To conquer Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkamm, the most exciting and challenging downhill of the Alpine Skiing World Cup, allow two minutes on race day in January – or three hours, on foot, in August.
Firstly, of course, if you’re Jackson the chocolate Labrador, you have to master the magic carpet lift up to the start hut…
Both seasonal descents are fraught with hazard, although in winter the stakes are much higher. Falling at 144km/h in flat light, as three top racers did on the Hausberg turn in 2016, earns you a heli-ride to hospital.
In summer, negotiating a herd of cows on the Steilhang is a paw-biting moment for Jackson. It’s not that dogs don’t like cows…it’s cows that aren’t so keen on dogs – especially on a path with enough cowpats for them to consider it their own.
“Never split the herd,” advises our ski instructor/hiking guide Susanne Cufer, firmly grabbing the dog lead. “Always detour around the edge. “Get it wrong here by 20cm and you can’t win,” says Susanne, talking about the racing line again.
In summer even more so than in winter, you can only wonder at the mindset of the racers who throw themselves down The Streif, the name of the famous racecourse, for a thigh-burning 3.3km through 860m vertical.
Fritz ‘The Cat’ Strobl of Austria holds the record of 1m 51.58 at an average speed of 106.9km/h. Dider Cuche of France is the overall King of the Streif, with five wins over 14 years.
Four-times winner Franz Klammer of Austria once famously said: “Each and every racer who gets to the bottom in one piece is the winner”.
The TV screen doesn’t do the gradient justice – in reality, it’s far steeper than you could ever imagine. Standing along the course and watching the race, you’re acutely aware of the noises. There’s the chatter of skis on ice, and the sound of cowbells from supporters gathered around the finish area. But most of all there’s the ‘swoosh’ sound of air parting as a racer flashes by.
Within a few seconds of kicking out of the start hut, they’re travelling at 120kph and preparing to launch themselves off the Mausefalle, the scariest jump in ski racing. 80m later, when skis again touch snow, their knees have to absorb four times the force of gravity.
It takes us a full seven minutes to slither on a path to the landing point. The gradient here is 85% (40.4 degrees). Incredibly, in summer, mountain-bikers and trail runners climb up it. In winter, it’s all over in a second – blink and you will miss the man in the catsuit.
From here, racers swing into the S-turns of the Karusell before entering the infamous Steilhang. Literally, it means ‘steep slope’. The Steilhang lives up to its name and it’s also cambered the wrong way. Get it wrong, and the racers end up high in the safety netting. This is now a mesh formed from expensive stainless steel – a ski edge travelling at 130kph can easily sever any other material as if it were butter.
But what is this? Snow, in August when the thermometer is hovering at 30C?
At the end of last winter, Kitzbühel’s pisteurs put a mighty 36,000 cubic metres of the white stuff under wraps as a starter pack for next season. ‘Haystacks’ of snow at strategic points were wrapped in a thick layer of insulation and white plastic sheets. Incredibly around 75% of the snow survives the summer heat.
When the piste-machines return in November the snow will give Mother Nature a helping hand and provide the base layer before the first flake falls.
Now we’re into the Brückenschuss & Gschöss, the gliding flats. While the racers tuck tightly to maintain their speed here, we’re just glad to be walking on level ground again. Because of the steep gradient, even hiking the Hahnenkamm is prone to injury…bruised toes!
Now we’re into Alte Schneise and getting ready for the Seidlalmsprung – the jump at Seidlalm, Kitzbühel’s most famous mountain hut where the World Cup was born over a pint of beer in 1966.
Sadly the restaurant is now closed. After 30 years, the owners have retired and for anyone to take over the ramshackle farmhouse there is a mountain of planning applications and building regulations to climb. But we manage to find a welcome beer and a slice of Apfelstrudel at the kiosk that presently replaces it as a refreshment stop.
We’re into the final kilometre and almost over the worst of it now….gliding through the Larchenschuss and into the Hausberg where the racers jump and have to turn their skis before they land.
The Querfahrt, a traverse that in winter is a rollercoaster of rough ice, looks strangely gentle in its vivid green summer colours. And then, after three hours of hiking down, we’re at the Zielschluss, the final jump and compression. The racers take it at over 140km/h but we’re down to a more modest 4km/h at this stage.
We limp across the finish line – except, of course, for Jackson and Susanne our guide who would happily hike it all over again.