Peter Kray is a good writer. So when he told me he had a “ski novel” in the works, I figured it could easily be something beyond the script writing in “Aspen Extreme.”
I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I ended up with eyeballs locked to Kray’s pages the same way I look ahead to each turn in the steeps.”The God of Skiing” is good crazy — a mix of autobiography and fantasy that’ll have you both nodding your head and asking “did that really happen?” Or even thinking, “sounds familiar!”
The tale begins with fictional Tack Strau, a sort of Bode Miller great “white” hope for ski racing. Only Tack (just like Bode only worse) takes a beater career ending fall that sends him back to free skiing. This after he escapes from the hospital in some mysterious fashion we only find out about later. That’s page five.
The idea here is Kray weaves the story of Strau into his tell-all, as a sort of muse. Only this spirit skis hard, beautiful and edgy. Strau is the skier we all want to be, and lives the life that every deep down in the lizard-brain self absorbed adrenaline junky philosopher glisser wants. No, needs.
The tale continues with Kray’s journey. As a teenager with his parents, he begins as what we call in Colorado a “franger,” short for Front Ranger. That generally means a guy who lives in the city and drives to the closest real ski mountain. In this case with friends owning a house near the slopes where ski instructors played guitar and rolled cigar sized joints. Soundtrack: Beach Boys and Beatles. Long time ago.
What’s sweet about Kray’s take on Vail is for him “that time never happened.” That time in the 1970s when sex was easy (it really was, easier), all night keg parties raged (must still happen) and Jack Nicholson would sit next to you at a bar in Aspen with his sunglasses on at two in the morning (been there). Instead, what happened was his young crew would wake in the dark to get first chair “before the air was oiled with the smell of cigarettes, coffee and cocoa butter sunscreen.” Then they’d ski till patrol sweep and exit just ahead of the red jackets swooping down from above like so many kites in the sunset.
College comes soon. St. Lawrence University, bump skiing at Stowe and a more “adult” balance between women and skiing. That’s when Tack reappears, or at least a likeness. Kray finds a shrine in the tree grove where Strau took his near fatal ski racing crash. With imaginary cheers blasting his ears, he skis to the base village bar and on to life as an “adult” ski bum. Meaning he goes to Jackson. Meaning that’s where Strau is found, eating a “Wyoming power bar in the tram line, with his gloves on.”
This is where I really began enjoying the tale. How much is tall and how much is real I don’t know for sure, but guessing is fun. Along the way, we get a prose poem to the Tetons, “silent as the giant white jaw of a wolf in the winter, tearing clouds and chewing time.” As well as glimpse into inerrant ski bum life, “She was still in her bathrobe, standing in the doorway when I scraped the frost off my car…”
Woven into the narrative, we meet Bill Briggs (first ski descent of the Grand Teton), as well as the iconic and mysterious Fritz Stammberger. In my view, Stammberger’s ski descent of North Maroon peak in 1971 was equally as seminal in North American ski mountaineering as Briggs on the Grand that same year. Only Briggs got photos. Stammberger lived only a few more years until not returning from a solo Himalayan climb. Briggs is still alive. These days, it didn’t happen unless it’s on Facebook. Back then you still needed ‘chromes to really make a statement.
But Stammberger gets his due in Kray’s book. In fact he’s the guy on the cover. The book jacket photo is the archetypical semi-famous circa 1971 portrait of Stammberger shot by Aspen photographer Chris Cassatt, (first promulgated in historical context in my own book “Wild Snow.”)
Stammberger is indeed a version of Tack Strau. The man setting the outer limits of sport and physical adventure. In a way he does belong on the book cover. Kray told me he met Stammberger as a youngster and was impacted by the charismatic German alpinist’s physical presence — having him on the cover was “important.”
Unfortunately, there is a downside to using an important historical figure as cover art on a fiction novel. Already, if you google “Tack Strau” you’ll hit on images of Stammberger, now easily misconstrued. That’s sad to me, as Stammberger the heroic figure is in the end somewhat tragic, having been taken so young. Now for his likeness to be lost in the digital quagmire, sadder still.
Minor point to some? Sure. But all history is important, as most ends up forgotten or mistold.
Beyond my quibble about cover photos, a possible problem with Kray’s book (which is mostly set around the 1980s) is while you can read it as timeless historical fiction, a somewhat dated mist does swirl about. It all worked for me because I’m a boomer just like Kray (though I’m a decade or so older than him). I’ve got direct experience and strong memories of many things he writes about. But if you’re a millennial, Kray’s references to ski heros of the 1970s and ski bumming in the 1980s could read like a study of Old Testament prophets. That is until you realize that today’s “freeride” ski culture sprouted in the early 1970s in sync with the “cultural decade” otherwise famously known as the 1960s — and here in Kray’s writing is a trove of direct experience. At the least, it’ll amuse you; at best it’ll give you some perspective.
I’ll not spoil too much more of the story for you. With lyrical (perhaps even briefly purple) prose Kray takes on everything from the essence of Jackson to the core of World Cup ski racing. There is even a bear story in there. The part where Kray dines with and interviews Alberto Tomba is priceless. In this case I’m a victim of the writer’s excellent verbiage — I can’t get Laura off my mind — Tomba’s beautiful Italian assistant who could cause a man to gift wrap his Ferrari just “by the way she wrapped her long fingers around a glass of wine.” Whew. Recommended.
If the Amazon link above doesn’t workShop for it here.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.