A Downhill Death Spiral During Germany’s Fasching Carnival

“Is this safe?” I asked myself from the top of the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain. By having to ask, I knew the answer – for me, anyway – was probably no. It was early February, and snow had been hitting the Zugspitze for several days. Other than a 2002 drive through a light New Mexican winter wonderland, I had not touched the chilly substance since a weekend trip to Big Bear during Reagan’s first term. Yet for some reason, I was nearly 3,000 meters above sea level with only one way to get down.

Other than the two previous weeks traversing Germany, Italy, and Austria (and a day trip to Maastricht, in the Netherlands), I had never been to Europe and had no idea just how high 3,000 meters was (Americans don’t know such things). Add to that my fear of heights and a tiny buzz thanks to the altitude and strong Helles beer, and I had every reason to whine like a child asking to be removed from Santa’s lap. Fortunately, my travel companions Chip and Taylor were well versed in the art of snow. The former was raised in the mountain community of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and was on the snowboarding team in high school, while the latter, a Long Beach, California native, had resided in Germany’s snowy Garmisch-Partenkirchen region for four years. For them, the little known but much beloved tradition of Hut to Hut during Fasching (German for “Carnival”), was merely another item to add to their snowboarding resumes. All I could think of was, “Ryan, don’t die.” Many people picture Brazilian women in headdresses when they hear the word “Carnival,” but in the snow-capped mountains of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, locals celebrate the impending doom of Lent by climbing to the top of the Zugspitze for a nighttime event called Hut to Hut, an outrageously intense experience that combines drinking, costumes, and skiing. The party is so localized to Bavarians that most Koln residents – who live a six-hour drive away – have never heard of it. The event isn’t in any travel guide, cable television programs haven’t exploited it, and even a Google search elicits minimal results, but Hut to Hut is very real and very fun.

Although not officially sanctioned by the city of Garmisch-Partenkirchen or the resort itself, the powers that be turn their heads when they see hundreds of willing twenty-somethings parading toward the gondola in Halloween-esque costumes on Fat Tuesday. This lackadaisical bureaucratic approach is quintessentially European and could never be found in lawsuit-happy America. Instead of doing it our litigious way, Germans shrug their collective shoulders and take the attitude that a person is responsible for his or her own actions. If a partygoer falls off a cliff or suffers an injury, then hey, that person shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen was two separate cities (Garmisch and Partenkirchen) until Hitler forced a unification before the 1936 Winter Olympics. The municipalities serve as one, but have retained distinctive personalities. Partenkirchen is where you’ll find a more traditional Germany with stone-lined intersections and old world architecture, while Garmisch is as modern as a German mountain town gets. The Edelweiss Lodge and Resort plays at least a minor role in this. image

Opened in 2004, the 330-room (with 44 junior suites, 12 lofts and American Disability Act rooms) hotel caters to active-duty military members and their families, retirees, reservists, guardsmen and more. To help accommodate such a large amount of Americans in a foreign country, Edelweiss employs United States citizens in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement with Germany. The average age of lodge employees is 24, which means this quaint Bavarian city is literally crawling with Americans at all times – including Hut to Hut.

The gondola ride was an unsettling experience. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was white death. Locals wearing angelic wings and funny hats compared notes with Taylor and Chip, who had a curly blonde wig to pass between them, and hideous snowsuits we purchased at a thrift store on the American base a few days prior. Apparently, my beanie – the sort bank robbers wear – wasn’t much of a conversation starter, which was fine by me. My heart beat increased and all I could think of was how I had finally agreed to something I should have opted out of.

As if inexperience on a mountain wasn’t enough, I didn’t even have proper equipment. My snow-experienced comrades brought snowboards with them, but being a ski virgin, I was given a red plastic sled the size of my ass cheeks. The apparatus belonged to Taylor, who had the smarts to attach a leash to the cheapie toy that would soon sit between my legs. Without it, I was certain to lose the sled within a matter of minutes. I feigned positivity to not look like a pussy in front of my confident friends, but once we stepped off the gondola and looked at what was before us, even their positive attitudes changed regarding the prospect of my success.

“You got some balls, because I don’t know if I’d do this on a sled,” Chip said. Taylor tried to explain that he had survived the ride using my mode of transportation, but the damage had been done. Normally, there’s nothing like a couple of beers to calm my nerves. This, unfortunately, was not a normal situation. For the first time in my 28 years, beers just made matters worse. I had a few, but stopped once I realized that instead of a buzz, I needed practice. Adjacent to the mountain-top bar was a bank approximately 10 feet tall, so I placed the sled down and got into position. I let up my heels and the sled torpedoed out from under my cheeks. That was all the practice I needed before realizing that the only way to do Hut to Hut was to shut up and just do Hut to Hut. A handful of sled veterans must have seen the trepidation on my face, because they came over to where I was nervously pacing and offered tips on how to maneuver my piece of plastic. One of them, a guy whose name I wish I could remember, walked me to a dark part of the mountain and said, “Look down. If you go over this cliff, you’ll either die from impact or freeze to death.” The sun was setting when my friends decided it was time to stop drinking and time to start descending. They wished me well, took off on their boards, and were out of sight within a minute. Knowing no one else, I made friends with my fellow sledders and hoped for the best.

With my heels dug deep and one palm in the snow, my goggles turned white as I zig-zagged down the mountain. After a 20-second ride that consisted of the words “Don’t Die” racing through my mind, I came to a stop and realized I was still alive. I walked a few steps to another downhill, and did it again, this time with a little less oomph in my heels and my palm. Once more, I was not dead. The final downhill of this run was a few steps away, and with a heart now pounding from excitement and not the fear of death, I raised my feet and free hand in the air and went for it. More snow flew, and this time it was my lifeblood, not the thing that would eventually kill me. Similar to the first time behind the wheel of my dad’s 1978 blue GMC truck, I understood that a little more gas was going to cause a lot more fun. image “Cool, huh?” the guy who warned me about falling off the cliff asked. “Yeah!” I shouted, before high-fiving him. I walked inside the hut to find Taylor, Chip and a beer awaiting my arrival. “That was the best thing I’ve ever done!” I said to both of them. (In hindsight, losing my virginity to a girl who 14 years later is still way out of my league might be the best thing I’ve ever done, but tackling the first run of Hut to Hut is definitely second.) “Good,” Taylor replied, “because there’s three more of ‘em.”

German oompah music played in the background at the hut while nearly everyone but me (I’m vegan) ate bratwurst. By the time we finished a few beers, the sun had vanished for the evening, which meant turning on the light that sat in the middle of my forehead. The darkness caused a bit of anxiety that would not have been there had the sun still shined, but similar to a junkie, I needed more. Nearly horizontal on my sled, I flipped on the light and was able to see approximately 30 feet in front of me. The first downhill was short – 10 seconds tops – and helped me get comfortable with the idea of sledding underneath the moonshine. Now that I was an old pro, I decided to go for style points, so I twisted down straight runs, rode icy banks and tore through snowy mounds. All without my heels or palms in the ground. Once again, Chip and Taylor were waiting for me at the bottom of the second run. “How was it?” Chip asked. But he didn’t need me to respond. He knew it was awesome. German techno and more beer greeted me at the second hut, which is where the party really got started. Just as many people danced outside as they did inside and makeshift bars were set up for people to get drinks nearly every 20 feet. This was also the point where the booze seemed to kick in for most everyone as the volume increased, a few clothes came off, costumes began dismantling themselves and anywhere that was at least five feet from the hut became ample ground for peeing.

Remember that scene in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when Napoleon goes to Waterloo and is afraid to ride the slides, only to start moving children out of the way when he discovers how amazing it is? Well, before the third run, that was me. I got right next to skiers and snowboarders and owned that mountain like it’s last name was “Ritchie.” I got so wild in my free-form sledding, that I rode an icy bank, lost control, and slid across the run, coming dangerously close to a cliff that would have meant not the end of my night, but the end of my life. I’ll never know exactly how close I came to falling off, but I do know that the me of two hours previously would have headed back up the mountain. The present me, on the other hand, laughed it off and continued going down. Instead of meeting inside the hut, my snowboarding friends were waiting at the bottom of the run. “Dude, we saw you from the top of the mountain!” Chip said. “You were killing it!” And I knew he was right. I was, in fact, killing it.

The third hut was similar to the type of resort lodge my parents would hang at if my parents were skiers. Fireplaces, exposed wooden beams, employees in sweaters – that sort of thing. Still, there was beer and music, but most everyone stayed inside and all clothes remained on. I would soon learn that this relaxed atmosphere was everyone’s way of preparing for the final run.

The last gasp was literally straight down the mountain. No stops. No turns. No ledges. Just a freefall in snow. I sped so rapidly that I lost my sled almost immediately, which meant once again digging in my palms and heels in hopes of gaining control over my body. Without trying, I became a human luge and moved so fast I zipped past skiers. But within a minute, my ass began to freeze and holes had been burned into my gloves, which exposed my palms to the frigid snow. Whenever I had the chance, I would position my body to hit any clump of snow to decrease my speed. It helped, but also caused an explosion of white goodness to go up my nose and cover my goggles. Then, like the Germans do, we went to the lodge and got drunk.

The Legend of Vegasmas: Spending Christmas in Sin City

Good ideas are often spontaneous and usually involve booze. Starting a new holiday tradition called Vegasmas was no different. Three days after Thanksgiving, there was still leftover Tofurkey in the fridge and already I was bombarded with imagery from that otherwise miserable holiday called Christmas. A few beers deep, I was on the living room couch watching the Lakers when my girlfriend Kelly came home with what she thought was terrible news. “I have to work Christmas,” she said sorrowfully, as if I was destined to burst into tears. After nine years, I thought she would have known what a terrible person I was because to my ears, this was like getting a free ticket to hear Jimi Hendrix jam with Keith Moon, John Entwistle and Eazy-E. An early Christmas present, if you will. Maybe it was the Pabst Blue Ribbons talking, but I couldn’t pretend to be upset because for twenty-eight years, I had been at the mercy of either my girlfriend or my mother when it came to Christmas. Kelly’s inability to celebrate gave me the courage to stand up to my mom and do what I’d flirted with doing since the day I turned 21: Go to Las Vegas for Christmas.

Like a reliable neighbor with a fully stocked bar always willing to share, Sin City had a track record of making bad times good and good times great. Christmas, I figured, would no different. Instead of decking the halls, I’d be getting hammered at a casino, blowing money on me, not shitty presents no one wanted. Years past I woke to the sounds of children rummaging through boxes, wrapping and bows, but something about the thought of getting up at noon in a strange bed with a hangover and only the sweet sounds of slot machines seemed to fit me much better than watching A Christmas Story while faking a smile when my family asks if I like my Army green sweater.

When I was younger, I’d make the six-hour trek to Vegas without a hotel reservation because when you’re 21, sleeping in your car is a totally viable option, one that saves more money for debauchery. But I had no idea what I was in for regarding Christmas, so like a responsible adult (my two least favorite words) I called ahead and found two nights at the Excalibur for approximately $100. One debit card number later, it was official. I was going to Vegas.

The original plan was to fly solo, but one mention of Vegasmas to my friend Chip — whose girlfriend was flying home to Ohio for the holiday — and he was in. So was our friend Deryck, a Trinidad and Tobago native whose girlfriend was also leaving the state for a few days. I had no qualms about partying by myself, but with these two on board, Vegasmas was transforming from some stupid word I made up to escape Christmas into an actual event that required its own greeting card section at the corner market.

A major curveball nearly derailed Vegasmas before it began, but nothing can stop the proverbial train that is three guys in their late 20s and early 30s who decide they’re going to Vegas. My girlfriend had to recognize this when, on Dec. 15, she told me she got someone to cover her shift so we could spend the day together. That was fine by me, as long as she understood our day together was going to be spent in Nevada, not Long Beach, Calif. She wasn’t thrilled, but similar to the power that Santa gets from all them cookies and milk, Vegasmas was marching along and wouldn’t be denied.

The best part of Vegasmas revealed itself the week prior to that other holiday the rest of the world was celebrating. Every conversation I heard was about people being stressed regarding long lines, parking lot traffic jams, not being able to find the proper gift and insufficient funds. Not me. Because I wasn’t making a familial appearance on December 25, there was no need to buy presents. While the world sweated holiday bullets, I was doing the only thing I’ve ever been good at, which is relaxing.

Deryck and Chip left at 9 a.m. Vegasmas Eve while I stayed in Long Beach with Kelly until noon. My friends traveled lightly and wanted to hit the road to not only avoid traffic, but to take full advantage of the pot of gold that awaited us at the end of the Interstate 15 rainbow. But with a female traveling companion, rolling out of bed and getting behind the wheel wasn’t happening for me. We (i.e., she) had things to do in the morning that prevented us from getting a quick start, even though she packed her bags three days prior. How a woman can be packed for days and still take three hours to get ready on the day of a trip is beyond me, but even with a late start, nothing could stop Vegasmas.

Nothing, that is, except traffic.

Kelly and I were stuck on the State Route 91 and going nowhere fast. We had already been gone for nearly two hours when the Vegasmas spirit caused me to squeeze my Toyota Corolla between two plastic dividers into the 91 Express Lanes, a toll road used to bypass all the schmucks in the congested lanes. A light but steady flow of cars sped past and once I saw an opening in my rearview mirror, I went for it. I careened into the lane and narrowly avoided hitting a Mercedes in the passenger door. The jerk honked, but I deserved it and let it slide. Besides, it was Vegasmas Eve and when you’re starting a new tradition, it’s of the utmost importance to make sure you get the first one absolutely perfect because no one needs the annual car accident as part of their holiday to-do list.

Four hours later, we rolled into Excalibur and I was surprised to see the parking lot at three-quarters capacity. Not since “Seinfeld” introduced the world to Festivus had I felt like maybe I wasn’t alone in my hatred of all things Christmas. I stopped for a beer before checking in, then got another round before getting to our room. After ditching our luggage, Kelly and I met Chip and Deryck at an Excalibur lounge where an ‘80s cover band was playing.

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Two vodka-cranberries later, someone decided we should make the short walk to Bar at Times Square at New York, New York and there was no disagreement from me. During our stumble through the casino, I noticed the family-friendly crowd often found at Excalibur huddled around a man in a Santa suit, but these weren’t the same Midwestern families I was accustomed to seeing at the hotel. I’m no linguist, but I swore I heard Indian, Hebrew and Chinese spoken before we hit the exit. This unusual array of languages didn’t register until we braved the cold rainy night and walked over the bridge to New York, New York, where I overheard an Irish family, a Scottish couple and group of Japanese in their early 20s.

The piano bar was half full when we arrived just after 10 p.m., which was fine by me because that place is absolutely the worst spot in Vegas to get a drink when it’s at capacity. The lack of crowd allowed me and my girlfriend to discuss what I perceived as a trend.

“Have you noticed anything about the people here?” I asked.

“You mean how everyone is from somewhere else?” she replied.

“Yeah, you noticed that too?”

“It’s pretty cool. Like we’re getting some culture with our vacation.” At that moment, I knew Kelly was knee-deep in the Vegasmas spirit and wouldn’t regret leaving our friends and families to get wasted in Sin City.

A group of seven Canadians proudly sporting t-shirts and hats with their country’s flag huddled around us and sang at the top of their lungs to “Purple Rain” while two Asian businessmen in suits stood against the bar, raised their beers and shouted the two-word hook each time the pianists got to that part of the chorus. My front-row view of the United Nations of drunken sing-a-long was interrupted by Chip, who tapped me on the shoulder with important news.

“Dude, look at Deryck,” he said. “Then look at the guy next to him.” I did as I was told and saw that my friend and this stranger were wearing the exact same shirt, so Deryck turned toward the guy and we pretended to take a picture of our friend at the bar. But what we really did was make sure we got both of them in the picture because this magical Vegasmas moment had to be captured on film.

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Unfortunately for me, the fun would not last. Somewhere between the beers at Bar at Times Square and the margaritas at the nearby Gonzalez y Gonzalez, I realized I lost my phone. This was a bummer; thankfully, if not for the Vegasmas cheer, I might have been more upset. Kelly and I looked around the casino for spots where it might have slipped out, but after a half hour of searching, I decided to call it a night. Vegasmas Eve was a party, but I needed something left in my tank for Vegasmas day.

The next morning Kelly suggested I call Excalibur security to ask if they had my phone. This was Sin City and there was no way anyone would find a phone and return it, but I did as she said because that’s what boyfriends do. Five minutes later, we were downstairs retrieving my cell. A Vegasmas miracle!

I celebrated the return of my phone by calling my parents with a mini-hangover to wish them a Merry Christmas. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I actually meant it. Kelly and I bought bagels, then threw on our scarves to walk the ghosttown-esque Strip, where the sole reminder of the holiday was a Christmas tree atop a structure being built at CityCenter. The iconic image didn’t bother me and I understood that, when not hit over the head with people ringing bells outside grocery stores, the pressure of having to explain that what I really want for Christmas is nothing and being subjected to David Bowie and Bing Crosby sing while I’m on a treadmill at the gym, Christmas really ain’t half bad. It’s the idiots who overdo the decorations, the cheesy songs and pressure to be happy all the time who ruin it for me.

Thanks to copious amounts of booze, the remainder of Vegasmas Day is kind of fuzzy, but I’m almost positive it was the best Christmas I ever had.

Neither my girlfriend nor my mother knows this yet, but Vegasmas ‘09 is in the works. With a $50 Christmas brunch featuring five spiced glazed duck, pan roasted Alaskan salmon and warm apple cobbler at DJT at Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, an average nightly rate at Planet Hollywood of approximately $100 that includes a free bottle of booze and two packages at MGM Grand that include access to Studio 54 or Tabu Ultra Lounge and tons of credit, Vegasmas the Sequel is destined to be even better than the original.

Openings: The Kennedy School, Portland

Former class clowns, detention kings and prom queens rejoice—it’s possible to drink, smoke and shag at the Kennedy School in Portland, Oregon, without fear of reprimand from blue-haired principals. From 1915 to 1975, this 35-room hotel was a fully functional elementary school. The updated version offers guests a soaking pool, classrooms converted into personal suites, dining in the old cafeteria (now christened the Courtyard Restaurant), art shows and live performances by local bands.

Most importantly, there are also five pubs where visitors need not look over their shoulders while downing homebrew or smoking cigars (the on-site Concordia Brewery, which served more than 400,000 of their Old Schoolhouse Pale Ales in 2007, is located in the former little girls’ room, with wall art depicting both the history of beer-making and school-girl shenanigans). The Kennedy School gets high marks for turning the auditorium into a movie theater and the principal’s office into a front reception desk. But rebel revelers, be advised: Hiding wads of gum underneath desks is still frowned upon.