Skiing Austria’s notorious Hahnenkamm can be terrifying – both when watching the experts and when tackling it yourself
Stand above the first big jump on the Hahnenkamm racecourse, where the icy piste falls away at a giddying gradient of 85 per cent, and you wonder why it is called the Mouse Trap.
Were they thinking of one of those cages in which a trapped mouse flails around – like a skier losing balance while flying 80 metres through the air? Or one of those traps that go splat in the way a high-speed impact with an icy slope might creatively rearrange a skier’s skeleton?
Whichever one, this notorious leap guarantees heart-stopping thrills for the tens of thousands of spectators who come to Kitzbühel in Austria to watch the most famous race in the World Cup ski circuit. From January 21 to 23 the mountain overlooking the resort – the Hahnenkamm – will once again host a series of events, including Slalom and Super G races.
However, it is the breakneck Downhill on January 22, at which skiers pick up speeds of up to 90mph, that will attract the biggest crowds – who then enjoy one of the loudest and liveliest parties of the whole Alpine winter.
By Monday morning, most of the fancy-dressed, cowbell-ringing revellers have left, but a new treat is in store: the chance to ski the Downhill course, called the Streif, which opens to the public only after the race. I wouldn’t recommend tackling it on the first day of a holiday: by the time you get to the lip of the Mouse Trap, you’ll be saying goodbye to your stomach.
A good way to psych up is with a visit to the little museum at the top of the Hahnenkamm gondola. It tells the history of the resort, complete with antique, rickety chairlifts and black-and-white photos of early skiers – including the future King Edward VIII, being shown how to “bend ze knees” by a suitably blue-blooded instructor, Count C Lamberg.
One of the main attractions is a simulator inspired by the Streif. It is shaped like a giant skier, crouched down in a racing tuck. You climb inside him via his backside, place your face against a pair of goggles inside his helmet, and your feet on a couple of metal plates. When you put a euro in the slot, a film of the run plays through your goggles, the pine trees whip past at increasing speed and your feet rattle as if you’re skiing on corrugated iron.
Halfway down, just as I started feeling queasy, everything went blank. The film had cut out, but my feet continued to rattle uncontrollably. Was this simulated concussion? What would hitting a virtual tree at a simulated 90mph feel like? I staggered out of the juddering contraption and decided to wait a couple more days before trying the real thing.
There is, however, an alternative way down the Hahnenkamm: the Streif Family Trail. This follows the flatter, straighter parts of the racecourse, but misses out the stomach-churning drops, opting for longer, gentler loops instead. Use a little imagination and you can still hear the crowds cheering you on as you glide through the forest of snow-festooned pines down to the little walled town.
Many of the chunky, multi-storey medieval houses date from the mid-16th century, when the town grew rich from nearby silver mines. Kitzbühel remains one of Austria’s most historic and atmospheric resorts, with its elegant churches, cobbled streets and mouth-watering cake shops. My favourite was Praxmair, which still has the zithers, fiddles and alphorns nailed to the walls from the days when après-ski meant kaffee und kuchen followed by Schnapps and dancing to a traditional Tyrolean band.
Nowadays you have to imagine the live music, but the cakes are as yummy as ever – from apricot jam-filled krapfen (doughnuts) to buttery, boozy esterhazytorte and marzipankartoffeln – “marzipan potatoes” made of a sponge ball with a chocolate-hazelnut filling, coated in pale marzipan.
Après-ski nowadays is usually more alcoholic – sip sparkling sekt with the fur-coated schicki-mickis from Munich at venues such as Stamperl, or down pints with holidaying Brits singing along to live music at the Londoner pub. Alternatively, choose from the many activities on offer that make this resort popular with non-skiers: snowshoe hiking (also by moonlight or torchlight), tobogganing, curling, ice skating, ice climbing, or steaming in the saunas and playing on the slides at the Aquarena pool complex.
Skiers and snowboarders, meanwhile, get to play on about 170km of piste served by 54 lifts in a series of interconnected areas draped over the mountains neighbouring the Hahnenkamm.
To reach the further pistes, you board a gondola that glides a giddying 400 vertical metres above a ravine – on super-smooth triple cables. You can also ski over, following an unpisted itinerary through the woods and along a valley floor, festooned with frozen waterfalls, until you reach a little car park where for two euros a minibus will drive you to the next chairlift.
Strong intermediates, however, will probably want to tackle the Streif. My advice: take your mind off the descent by tucking into a cake from Praxmair during the ride up the Hahnenkamm cable car, and when you get to the run, take it very, very slowly.
Go easy on the icy stretch that leads down to the Mouse Trap; you’ll fly for 80 metres if you hit the lip at top speed. After that, you can always sideslip down. Locals will tell you to tackle the Streif in the morning, before the snow lower down gets too soft – and an early start also means you’ve got all day to finish.
Further down you join the Streif Family Trail, whose gentle gradient will help restore your shattered ego – before the Streif lurches off to the right. If you visit a few weeks after the race, as I did, you will find that the run feels like a choppy sea with wave upon wave of giant moguls that fling you around like a shirt in a washing machine.
One last, smooth, calm section, and you face the final humiliation: another stretch of steep, monster moguls, in full view of the resort and bemused walkers wondering why people take up skiing. When the slope flattens out and your last fall is over, collect your poles, goggles and what’s left of your dignity, and smile: you’ve survived the Hahnenkamm.
- James Bedding travelled with Inghams (020 8780 4447; www.inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights half-board at the four-star Sporthotel Reisch from £829 per person in March, including flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and transfers. £Admission to the Hahnenkamm Downhill costs £21, Super G (January 21) £14, and Slalom (January 23) £17; under-16s free (www.hahnenkamm.com)
- Further information: www.tyrol.com; www.kitzbuehel.com
Other top spectator events
Lauberhorn Race, Wengen, Switzerland
January 15, 2011
The longest (4.5km) and the fastest (record top speed 98mph) event on the World Cup circuit, set against the most spectacular backdrop of all: the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Last year this downhill ski race drew 32,000 spectators. For a calendar of other World Cup races, see www.fis-ski.com and www.lauberhorn.ch
FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
February 7-20, 2011
Held every second year, this is the most prestigious event in alpine skiing after the Winter Olympics – but tickets are easier to get and cheaper, and there is still availability for all events. Nearly all cost £22 standing, £38 or £76 for a seat (except prestige slalom events on the final weekend: £25/£47/ £110). www.gap2011.com
Engadin Ski Marathon, St Moritz region, Switzerland
March 13, 2011
For most alpine skiers, cross-country looks too much like hard work. But nothing beats looking at people working hard while you are on holiday – and the sight, from up on the pistes, of 12,000 skiers snaking over the frozen lakes on the floor of the spectacular Engadin valley, is mesmerising. The record for the 42km is 76 minutes, 10 seconds. www.engadin-skimarathon.ch
Nissan Xtreme, Verbier, Switzerland
March 19, 2011
You need a strong stomach to watch skiers and snowboarders, male and female, freeride down the vertiginous 3,222-metre Bec des Rosses – and free-fall the cliffs en route. Verbier hosts the final of the Freeride World Tour; other stops are in Chamonix, France, January 22; Engadin St Moritz, January 30; Kirkwood, US, February 26; Sochi, Russia, March 5; and Fieberbrunn, Austria, March 12. www.freerideworldtour.com
The Brits Music & Winter Festival, Laax, Switzerland
March 20-27, 2011
Incorporating the British Snowboard & Freeski Championships, this is a week of freestyle events (big air, half-pipe, boardercross, skiercross, slopestyle) twinned with live music and DJ acts – bands for 2011 include Pendulum and the Correspondents. Packages cost from £255 for seven nights’ accommodation, lift pass and entry to club nights. www.the-brits.com