Musings from the Pontiff of Powder: Vol. 4

Killing it at Kitzbuhel: Part 2 : How I Won the Hahnenkamm And Other Life Lessons
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The Start Hut on the day of the Hahnenkamm Super G. Photo By: Rolex / Thierry Larrue

By: The Pontiff of Powder

To check out "Killing it at Kitzbuhel: Part 1,

Click Here.

The raison d’être of this extravagant expedition to Austria was to enhance the market share of Austrian brands in the US, and the linchpin to swaying brand loyalty was to have been attendance at the Hahnenkamm downhill. But tropical conditions required the World Cup to relocate the race to St. Anton, so that’s where our hosts re-routed our contingent of American dealers and press. There were, however, about five dealers and one ink-stained scribe who could not bear the thought of leaving Kitzbuhel behind, unskied, sacrificing the day instead to standing course-side while others got to slide downhill.

As others boarded transport to St. Anton, we renegades headed for the gondola. (We were self-aware enough to know we weren’t being good guests, hence our self-anointed nickname, the AAA team, for American Assholes in Austria.) We worked our way lift- by-lift to the upper snow fields where we found acres of rolled corduroy that was like a steeper Vail frontside, only without the speed restrictions. One of our number was launched over a roller and onto the disabled list, but otherwise a lovely time was had by all.

Our explorations led us to some mid-mountain terrain where the low snow levels exposed fencing and barbed wire meant to constrain the cattle that summered here. As a trailside amenity, this took some getting used to. The American ski experience is so sanitized it’s unimaginable that the essentials of animal husbandry would co-exist on the same slopes – and with equal privileges – as skiers. As long as one maintained a sharp eye for knee-level obstacles, the skiing was very entertaining, the snow softening to a nearly spring-like corn.

By late afternoon our group had split off into pairs, reducing my companions to one, namely Woody Jones of Manchester, New Hampshire, the soft-spoken scion of a ski shop family who convinced me that the thing to do was run the Hahnenkamm. We are at a mid-mountain chalet knocking back pear schnapps, the sun slipping into the jagged teeth of the alpine horizon when Woody utters the line spoken in every action movie, “Let’s get out of here.”

We strapped on our rental skis and skied down the ever-icier slopes that led to the start shack of the world’s most terrifying two minutes of travel. We paused while still on the open slope before darting into the woods that sheltered the start. A local burgher came out on the deck of his chalet and called out to us in carefully enunciated, thickly accented English: “Do not go down! It is too dangerous! Buy a postcard!”

I looked at Woody, whose placid expression said, not to worry, this guy’s a kook. But the concerned citizen was determined our deaths wouldn’t be on his conscience. He was a little louder when he yelled, “Go back and take the lift down! I have seen you ski! You will die!” Woody just waited him out, until our haranguer turned back in disgust at our intractable stupidity. “You ready?” was all Woody said as he slid across clattering boilerplate to the start shack.

As I stood in the same hallowed hut that once saw the likes of Klammer, Zurbriggen and Girardelli nervously dig in their poles just past the start wand, the words of the well-meaning local rang in my ears, “I have seen you ski! You will die!” At that moment, my money was on him. You see, the first few feet out of the shack are such a precipitous plunge that the start of the Hahney was long regarded as the fastest non-motorized means of accelerating a human being. As I looked down through the fading light at the lumpy, milky spindle of ice that was our only route down my attention feel to my ski tips and fear caused all organs capable of the feat to retract. I was on 200cm (then absurdly short!) recreational slalom skis the battered edges of which could not cut margarine on a warm day. The bases had taken structuring to a new level, deep gouges running in all directions, which would help to gutter away blood from the accident scene that was sure to ensue. But what could I do? Woody was already below me, perched at the top of the Mausefalle, tapping his poles impatiently into the cold, cruel ice.

Immediately out of the start I ignobly threw my skis sideways and stood on the downhill edge as hard as I could and that is the exact posture I retained during a blistering sideways descent towards the Woodman. Some adrenaline reserve enabled me to stop right at the brink of a pitch that made the first hundred yards look like what the French call “le pic nique.” The Mausefalle isn’t so much a pitch as it is a free fall, a section of the course no racer really ever touches. (Some unfortunates, such as Tahoe’s own Bill Hudson, have missed this fall-away turn entirely and were launched into terra incognita.) At the top, I set the front of my skis in moist pastureland while the burrs on my tails clung tenuously to the see-through icicle that was all that remained of the ski run. When I released my edges I accelerated like a Funny Car dragster, wobbling crazily yet inexorably gaining speed at an exponential rate. I fired into the forest below believing the worst was behind me.

Ha!, or as they say in Austria, Achtung! Just ahead lay the Steilhang, which simply should not be legal. Newtonian physics says a body entering the top of this bowling-ball topography at any speed (much less the customary 70mph) must fly into the forest planted helpfully at the bottom, just where the run goes off sharply stage right. The low probability of overcoming the laws of nature and actually hitting the exit is acknowledged with an inelegant network of netting intended to catch those who sink too low and funnel them over frayed nylon back onto the course.

Woody was made for this moment. If you ski New Hampshire on a regular basis, particularly those backwaters where not knowing how to operate the snow-making equipment is a local badge of honor, the convex, ice-slab-over-hay surface of the Steilhang is mother’s milk. Woody’s old-school Austrian technique and dedication to conditioning also served him in good stead, allowing him to etch a crisp, elegant series of edge-sets on the knobby ice.

Racers ski the Steilhang in one bracing turn. I did not. I skied the grass. Finally I had found the slope conditions my skis were prepared for, where they exhibited their best behavior. The pitch was a plunge and the turf was just slick enough to simulate sliding on snow. I made as many turns as my legs and lungs would allow, eventually exhaling my throat lining when my skis skittered back onto the narrow ice floe that continued down through the forest.

By now it was no longer late afternoon. It was nacht. Any visual clues proved useful as there was an intriguing differential in the gliding properties of the ice ribbon on which we were skiing and the increasingly gooey grass on its immediate perimeter. One slip off-line and self-arrest would be sudden, swift and leave scars. Anyone familiar with this infamous course (for a terrific synopsis you can’t beat Paul Hochman’s November piece in

Play magazine

) knows the perils that still lay between us and town, featuring fall-away turns and rollers that have fractured mighty men and smashed max-performance materiel into smithereens. I’d tell you how we made it if I could remember, but as the night grew darker there were fewer images cast with enough light to take a mental snapshot. Eventually only the racket emanating from our bouncing skis provided evidence that we were still on the trail.

Here’s what I remember from that night: I told everyone I


the Hahney. I


the Hahney. I


the Hahney. [Well, sort of.] I


the Hahney. I


the Hahney! Insufferable, I know.

The next day was devoted to the rituals of departure and farewells. As I was waiting outside our hotel I was approached by an executive for one of the Top Team brands who had served as our hosts. I anticipated an amiable, content-free chat about the weather and such and instead was treated to a frank assessment of just how uncouth, ill-mannered and generally dislikable were the American ski dealers he had devoted the past week to wooing. If my verbal assailant, who delivered his spiel of discontent from a halo of thick, black-tobacco smoke, had overheard snickers he judged impolitic, it might have had something to do with his ludicrous, first-generation hair plugs and penchant for hitting on every frau in the German-speaking world, including those one-third his age. In a word, oy. As a relationship-building exercise, the trip was a fiasco from most viewing perspectives.

I suspect some dealers came away with enough good will incurred that they shifted a few open-to-buy dollars into Austrian coffers. But it would take several more years for the pendulum to swing in Austria’s direction, led by the resurgence of Atomic. Now the brand and dealer landscape has been so irrevocably altered that this vignette from the 1990’s seems as remote as the 1890’s. Most of the dealers then so royally feted are no longer with us, commercially speaking. Ditto several magazine titles. As for the French goliaths that the Austrians then could only dream of displacing, Rossignol has fallen far off its throne and Salomon now answers to Atomic. As Inspector Jacques Clouseau would say, “It is all part of life’s rich pageant.”

Epilogue and Moral of our Story: The wheel of life is always turning. For all those ski brands who feel they are being mugged in today’s market (name one that doesn’t), take solace in tales of renewal such as those experienced by Atomic and the chief who presided over its renaissance, Roger Talermo. When I met Talermo in the mid-1980’s he had recently been re-assigned to Salomon’s binding division from his prior post at the Finnish subsidiary. It was not the most exalted position, perhaps most generously characterized as a professional development opportunity. The training must have taken, for Talermo rose steadily in the Salomon organization. Several years later as head of the Finnish conglomerate Amer, he would engineer the acquisition of Salomon and its absorption into the Atomic family. Talermo’s career trajectory suggests that if you can just manage to hang onto the wheel as it spins, it’s bound to land on your number eventually.

For further long perorations leading to scant consolation and un-actionable advice, please stay tuned to this column, ahem, excuse me, blog.