Taming the Slopes of Kitzbühel
A Tyrolean resort for celebrities and pro-skiers, the peaks of this legendary town are as enticing as they are treacherous
Kitzbühel is a place of dreams for skiers. This small town in the Tyrolean Alps is home to the Streif Piste – surely the most iconic 2.6km of snow on the planet. Since 1931, the brutally steep racecourse with its 80m jumps, tight corners and ferocious compressions, has hosted the Hahnenkamm classic, the world’s most famous ski race.
A victory here is, in fact, the dream of every Alpine skier - the equivalent of a tennis player winning Wimbledon or a golfer winning the U.S. Masters. During the third week in January (in 2013, 22-27 Jan.), 80,000 visitors, most of them very thirsty, flock to Kitzbühel to watch ski history in the making. Yet the Streif is so fearsome that Swiss skier Didier Cuche, who won a record-equalling fifth title in 2012, admits that when he first looked out of the starting hut as a World Cup rookie, he was so terrified he wanted to throw off his skis and exit through the back door.
Crashes here can and do end careers. In recent years, the American Scott McCaugtney and Swiss Daniel Albrecht were left in comas after being tossed by the final jump. (See "Theater of Nightmares" in Feb. 2009 TVR.) Austrian skier Hans Grugger’s coma after a training fall at the "Mouse Trap" jump lasted for weeks. Yet, if you win, you go down in history, elevated to the pantheon of ski legends such as Toni Sailer, Franz Klammer, Permin Zurbriggen and Hermann Maier. Winners even get a gondola cabin named after them on the main cable car going up the mountain from town. On my most recent trip, I was hoping to catch either the Cuche or Maier cabins, but was perfectly content to find myself in the one named after Swiss champion Franz Heinzer, an icon of the ‘80s.
The crazy Kitzbühelers
I was sitting opposite my guide for the day, a cheerful local ski instructor named Madeleine, brown as a nut from long winters of skiing and summers as a hiking guide. She told me we’d save the descent down the Streif for the climax of the day, because there was "plenty I had to see" first. There are 170km of groomed runs in Kitzbühel – that’s the distance between Vienna and Linz – and Madeleine seemed determined to show me them all in one day.
As I fiddled with my boot clips at the top, my grinning guide launched into her first long turns, down towards a rounded hummock of snow called Steinbergkogel. I followed, struggling to keep up: Each time I got close, she accelerated effortlessly away. Madeleine is a former ski racer now coaching the local youth team, and she seemed to gain speed in the turns. When we reached the chairlift at the bottom I was panting, but she didn’t appear to notice – "I’m afraid I’m holding you up," she told me, "I have a bit of a knee problem, you see. But you must just overtake me if you’re bored. I won’t be embarrassed." Growing up in Kitzbühel, it seems, gives you a skewed perception of what speed means!
"This is where skiing all began in Austria, of course," historian Pepi Treichl had told me the day before, pointing out a plaque in honour of Kitzbühel local Franz Reisch. In 1893, the famous ski pioneer brought some skis to Kitzbühel from a trip he’d made to Norway and thus became the godfather of a sport that would henceforth define his country’s culture and economics. It might have been the men from the Arlberg, at the other end of Tyrol, who developed a technique for actually curving on these strange wooden contraptions, but Pepi insisted that Kitzbühel was the true birthplace of Austrian skiing.
Proud and cosmopolitan
The 62-year-old Pepi, who has lived in Kitzbühel all his life, was showing me around the town with its multi-coloured façades. Many of the houses lining the wide main street are over 500 years old. Each colour denotes a different owner, so several buildings are painted two different colours and look like Italian ice cream. Just below the rooves of these four-story buildings, you’ll see a large wooden door – the grain lofts were kept at the top of the houses to aid ventilation and keep the weevils out. Pepi is a proud man in a proud city. Kitzbühel, he told me, had always been a town of stature: once as a strategic fortress on the border between the Bavarian and Habsburg Empires (the town remained Bavarian until the 16th century), then as a major copper mining centre.
When the mining industry began to falter at the beginning of the 20th century, Kitzbühel invested heavily in tourism infrastructure, building state-of-the-art lifts and the Grand Hotel, the most luxurious Alpine accommodation outside St. Moritz. The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, came to stay and sang Kitzbühel’s praises, and soon a steady stream of rich Brits and Americans became regular guests. Everyone involved in Kitzbühel’s tourism industry has thus spoken English since the 1930s, Pepi told me, and ski instructors became wealthy on dollar tips.
"Children in Kitzbühel quickly learned to deal with rich people, to be friendly and helpful but never to kowtow to them. We Kitzbühlers have self-confidence. That’s how we have kept our identity." The seeds of friendship survived the horror of WWII, in which dozens of Kitzbühlers perished. In the late 1940s, returning American soldiers helped restore the war-damaged church. A stained glass window with an angel of peace is inscribed in English.
It was appropriate to this spirit of Austro-American friendship that I stayed in the Goldener Greif hotel which hosts the U.S. Ski Team during the Hahnenkamm race weekend. First mentioned as an inn back in the 13th century, the hotel wears its history proudly. There are antique carved dolls hiding in cubbyholes on a spiralling staircase, and the heavy doors to the rooms have huge brass handlebars to mimic medieval castle life.
But the wind-chapped faces of American ski stars like Ted Ligerty beam from photos in the boot room and you can see the fearsome Steif from your breakfast table.
Back on the slopes, the ever-energetic Madeleine guided me ever further from my meeting with destiny. The ski area was massively expanded when a new "3S" cable car was built to gulf the chasm to the Jochberg area, and now you can ski to the doorstep of Mittersill in Pinzgau in the shadow of the Großglockner, Austria’s highest peak, a 90-minute ride by train.
The ever-changing panorama was breath-taking – we sped away from the jagged Wilder Kaiser cliffs, which look like a grey set of canine teeth and crossed in front of the Großer Rettenstein, which resembles a giant molar. Avalanches had swept down its little brother the Kleiner Rettenstein, and in the distance we could see Austria’s biggest peaks – the Hohe Tauern.
Madeleine was perfect company. She had a raw, infectious enthusiasm for the mountains and showed a welcome readiness to share the local gossip on Kitzbühel’s celebrity residents. As we took a gondola lift back up from Kitzbühel’s less glamorous sister resort Kirchberg, we made bets on whether the tax authorities would ever succeed in their months-long pursuit of former Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser who is apparently charming in the climbing hall. We had a lunch of bacon dumplings in Sauerkraut made wonderfully rich by the spare juices of roast in the iconic Seidlalm.
But finally the time for idle chitchat was over. I found myself in the start hut of Hahnenkamm looking down at the Streif course. Ahead of race day they water the course to give it the unforgiving consistency of concrete, and they ski pretty much straight down in a crouched tuck position.
For me, the snow was soft and I could take as many turns as I liked. Still, it was stomach-lurchingly steep. I dreamed up bell-clanking cheering crowds and, with great earnestness, launched myself out of the hut with a motivating "come-on!" that apparently caused a mirth-ridden onlooker to lose her sense of balance and slide into the snow. I arrived safely at the bottom, legs burning and lungs bursting, a mere seven minutes behind Zauchensee skier Michael Walchhofer’s record time. And you have to take into account that he was wearing an aerodynamic suit.
Alas, there’ll be no gondola cabin with my name on it if you visit Kitzbühel. But when I watch the men with their tree-trunk thighs launch out of the starting hut this year, I’ll know I’ve been there and will feel qualified to shout well-meaning advice to the competitors. And what I think I will shout is this: "Take a sharp left, throw off your skis and get a table at the Seidlalm. The Hahnenkamm title might make you a legend, but only richly stewed Sauerkraut can bring real happiness."
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