C Ski school Schwarzenberg with Lothar Fetz © Nina Bröll
With a superb tan and a broad smile, he pretends to make a grab for the ski lift’s platter handle as if he were about to parallel-swing his way down the slope. But he’s wearing normal shoes and is standing in the middle of a green meadow, the autumn sun is shining and the mountains in the background are looking as if they’ve just been given a light dusting of icing sugar. The 83-year-old expertly poses for the photographer while pointing out the benefits of the beginners’ slope with sweeping gestures. “Slight incline, no bumps and you can see everything!” The Weißtanne-Lift is located on the Bödele directly below the Schwarzenberg ski school – the first ski school to open in Vorarlberg. And it was Lothar Fetz who opened it – that was in 1979. But that’s not the only reason why he’s regarded as a skiing pioneer.
Fetz also developed the Magic Wand that – without any hocus-pocus – turns all novices into passably proficient skiers. With a guarantee of that happening after just four separate lessons. “We’re now in our third-generation of parents who turn up with their kids to ski in Schwarzenberg,” he says. He no longer teaches himself – but does still frequently like to strap his boards to his feet. “I prefer medium steep, well-groomed slopes, which is why I spend a lot of time on the Bödele,” says Fetz. He adds that the occasional ‘proper descent’ down Lank or Schwarzenberg is also great fun.
The invention of the Magic Wand
He was not only the original founder of the first school for ski instructors in Vorarlberg, which he established with sports teacher and friend Fritz Jenny. He also joined forces with Fritz to organise the first children’s ski courses at the Bödele and kept on fine-tuning his teaching methods. “It’s essential to speak the children’s language and give them playful movements to perform. So we hop like rabbits or stomp like elephants,” he says, describing his method. He hit on the Magic Wand when he was teaching a disabled beginner to ski. This novice kept spreading the tips of his skis apart to perform a snowplough instead of the back ends. After unsuccessful attempts to hold the tips together with a rubber band, he developed the Magic Wand: a colleague welded two metal loops on to a handle almost two metres long. Fetz then threaded the tips of the skis into it and guided the student – himself skiing backwards – down the slope. Necessity developed into a method. It’s possible for kids as young as three and a half years to start learning.
Fetz himself was six before he strapped skis to his feet for the first time – relatively late by local standards. “There were no ski schools, the kids just showed each other what to do,” he recalls. There weren’t any ski lifts either. “We just trudged up the Angelikahöhe or behind Gasthof Ochsen and then skied down the slope.”You had to stop with a flourish that was as impressive as possible – ‘an Kristler aneschrenza’ – as we used to call it.
In conversation with Lothar Fetz
Lothar Fetz explains the "Zauberstab" for ski beginners
Weißtanne-Lift, Skischule Schwarzenberg
First steel edges around 1950
Methods and gear were always the same. “We just handed down our skis – which were just simple boards that were already damaged,” he says. Modern materials, varying lengths, narrowing and bindings came much later … steel edges became available in the 1950s. We had a cartwright in Schwarzenberg, Ski Fink, who made the first skis himself,” reports Fetz, who today owns two to three different sets of skis himself.
The Lanklift was installed on the Bödele in 1951. “I started my apprenticeship as a baker in 1954 and always had the afternoons off. So I tended to go skiing then. There used to be proper gangs of bakers,” Fetz recounts with a laugh. His passion for skiing grew as he continued his training whereby Lothar Fetz’s career as a ski instructor started really quite suddenly in 1960: “There was a big need for ski instructors at Christmas time and I was known to be quite a good skier. My instructors’ test consisted of me doing a few snowplough turns in front of the hotel – and then I was sent off to take my first group.” His advantage was that he had previously taught how to ski in the army and was able to pass on his skills to recruits.
“Skiing was my life. I spent the whole winter on skis,” says the 83-year-old. He became an instructor ‘because I was always interested in teaching things and to see how they grew.’ The people coming here have, however, changed over the decades: demand for one-to-one ski courses is much greater today. “That’s much more efficient than teaching skiing in groups, of course, where you have to adapt everything to the slowest learner. Group experiences and communication used to be much more of a priority than skiing.”
Ski instructors as multipliers for tourism
He benefits from that himself: In the 1970s and 1980s, when he was still a young man, it was mainly people from the Netherlands who came to spend their holidays in Schwarzenberg and so it was only natural for him to learn Dutch. “I was on the slopes with them all day and then spent the evenings with them in my café.”He’s still on friendly terms with many of his regulars. He meets three of them in the Mesmerstüble, his old café, later and chats with them in fluent Dutch. “Ski instructors are multipliers for tourism,” he says. “Guests really appreciate it when I’m able to talk to them in their own language and if I’m then even able to manage to convey skiing as a special way of experiencing nature, well, then they’ll just keep on coming back.”
Fetz was also the Managing Director at the Tourismusverband Schwarzenberg (Schwarzenberg Tourism Association) and the Haldenlifte-Gesellschaft (Ski Lift Company) for decades. His sociable manner, his pronounced affinity for tourism and his language skills even resulted in him being sent to represent Vorarlberg Tourismus at several tourism fairs in the Netherlands.
Since then, skiing has become more widespread: pistes, deep snow slopes, mogul slopes, snow and fun parks as well as ski tours attract winter-sports enthusiasts of all ages to the snow. The latter even more so since covid. As a consequence, safety has become a much bigger issue, particularly in open terrain. “Skill, the right ski for deep snow, safety gear with probe, beeper, mobile phone – all that is a must for getting the chain of rescue going. You have to practice at least once a year in order to be able to respond properly under stress,” says the experienced skier, who himself has only once been in a critical situation that was caused by bad weather. “You also need to know about snow conditions and the weather so that you’re able to assess whether there’s a risk of avalanches. A ski guide who is familiar with the area is the perfect companion,” says Lothar Fetz, who prefers to leave such tours to others these day but instead is already looking forward to the first descents down the Bödele.