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Unanticipated Lessons

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If you're looking for a place to travel to learn to ski, either in North America or Europe, consider an area that is less fashionable but may offer longer lessons for the same price.

On a traveling fellowship decades ago, I went to the Austrian village of Ischgl, before it became chic, to learn to ski. Then the place had only a rope tow, but ski school ran twice as long per day as over the nearby border in Switzerland and the kachelofen (ceramic stove built into a corner) was delightfully radiant as we napped after our snowy exertions.

My roommate, a TV guy from London, was companionable. When we climbed a steep street at dusk and looked down on the tiny village he said, parodying some show I hadn't seen, "someday, son, all this will be yours."

He and I engaged a local man with a horse-drawn sleigh to go up the valley to an evening dance. As we set off on the narrow road, with walls of ice on each side, a blanket on our laps, we could barely see the mountains but we did see a pair of headlights heading our way at Autobahn speed.

Knowing the sleigh had no running lights, the driver yelled in the local dialect for the flashlight, which we gathered was somewhere under the blanket. We found it just in time for the car driver to see us as he came around a curve that hid us from his headlights. He slid by on the ice wall, his rear view mirror snatching the blanket off our laps. Then all was silent again. I think the car was a Mercedes.

After our attempts to flirt with young valley women, and an uneventful return, I awoke first he next morning and went down to breakfast. As I was leaving for a solitary walk, my roommate descended and asked me to sit with him for a cup of coffee. Afterwards I struck off down the road.

The sky was blue; the snow on the mountains, sleek as seal skin. I was happy to be here in the Alps, when I noticed a small cloud near the top of a slope. As it grew and began to descend, I realized it was the start of an avalanche or, as we had heard German-speakers say, a lawine (the "w" is pronounced as if it were a "v"). The slope was such that I didn't know where the avalanche would fall, so I didn't know in which direction to run.

Snow began coming down, as in a storm. As I raised the jacket over my head, I thought this innocent-looking village, between the sleigh ride and the avalanche, was among the most dangerous place I'd ever been. Tons of snow might fall, but after less than a minute it got lighter, exposing the blue sky again. I was safe. The avalanche had fallen further down the road, about as far to walk as it takes to drink a quick cup of coffee.

A friend with experience of risky moments sets aside the category of things that almost happened. "Well, they didn't," he says. But when my wife and I joined another couple in working through Steven Levine's book, A Year to Live, these episodes in Ischgl bubbled up. A year? How about ten or twenty seconds? Shared as I discovered with a surprising number of people, the brief danger was a gift that I'd never have chosen but was glad to have experienced.

On the last day in Ischgl we hiked to the Swiss border and skied back.