Skiing originated in Europe thousands of years ago, according to archaeological finds including Norse sagas and cave drawings depicting individuals atop thin slats of wood.
In the beginning, skiing simply provided an efficient means of conveyance in cold, snowy places, particularly in Russia and Scandinavia. The practice caught on in the 18th century when the Norwegian army formed ski squads and held competitive races, with skiers darting down hills and between trees.
Today, while skiing is popular worldwide, Europe remains the sport’s epicenter, dominating the World Cup ski circuit.
Those stationed with the U.S. military in Europe will find ample opportunity to enjoy skiing, from the majestic Alps and the Sierra Nevadas in southern Spain to a pair of indoor ski venues in The Netherlands. And while skiing itself doesn’t change between the U.S. and Europe, the attitude about the sport does.
In Europe, skiing or snowboarding might be the focus of a winter trip, but nearly as important is the après ski scene. The possibilities are vast, since so many ski areas are stocked with bars and more bars. Two of the coolest winter watering holes in the Alps are the Parasol patio bar in Kaprun, Austria, and Rifugio Lagazuoi, the nifty stone inn on the summit of Mount Lagazuoi in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
In Europe, “it’s not just about skiing,” said Steve Engle, president of the Heidelberg International Ski Club. “It’s about the whole experience, and the resorts cater to that.”
Engle has seen skiers in Europe sporting their stiff boots and puffy suits as they sluggishly dance the night away. Back in the States, skiers would have returned to their hotel rooms after a day on the slopes to change clothes. Over here, Engle said, après ski matters as much as how much snow is on the ground.
“The ambience is different,” Engle said.
Chris Winne of Stuttgart’s Patch Ski Club agrees.
“In Europe, the après ski is much more vibrant than in most (ski) areas in the U.S.,” Winne said. “You have folks coming to the Alps from all over the world.”
Winne pointed out another difference: the alpine glaciers, which can extend the regular ski season by a couple of months, from October to May, at the very minimum.
“You can have virtually a year-round ski experience,” he said.
Winne also said skiers will find more diversity in Europe’s ski resorts than those in the United States. For example, some routes in Europe, depending on the time of year and the amount of snow, can take skiers down an occasional country road or two. In many cases, he added, towns are interconnected.
In the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, for example, it is easy to ski into three villages — Grindelwald, Mürren and Wengen — all on the same day. And at some resorts, skiers can go from one Alpine nation . One example is Portes du Soleil, France, where it’s not uncommon for a skier to spend part of the day in France and part of the day in Switzerland.
Engle said another difference is that European resorts tend not to have quite as much high-tech equipment to quickly transport people up the mountain, relying more on chairlifts and T-bars.
Doug Hasselbring, a Navy morale, welfare and recreation coordinator in Rota, Spain, said Americans new to the European ski scene might be surprised there is skiing opportunities in his corner of the Continent.
“Skiing in Spain sounds crazy,” Hasselbring said. “You don’t think of snow skiing and Spain.”
Prior to Rota, Hasselbring frequented the Big Bear ski resort in California, where snowboarding, especially among the young, is dominant. He believes Americans might be astonished at how popular conventional Alpine skiing remains in Europe. He says that while snowboarding is popular in Europe, it is not as popular as it is in the U.S.
“In Europe, it’s still popular to ski, even among the young,” Hasselbring said.
One of the big benefits of skiing in Europe is the broad selection of places from which to choose. Ski clubs that exist to serve U.S. military personnel typically offer affordable weekend trips, usually costing no more than a few hundred dollars for bus transport, lodging and ski passes. Common destinations are Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France.
While the trips offered by military ski clubs are an excellent option, striking out on your own is doable, too.
Here the options run the gamut, from the indoor ski venue in Landgraaf, Netherlands, conveniently located over the border from Germany and Belgium, to hoity-toity places such as Cortina d’Ampezzo, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1956.
Skiing Cortina d’Ampezzo and other trendy spots is certainly worth the time, but it’s wise to shop around before booking accommodations. Also, avoid, if possible, booking a ski trip on holidays and three-day weekends, when prices are high and lift lines run long.
Perhaps more than any other Alpine country, Germany is the powder place that draws the most Americans, definitely within the U.S. military community. South of Munich, not far from the Austrian border, is Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
The twin towns hosted the 1936 Winter Olympics. Today, Garmisch is home to the U.S. military’s Edelweiss Lodge and Resort. Situated near the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, the lodge attracts thousands of U.S. military and civilian personnel each winter season.
From Garmisch-Partenkirchen, it’s just a short hop into Austria.