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The Hahnenkamm: Guts, Glory, and Gravity

The Hahnenkamm is the World Cup’s most dangerous race weekend—and its loudest, rowdiest, and craziest party. We crashed skiing’s ultimate bash to see what all the fuss is about.

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Exuberant excess—the way of the Hahnenkamm—is apparent right from the starting gate. 

The Europop bass lines pulse through the chorus of clanging cowbells and cheap plastic horns as a tide of (mostly) inebriated fans flows to fill all empty spaces for a riotous weekend of races. The Hahnenkamm has been touted as skiing’s version of the Super Bowl, but that’s not fair to the Hahnenkamm. It’s much more open and accessible. Add in the storybook charm of Kitzbühel, with medieval architecture and soaring peaks, juxtaposed with the mink-wrapped leisure class and frenetic face-painted fans. And it all points to the spectacular Streif, ski racing’s most feared and revered downhill course. Everything about the most infamous stop on the World Cup circuit lives up to the hype.

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The confluence of people from all over the world is as much a part of the Hahnenkamm as the races themselves. Kitzbühel’s population of 9,000 can soar to 90,000 on race weekend. Like the athletes, fans go all out. Face painting, elaborate costumes, brash shows of patriotism, and avid drinking are the norm. Despite the rowdiness of the crowd, the atmosphere is festive and good-humored. Kitzbühel, a key trading center through the Renaissance, transformed into a winter sports mecca at the turn of the 20th century. These days it’s a hub for the ridiculously rich all year long, with all the fur shops, fancy restaurants, and Italian sports-car showrooms to prove it.Photo: Bailey LaRue

The 2017 race schedule: the super G, Jan, 20; the notorious Streif downhill, Jan 21; and the Slalom, Jan 22.

Only two Americans have won the notorious Streif downhill: Buddy Werner in 1959, and Daron Rahlves in 2003 (on a fog-shortened course).

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Photo: Bailey LaRue

In addition to offering a line of sight to the most challenging and decisive sections of the Streif, the finish area is also one massive party that regularly pulls in upwards of 45,000 specta- tors. Fans arrive well before the event to claim the best spots. The majority of the spectating area is free (try that at the Super Bowl). And with a drinking age of 16 and just about zero oversight from event security, fans arrive toting prodigious quantities of adult beverages. Portable stoves are also a common sight, used to heat spiced wine and melt fondue.

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Photo: Bailey LaRue

Kitzbühel at dusk. Looming in the background are the downhill (left) and slalom (right). Race organizers lease sections of the course from farmers who still pasture cattle on the famed mountainside. 

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Photo: Bailey LaRue

With 54 lifts linking over seven municipalities and two provinces, Kitzbühel offers up some of the best ski access in the world. 

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Photo: Bailey LaRue

Every available space is utilized, including handy rooftops.

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Photo: Bailey LaRue

A very young Austrian ski fan chilling out in a very Austrian stroller.

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Photo: Bailey LaRue

A rare morning respite. With its many vaulted cellar restaurants, cobbled alleys, and historic cemeteries and churches, like the two 14th-century examples seen here, a sense of history permeates everything in Kitzbühel.

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Photo” Bailey LaRue

This isn’t a national ski team but rather a Swiss fan club (yes, they have their own uniforms), all lugging famed Swiss Trychler (carrying bells), weighing more than 40 pounds each. The fans march in a slow hunched waddle, ringing their bells in unison with each step. The sound is deafening at close range and audible virtually anywhere between the town and the race-courses.

“To me , all the skiers who attempt the Streif are true heroes.”—Arnold Schwarzenegger

Guts, Glory, and Gravity

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A racer cuts a tight line during a gliding section of the downhill.

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Herr Schwarzenegger, Austria’s most successful export and a Hahnenkamm regular, was on hand last year to congratulate the winner of the downhill.

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Hoping for a glimpse of their favorite ski racers, fans wait outside the finish area. Unlike in the U.S., where casual race fans lose interest during non-Olympic years, ski racing in the Alpine countries is a mainstream sport on par with professional football or basketball here. The best skiers are household names and tabloid material. Here Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud weathers the adoring crowd.