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Journey to the Arlberg, skiing's `Mecca'

It is interesting to arrive in the ``cradle of Alpine skiing'' just after 11 feet of new snow, especially in a heretofore snow-starved European winter. Skiers appear from everywhere. And inevitably, they all congregate on the one piste that you happen to be skiing. I have not figured out why with 360 kilometers of groomed and ungroomed runs sprawling across the white expanse that is the Arlberg, everyone wants to ski where I am.

The first afternoon, visibility is terrible. I am at the top of the Kapall chair lifts trying to locate ``down.'' Several inches of powder cover tricky little moguls, but it makes no difference because you can't see anything anyway. A bunch of kids spot me making cautious traverses and immediately launch an attack. They come at me in a wedge, all screaming as if totally out of control. I laugh as they fly by and disappear in a cloud. This is the Arlberg; the kids could probably ski a cliff on a moonless night.

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You get the feeling that something calls people to the Arlberg the same way swallows are called to Capistrano. A girl getting off the afternoon train asks directions to the tourist office. She has just come in from Sweden. One of our groups comes upon a 92-year-old gentleman from suburban New York who is spending the winter here . . . skiing, of course.

``This is Mecca,'' explains an affable Briton as together we pull our ski boots off in relief while sitting in the basement ski room of the Hotel Rosanna. He has been waiting 20 years to return, he says. In the interim he has been skiing in Norway, where he moved 15 years ago. Laughing, he seems to find a link between the longing to return to ``Mecca'' and the Norwegians' love of snow. ``When the glaciers started to retreat to the polar cap after the ice age and everybody else stayed south, it was we, you know, who turned around and followed the ice.''

With both railroad and highway tunnels beneath it, the Arlberg is one of the world's most famous Alpine passes. At less than 9,000 feet in altitude, it is thousands of feet lower than Colorado's Loveland Pass. But its weather -- the roads had been closed for two days before we got in -- its incredible cirque of treeless, skiable mountains, and its history give the Arlberg a unique place among mountains and skiers.

Along with the slopes above Murren and Wengen, Switzerland, where the British Ski Club wintered, this is where modern Alpine skiing was born, where it got its ``name.'' It was here the legendary Hannes Schneider laid the ground rules for the modern ski school. He started the group system of instruction and developed the stem turn into the ``Arlberg technique,'' which was probably the principal method of Alpine ski instruction until the late 1950s.

The list of great racers out of the 85-year-old Arlberg Ski Club reads like a who's who of skiing: the Gabls -- Pepi, Franz, and Gertrud; Othmar Schneider; and the great former World Cup champion Karl Schranz, who has directed the famous Arlberg ski school since 1975.

It was here that the first Arlberg-Kandahar downhill race was run, the outcome of a pact between Hannes Schneider and Great Britain's Sir Arnold Lunn, inventor of the slalom. The locals say that was on March 3-4, 1928. But this year, being the 50th anniversary of many facets of Alpine skiing, was to be celebrated as the golden anniversary of the race, which is now a World Cup event. The Arlberg weather, however, was perverse; in fact, the January race had to be canceled because of too much snow.

That was when we arrived, and the atmosphere around St. Anton seemed charged. The people who come to St. Anton to ski are the people who relish challenge. You can feel it in the air. This is Challenge City below Macho Mountain.

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The neighboring villages and valleys -- all linked together, more or less, by 72 lifts and a common ski pass (about $14 to $19 a day, depending on number of days) -- are renowned attractions in their own right. Lech has fine hotels, a charming village, miles of intermediate and advanced pistes, and probably more Americans (10 percent) than any other Austrian resort. Tiny Zurs has posh hotels with pastry carts laid out for apr`es-ski tea. St. Christoph has the famed Arlberg Hospiz Hotel, an intimate five-star oasis that is the frequent base for European royalty on ski holiday.

But St. Anton has the steep inclines -- and the skiers who love them. Our ski instructor-guide was a pleasant youth named Jan (say ``Yahn''), and I knew immediately he was the kind who likes to warm up on the steepest black (expert) run he can find. The crowds on the Galzig cable car were huge. We had to take numbers to ride the last leg to the Valluga, the Arlberg's highest and steepest skiing.

Jan led us across a long catwalk trail. I would like to have an Austrian schilling for every catwalk I skied in a week in the Alps. The Alps is definitely not yo-yo skiing. It is traveling distances, with lots of long schusses, often followed by interminable T-bar rides. Getting a ski instructor-guide definitely makes sense, even if he gravitates to ungroomed black runs, as Jan does.

Now, we are below the Mattun Joch in a large bowl of unpacked snow cut up by the Valluga's eager skiers. St. Anton's 50 grooming vehicles obviously don't make it up this far. I give up worrying about the proficiency of my jump turns and instead consider how far I can slide on my back. Besides, it's steeper than it looks.

Somehow, we make it back to the T-bar without even losing a ski. Jan promises an easier route next time, but you couldn't prove it by me. We seem to pass some nice packed cruising runs, but never quite get on them. Then I realize this is the time and place for challenge, not cruising.

The following day the wind is so fierce we can't make it onto the Valluga. We have to settle for warm-up runs on the Arlberg-Kandahar downhill. But the sun is again shining brilliantly, and my skis are at last running well. They run even better when we ski over to St. Christoph for lunch at the Hospiz.

Sometime after the poached salmon, when I'm gazing at the fabled names of Arlberg Ski Club champions carved on the dining room wall, I understand. This is Mecca.

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