Musings from the Pontiff of Powder: Vol. 3

Killing it at Kitzbuhel: Part 1
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The Pontiff of Powder

I don’t want my freshly-minted readers to imagine that all I ever did in my erstwhile existence as Equipment Editor for

Snow Country Magazine

was attend week-long bacchanals that covered two continents; I want them to believe it. So I refuel my quill pen to summon the memories of the most elaborately mismanaged press junket of mine or any other era.

The time is the early 1990’s, and sales of Austrian skis in the U.S. were, in a word, dreadful. It had not always been so: Kneissl, Kastle, Fischer, Atomic, Head and Blizzard had all enjoyed periods of widespread popularity, even dominance. But by 1992 the French triumvirate of Rossignol, Salomon and Dynastar owned most of the American market. Newcomer Salomon was gobbling up sales worldwide, even in – gasp! – Austria, while Austrian brands were relegated to the margins. Even an attempt by Atomic to co-opt the French New Wave by buying venerable Dynamic fizzled, as though Austrian brands exuded the stench of death.

The Austrian Trade Council witnessed the precipitous drop in exports among its “Top Team” ski manufacturers and stepped in to reverse the tide of history. The plan: invite potentially high-volume US specialty retailers and a smattering of fawning press to the Hahnenkamm, the ski world’s undisputed greatest party. Also, one hell of ski race or so I’ve heard.

Said plan, like those for rockets that blow up on the launch pad, was flawed. As Austria itself was our sponsor, our contingent of dealers and scribes flew all day to Vienna, which would have been fine if that’s where we were going. But as our destination was Kitzbuhel it made as much sense as landing in New York with the idea of visiting Sioux Falls. Luckily our rooms weren’t ready, so we mopped off as best we could in communal quarters and were soon trundled into buses the better to appreciate Austrian history.

Not recent history, mind you. About that our somber, deadpan guide had nothing good to say as our bus lumbered towards the Winter Palace. She intoned over the loudspeaker that Vienna was, in fact, a dying city as the birthrate was low and most citizens were old and stayed home a lot. Remember, this is the official guide, not some renegade out to drive tourists over the nearest border. The tone never lifted as we toured the palace, viewing painting after painting of hopelessly distressed Austrian nobility, some imported, some domestic. One portrait depicted a dour young lady that our equally mirthless guide described as her engagement picture. The subject – soon to join the royal family - enhanced her come-hither appeal with zipped lips the better to conceal her rotten teeth and a grim expression attributed to the fact that her long, long hair was so heavy it gave her constant headaches. So Vienna has been a laugh-fest for centuries.

Soon we were on a train traversing by rail the countryside that we had only recently crossed over in the opposite direction by air. No biggie, just the width of the country, and I’m sure the train ran on time, only it felt like geologic time. When we disembarked in Kirchberg (home to Toni Sailor, among other distinctions), we were ready to confess to crimes committed before we were born.

Upon regaining consciousness we were greeted with the news that the race we had traveled umpteen thousands of miles to see was cancelled. Not available for viewing. Relocated. Inoperative. The problem was a distinct lack of snow, which at first did not discourage the race organizers. All you need, they reasoned, was just a thin ribbon of snow or something like snow, to cover the most treacherous stretch of skiing on the World Cup downhill circuit, the death-defying Streif. When snow proved unavailable, in a last-ditch effort they opened fire hoses on the course and froze ice directly on the grass that in the summers feeds local herds. After their Sisyphus-like efforts, all that remained of the Hahnenkamm was a swatch of see-through ice maybe four meters wide and all around it, springtime.

So instead of skiing our first day in Kitzbuhel we were hoisted uphill by gondola to see a depressingly dryland mid-mountain museum devoted to race memorabilia. The best feature was a video game that sought to simulate the experience of running the Hahney. Big whoop.

Here’s what our hosts didn’t tell us: the upper mountain was still open and more than skiable! A break-away cadre of not-to-be-denied retailers finagled a local guide into taking them all over the upper mountain(s) while we were sipping schnapps on some snowless veranda a few hundred vertical feet below them. The secret that skiing was about having been exposed, our hosts decided to quell rebellion by organizing a ski day the next morning at the neighboring resort of Saalbach-Hinterglemm, site of a recent World Championship.

That’s when it became clear that our hosts never really expected us to go skiing. All the data requested in advance about pole length, boot sole length, preferred DIN settings, etc., was apparently run through a shredder so it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. The skis handed over to us to “demo” were used as mine detectors in some earlier life, given the amount of shrapnel embedded in the bases. Our guide to Saalbach… (pause for effect)… had never left Kitzbuhel before. Ever. First trip out of town. His lack of local knowledge or knowledge of any kind that didn’t involve tending sheep or teaching skiing to fellow shut-ins was more than compensated for by his need to smoke vile cigarettes (no doubt locally cultivated) at every moment that conversation lapsed, which was often as he spoke virtually no English and his micro-dialect is spoken only by people with the same last name. This continued on the ski hill. In the rain. (Did I mention it was raining?) Our group became separated and scattered, triggered by a self-preservation impulse, I’m guessing. Our little sub-group stopped to wait for the others, who had by now fled to shelter. Why not have another cigarette? Why not, indeed? So what if it’s raining, we ski at most one hundred yards at a time, our fellow travelers have broken ranks and are probably right now seeking asylum with the American embassy, the anti-fog in my goggles has switched teams and is now pro-fog, my clothes are soaked, but by all means, Otto, you go right ahead and have another Tyrol-boro, be my guest.

I shall return to the skiing, for therein lie a few more stories that bear telling, but let us turn our perspective towards evening, after we’ve changed into cultivated togs, warming to the thought of a convivial dinner ahead. But first, a word from our sponsors.

Not content merely to abuse us during the day, our hosts turned up the inhospitality heat in the evening, the time of penance. This was each Top Team member’s time to shine, to pitch press and prospective clients on the merits of their brand. Get us excited! Pumped! Damn right we’ll buy your stuff! Instead we were subjected to serial one-act dramas, each composed of unequal parts of Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams and Carrot Top.

One CEO spent half his peroration somberly eulogizing all the past racers his brand had sponsored, particularly a bright star who had died tragically and prematurely. He might as well have been explaining quantum mechanics to New Guinea highlanders. Another brand’s owner, gallows humor accenting his brow-swiping spiel, mentioned that the year after he purchased the company that was now in free-fall, sales only fell by half as much as the year before. At one point, I kid you not, he said the line that always kills in the Arlberg: [Barely muffled sobbing] “Please, I have a family.” Then he snarled at his underlings to rush to the stage and position their boots and skis in such a fashion that they appeared to be made for each other, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That was a high point, but for irony it took a back seat to Wintersteiger’s presentation. To hear them tell it, their machines could do anything, from harvesting all the millet in the Ruhr Valley to flattening an Atomic’s base, but you couldn’t tell it from our firsthand experience. The skis we were handed during our stay had never seen a machine, unless you count the axe that had evidently been taken to their bases. Remember the no-snow problem that plagued the race? Before we ever could take a run on them, every demo ski in the fleet had been ritually massacred by whatever contingent of blindfolded skiers had used them previously. Wintersteiger showing us how immaculately they – in theory - could prepare a ski base was akin to demonstrating how to make the perfect soufflé to starving children.

The centerpiece of our visit was to be the downhill that Kitzbuhel could no longer host, so when the race was re-located to St. Anton most of our crew went along with the new agenda and made arrangements to follow it there. But not all of us adhered to the schedule. A breakaway faction snagged whatever skis had the most polyethylene left on the base and struck out to ski Kitzbuhel that day. By sundown, two of us would become the only people to actually run the Streif on race day. This is a story unto itself, and so dear readers I leave you perched in the start house of the world’s most terrifying downhill, where I will pick up the thread of this tale next week.

The Pontiff