Letter from Austria The Wild Carnival at the Heart of Skiing’s Most Dangerous Race ~ The New Yorker

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The punishing Hahnenkamm downhill brings street-party revelry to a medieval town in the Tyrolean Alps.

 

The first time Wiley Maple encountered the Streif, the world’s most fearsome downhill, he was twenty-one years old. Typically, downhill racers take a couple of training runs in the days leading up to the event. Before each one, they inspect the course, which entails side-slipping down while visualizing the line that will deliver them to the finish in the least amount of time. As a member of the U.S. Ski Team, Maple had side-slipped, and then skied, most of the World Cup’s other majestic, gnarly downhills, but this track—which descends an unremarkable and not particularly tall forested alp called the Hahnenkamm, in Kitzbühel, Austria—seemed to represent a whole new level of inhospitable. The thought of hurling himself down the narrow, steep, snaking flume of ice and shadow made him queasy. He wasn’t the first previously undaunted young buck to doubt himself when confronted by the Streif’s proportions and demands—no other course has inspired such fear and respect among the craft’s practitioners, or likely sent as many of them into (or over) the protective fencing and then to the hospital—but none of those predecessors had been him, here, now.

A couple of hours later, he was in the starting hut for his first training run, peering down past the first two turns toward the precipice called the Mausefalle, or mousetrap, a two-hundred-foot jump over which the previous racer had just vanished. Word reached the start, via radio, that the guy had crashed. Course hold: time to wait. Twenty minutes passed. You don’t get far in this line of work unless you have some control over your nerves, and so Maple calmed himself. Eventually, he got the alles ist klar and, in a self-imposed daze, nudged into the start. Ski poles over wand, beep-beep-beep-beep-beeeeep, two pushes, two strides, and schuss. A half-dozen seconds later, airborne over the Mausefalle at sixty-five miles an hour, he thought, Holy shit, I’m in Kitzbühel. He snapped to, and tried to bear down. Initiating the infamous hard-right turn at the bottom of a wall of ice called the Steilhang, he crossed the tips of his skis, lost the line, and careered into the fence. This was where, years before, the Canadian Brian Stemmle, off his line, had caught a ski in the netting. That crash, which came to be known as the Wishbone, split Stemmle’s pelvis open and put him in a coma. But Maple got away clean. After a moment, he crawled under the netting, put his skis back on, and reëntered the course a little farther down to have a look at the rest of it. On race day, he came in fifty-third. This was in 2012.

My own “Holy shit, I’m in Kitzbühel” moment came on a Tuesday in January, earlier this year, after I stepped off the train at the base of the Hahnenkamm gondola. It was dusk. The town was still relatively quiet, in the absence of the eighty or so thousand fans who were expected to invade that weekend for the annual series of Alpine races and debauches. I glanced up and saw for the first time, shadow-blue and telephoto close, the final section of the Streif, where the racers, after soaring off a jump, come hauling across a steep, bumpy, fallaway traverse—legs burning, skis thrashing—and into the final plunge, the Zielschuss, reaching speeds of almost ninety miles an hour. I had been watching the race on television for decades, whenever and wherever I could find it, with a heart-in-throat intensity of devotion that embarrasses me, and this last hellbent stretch was always the emotional climax, the site of either life-threatening crackups or ecstatic finishes, amid the drunken, swaying throngs. And here it was, the empty stage, the star of the show. The course was marked off with blue food dye, which, in flat light, helps the skiers see the contours in the snow. Viewed in person, from below, the traverse looked narrower and steeper than it did on TV. From the angle of the course workers’ stance, as they tended to the slope in crampons, you’d have guessed that they were ice climbing. I walked up on the snow to the finish area. If the Streif was an idol, I was close enough to ask for an autograph.

The Hahnenkamm, as the event is commonly called, is the most important race on the men’s World Cup calendar, the ultimate prize, owing to its peerless difficulty, danger, and lore. (The women don’t race there; their tour doesn’t pass through the same places, and avoids the more extreme courses.) It’s dogmatic that pretty much every racer on tour would prefer victory on the Streif to Olympic gold. (The money—the winner gets about eighty-five thousand dollars—is almost an afterthought.) The Streif was first run in 1937. Then there was an eight-year hiatus, because of the war. There are now three races in Kitzbühel that weekend. In addition to the downhill (typically on Saturday), there is a slalom race (lots of tight turns) on Sunday, and a Super G (a shorter, turnier version of the downhill) on Friday. But it’s the downhill that really makes reputations, breaks bodies, and draws the vast crowds. Most of the year, Kitzbühel, a medieval town of eight thousand residents, in the province of Tyrol, is a fancy resort, with swank hotels and shops, but the Hahnenkamm-rennen transforms it into a riotous carnival, part Indy 500, part South Padre Island. The bars and the old cobbled streets fill with enthusiasts of all ages, many of them with no place to sleep, enacting the rituals of performative public inebriation, while in lamplit panelled Stuben the upper crust of Middle Europe convene for private self-congratulation over their good fortune at being here, now, at the center of the Alpine universe. The madness has always been an essential component of the experience for the racers, too. They usually stay in hotels in town and walk to the gondola, through the throngs. The revelry often keeps them up at night, occasionally luring them out and sucking them in.

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