it can feel almost impossible to go back.”
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