HAHNENKAMM :: AUSTRIA
THE HAHNENKAMM RUN, in Kitzbül, Austria, is arguably the most technical and dangerous downhill course on the World Cup circuit. On race days, the course is rock-hard and slippery as a hockey rink, but this two-mile black-diamond run is always very steep and off-camber, with huge jumps and whiplash turns. Like some gravity-fed serpent, it dispatches the unworthy with a flick of its tail. Skiers never conquer the Hahnenkamm—they're simply allowed passage.
Kitzbül, on the other hand, is as friendly and easygoing as the course is not. The village becomes a partying base camp during Hahnenkamm race weekend, in January, with sing-along techno-pop pumping out of the speaker stacks lining the streets. When fans pour down from the mountain after the races, the town assumes the spirit of a rowdy soccer match, except that all of Europe's nations are playing at once: Austrians blow their horns, Swiss clang their cowbells, and everybody sings choruses of taunts and praise.
Horse-drawn sleighs look perfectly at home in Kitzbül, and the woodpiles are meticulously stacked. Wide eaves and brown-shingle roofs top the cream-colored buildings, chalet style. Temperatures last January were well below freezing, yet when a ferocious Lamborghini pulled up next to me on an ice-covered street, a long-legged woman stepped out in heels. Kitzbül is every bit as chic as it is tough.
The list of Austrian World Cup champions is long and includes Franz Klammer and Hermann Maier. And though native Stephan Eberharter won last year's Hahnenkamm downhill by 1.21 seconds, Americans came in second (Daron Rahlves) and won the overall title (Bode Miller). U.S. skiers have been competing here long enough to take part in the Europeans' well-oiled traditions—after the races, Rahlves and Miller had to tend bar with the other top finishers at the Londoner, a Kitzbül hot spot.
The region's dramatic elevation changes, wet climate, and northern latitude foster huge snowfields and glaciers. Skiers take a gondola that stretches about a mile and a half from town and deposits them above tree line, where several lift systems converge. No resort boundaries here—just miles of high-alpine terrain, each drainage leading to a different village.
For many vacationing Europeans, this kind of skiing is about sightseeing—not sport—and the spirit of après-ski begins with a late breakfast, continues during a two-hour lunch, and swings into full force with cocktails at three. I took a different tack, skipping lunch for "just one more" powder-supported free fall. When the time was right, I knew where to find the beautiful people: Just follow the chorus of bells, horns, and song.
HAHNENKAMM :: AUSTRIA