PIRMIN : ZURBRIGGEN : The Pride of the Swiss Mountain Country Is an Often Humble, Yet Daring Young Man Who Could Win Three Gold Medals in Skiing

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

As you can see from this post card, Pirmin Zurbriggen is the center of attention in his hometown. Doppelweltmeister , in case you don’t speak German, means that he is a double world champion.

It also could say that he is the most celebrated Alpine skier since France’s Jean-Claude Killy, but how much information do you expect for half a Swiss franc?

The post card can be bought at the hotel that Zurbriggen owns and that his family has operated for 20 years, the Larchenhof, which means courtyard of the larch trees. The raw scent gives the crisp, clean air an evergreen flavor.

This is a remote village of 360 people in Switzerland’s Valais region, almost halfway to the top of the 11,000-foot Almagellerhorn in the Swiss Alps, about 13 miles by cog train from the Matterhorn and 140 miles east of Geneva.


Looking upon the Saas Valley from a hiking trail above the tree line, Saas-Almagell is almost too picturesque to be real. One journalist who visited called it a Hansel and Gretel village.

Once a town of carpenters and dairy farmers, it now thrives on the tourist trade it can lure from the better known surrounding ski resorts of Zermatt and Saas-Fee. But immaculate barns still outnumber the hotels and condominiums--rush hour is when the cows are led to and from the pasture, the sound of their cowbells somehow adding to, instead of disturbing, the peace--and the most prominent landmark in town is still the steeple of the stone church.

One of the faithful planted an imposing white cross on the side of the Almagellerhorn, overlooking the village, to stand guard against the encroaching modern world. Nearby, a stream trickles down the side of the mountain and into the Sasser-Vispa River, which tumbles through the valley toward the Rhone.

In the Saas Valley, the name Zurbriggen (TSOOR-briggen), which means by the bridge, is as common as Smith or Jones in the United States. When a reporter had a flat tire in Saas-Grund, about two miles down the winding, mountain road from Saas-Almagell, it was repaired at Zurbriggen’s Garage. The proprietor said, regretfully, that he is not related to Pirmin (PEER-min).


Upon reaching Saas-Almagell and asking directions to the Larchenhof at the Edelweiss Hotel, the owner said she was Pirmin’s aunt. Proudly serving beer out of a tap with her famous nephew’s picture on it, she said their family has been here since the 15th Century.

Outside her hotel was a poster, from the local tourist office, of Pirmin on skis, charging down a slope at the 1987 World Championships. In the top right corner was the town’s new motto, “Saas-Almagell, Ganz Pirmin!” As Good as Pirmin.

It doesn’t get any better than that in Switzerland.

Zurbriggen, 25, was just another good Swiss skier at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, where he finished fourth in the downhill and fell in both the slalom and giant slalom.

But he since has been the world’s best, finishing first in the World Cup overall standings in 1984 and 1987 and second in 1985 and 1986.

Besides winning the overall championship last year, he also was first in three of the five World Cup disciplines--downhill, giant slalom and Super G. In the 1987 World Championships at Crans-Montana, Switzerland, he won gold medals in the Super G and giant slalom and silver medals in the downhill and combined. He also won gold medals at the 1985 World Championships at Bormio, Italy, in the downhill and combined, and a silver medal in the Super G.

In case you don’t speak skiing, Super G does not stand for the daring downhill racers’ rather large, uh, goggles. It stands for super giant slalom and is similar to the downhill but more technical, requiring twice as many turns on a slope that is about three-fourths as long.

In another discipline you may not have seen, the combined, a skier races on less demanding versions of the downhill and slalom courses, and his times are added. The combined was part of the Winter Olympics program in 1936, but the Super G never has been. Both have been added to the 1988 Winter Games, which begin Saturday in Calgary, Canada.


As a result, it is possible for an Alpine skier to win five gold medals in the same Olympics. Only two skiers, Killy in 1968 and Austria’s Toni Sailer in 1956, have won as many as three--the downhill, slalom and giant slalom in years when there was nothing else to win. But both competed in eras when virtually every skier entered all three disciplines.

Today, we are in an era of specialization. Only two other skiers besides Zurbriggen, Luxembourg’s Marc Girardelli and West Germany’s Markus Wasmeier, are competitive in five disciplines. Of the three, Zurbriggen has the best chance to win all five.

But although that is possible, it is not probable. The rage of the current World Cup circuit is Italy’s Alberto Tomba, whose strongest event, the slalom, is Zurbriggen’s weakest. Tomba, 21, won 7 of the first 10 slaloms and giant slaloms and, until 10 days ago, led Zurbriggen in the overall standings. That was before Zurbriggen won his second downhill of the season at Schladming, Austria, the last downhill before the Winter Games, to overtake Tomba.

Tomba la Bomba, the Bomb, is a flamboyant playboy and not a little self-absorbed, calling himself the messiah of skiing. Zurbriggen, a devout Catholic who carries a picture of the Virgin Mary in his address book and says Pope John Paul II is the man he most admires in life, accepts the existence of only one Messiah. Zurbriggen is as different from Tomba as, well, Switzerland is from Italy.

So Zurbriggen might not win more than two or three gold medals. He says he will be pleased to win even one. For such statements he is known in Switzerland as Pirmin the Modest.

In a country that makes legends of straight arrows, Zurbriggen is the most admired man since William Tell. If he is unpopular with anyone, it is the journalists, who complain that he never gives them anything to write about away from the slopes. His girlfriend is Moni Julen, a ski instructor in Zermatt and sister of Max Julen, Pirmin’s best friend and gold medalist in the giant slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympics. Even Max says he can’t persuade Pirmin to join him for an evening out more than once or twice a season on the ski circuit.

That makes for dry reading in the best-selling biography, “Pirmin: Human and Champion.” It is all about what a Super G he is--super guy. The people of Saas-Almagell say that success has not changed him, that he still is the same young man who used to wash dishes in the Larchenhof and who occasionally plays trumpet in the town’s 60-piece band. No, they say, they can’t remember him as a singer in the choir. But that is what he looks like, a fresh-faced, blond-haired, blue-eyed choirboy.

“He is so simple, Pirmin,” said his sister, Heidi, and that really is her name. “He is not a person who thinks he is better than anyone else.”


Heidi, who waits tables in the Larchenhof’s dining room, talked about her brother between trips to and from the kitchen. There is evidence of him throughout the hotel, which he bought recently from his parents to relieve them of financial burden and to give himself an investment. He can afford it. The journal Ski Racing estimated that Zurbriggen earned $2 million last year.

Except for the oldest of the three children, Esther, 27, who has a house in the village with her husband, Swiss Family Zurbriggen lives on the top floor of the four-story hotel, which is constructed of wood and brick and perhaps gingerbread. The 40 other rooms rent for $57 a night, including breakfast and dinner.

There is a small trophy case on the ground floor, just off the small lobby, but the rooms in the basement, the dining room and the lounge, are virtual shrines to Zurbriggen. Most of his World Cup trophies and world championship medals are there, the more prominent ones displayed in a handcrafted rosewood trophy case presented to him by the townspeople.

But one’s eyes keep returning to the painting in the dining room. In it, snowflakes float against a deep blue background from one of Zurbriggen’s crystal World Cup trophies onto Saas-Almagell while he and Saint Bernadette observe from above. Visions of Virgin Mary led Bernadette, the daughter of a poor French miller, in the mid-19th century to the healing shrine of Lourdes in southwestern France.

Heidi explained that one of Zurbriggen’s fans painted the picture and gave it to him. He has made five pilgrimages to Lourdes with his family.

“Pirmin goes to say thank you,” Heidi said. “He prays not for victories but for safekeeping from accidents and illness.”

His prayers, for the most part, have been answered, although he might have won the World Cup overall title in 1985 had it not been for a knee injury. Even then, he won two gold medals and a silver medal at the World Championships three weeks after arthroscopic surgery.

He also was distracted that year by Heidi’s illness. The world junior combined champion in 1984, she was bedridden for much of the next year with a virus that caused her joints to swell and prevented her from walking, much less skiing.

When her brother was traveling with the circuit, he called every night, and when he was home, he sat by her bed for hours and entertained her. Heidi, 20, has returned to the deep Swiss women’s team but, except for her last name, does not stand out. She was 14th in the downhill at the 1987 World Championships.

Crisis is nothing new to the Zurbriggens. When Pirmin was barely a teen-ager, his father, Alois, now 61, developed an aneurysm, a ballooning of the arterial wall surrounding the heart. It since has limited him to performing small chores. Pirmin’s mother, Ida, 50, has most of the responsibility for operating the hotel.

Although Pirmin gets credit for putting Saas-Almagell on the map, there may not have been much to put there had it not been for his father. Alois was a hotshot local ski racer until he was 25, when a younger brother was killed in a skiing accident. Alois put his skis away and settled into a more sedate life as a house builder.

But several years later, in the late ‘50s, he and a few friends recognized that, although the village could survive on its small but steady summer tourist trade, it might actually become prosperous if they followed the example of their neighbors on the other side of the mountain in Saas-Fee and began catering to skiers in the winter. The Almagellerhorn had its first chairlift in 1960.

Hotels, condominiums and ski shops followed. Alois opened the Larchenhof in 1967. Saas-Almagell’s population of 360 now swells to almost 10 times that during the ski season.

Alois returned to the slopes in 1966, 14 years after his brother’s death, to teach Esther, who was 5, and Pirmin, who was 3, the basics. He gave the same lessons to Heidi when she was ready. Later, he set gates for his three children.

Pirmin was a quick learner. His mother said that by the time he was 9 or 10, he already was beyond any instructions his father could give him. “Basically, Pirmin taught himself how to ski,” she said.

Some kids have swimming pools in their back yards. Some kids have tennis courts. Pirmin had a mountain. Given that he had talent, all it took was initiative. His mother said he also had that in abundance. She said the only times she can remember scolding him were on those countless occasions when he wouldn’t leave the slopes in time for dinner.

Pirmin went to school for the required nine years, the first six at the elementary school in Saas-Almagell and the final three in Saas-Grund. He could have continued, but his father decided that Pirmin, at 15, should devote all of his time to skiing.

The previous year, he had won the Swiss junior championship and been recruited into the national program. At 17, he won the downhill at the World Junior Championships. A year later, he joined the World Cup circuit and was on his way to fame and fortune.

The mid-afternoon serenity was interrupted temporarily when the white Mercedes 300E rolled into Saas-Almagell, driven by the town’s favorite son. Shopkeepers stepped outside their doors to wave as Zurbriggen continued down the narrow street toward the Larchenhof. He parked his $46,000 car where everyone else does, in the unpaved back yard, under the larch trees.

He went downstairs to the cozy lounge for a business meeting with his agent Marc Biver, who had made the two-hour drive from his office in Neuchatel, Switzerland. While Biver discussed contracts with Alois, Heidi sat on the floor, her head resting against Pirmin’s knee. Ida served coffee. Logs burned slowly in the fireplace.

It was a Swiss version of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Not everyone has been so charmed by the Zurbriggens. After two reporters and a photographer from Sports Illustrated had visited the Larchenhof, one of the reporters, William Oscar Johnson, wrote that Alois gave them a tongue-lashing, accusing them of being cheapskates for not renting rooms in the hotel as a tribute to Pirmin for granting them an interview. Johnson wrote that Pirmin is “sweet-looking but occasionally churlish.”

But, for another visiting reporter, they couldn’t have been more accommodating or less pretentious. Perhaps it was because the reporter paid the $57 to rent a room at the Larchenhof.

Later in the afternoon, after the business meeting, Zurbriggen sat down for the interview he had promised. Biver joined him to translate. But Zurbriggen, who speaks Swiss-German and French, insisted on using his improving but still not fluent English.

“For me, it is better to speak English and learn something,” he said.

Zurbriggen is not as serious as his image. He had just returned from Zermatt, where he had tried unsuccessfully to climb the Matterhorn. Asked how his coach would react to the news that his superstar was attempting to go up instead of down a mountainside, Zurbriggen smiled mischievously. “I don’t tell him,” he said.

He joked about his 24-handicap in golf, admitting that he is better with his trumpet than with a 5-iron.

Why did he choose the trumpet?

“It’s easier to carry than a piano,” Biver said.

“And it’s louder,” Zurbriggen said.

He also talked about his superstitions. He said he always puts on his left boot first before he skis and wears the same pair of socks from the first race through the last race of a season. “But I do wash them,” he said.

Asked if he has butterflies in his stomach before races, he seemed perplexed. Biver explained to him that it is an English expression, meaning nervous.

“Butterflies in the stomach,” Zurbriggen repeated, smiling at the imagery. “I must use that sometime.”

To answer the question, he said, yes, he does get butterflies before races, especially the big ones. He said it makes him nervous even to talk about the possibility of winning five gold medals in Calgary.

“I never think about this,” he said. “For me, it was easier at Crans-Montana (in the 1987 World Championships) after I won one medal. What comes more is a bonus. It will be the same thing when I go to the Olympic Games. First, I need a good race. It doesn’t have to be a win. Then, I think I will win a medal, but I must ski the best I can.”

If he wins three gold medals, there no doubt are skiing experts who will call him the greatest of all time. In one breath, he said he does not believe skiers from different eras can be compared and that he will be satisfied to be known as the best of the ‘80s. In the next breath, he said he believes he is better than Sailer and Killy because the competition is so much more difficult today.

That is as close to a boast as he comes. But his modesty should not be mistaken for a lack of confidence. On skis, he lives as close to the edge as any of the other racers.

“When I’m on skis, I’m really another man,” he said. “I feel really sure of myself. I know where is my limit. It gives me pleasure to go to the limit.”

And off skis?

“I make mistakes like the other guys,” he said. “I am religious, a little more so than the others. But the journalists exaggerate.”

Maybe so, maybe not. Asked about his pilgrimages to Lourdes, he said: “If you don’t forget God,” Zurbriggen said, “He don’t forget you.”

Saas-Almagell has not been forgotten. There was no road for cars leading to and from the village until 1948. The one here now has two lanes, but that does not mean it is wide enough for two cars coming from opposite directions to pass.

It certainly is not large enough for one car and two cows. An elderly woman, wearing a scarf to cover her head and a faded print dress, tries to coax the cows off the road with a switch. They are not impressed. It looks like the visitor is going to be stuck for a while, just like on the Ventura Freeway.