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If knees really knocked, mine must have been reverberating around the Kitzbühel valley. I was about to ski the most feared downhill racecourse in the world. Even where I stood waiting, the run was so icy, bumpy and steep that I could hardly stand up.
The Hahnenkamm – the very word sends shivers down the spine of most skiers – is a mountain above the Austrian resort of Kitzbühel that hosts a series of races each January: slalom, giant-slalom, super-giant and, the blue riband event, the downhill. Race week is the highlight of Austria’s skiing calendar, and the medieval town bustles with celebrities, reporters and tens of thousands of tourists enjoying not just the races but the parties and side events. This winter a bigger turnout than ever is expected – though the first races took place in 1931, this year the event celebrates its 75th edition. Events kick off with the “Weisswurst” (white sausage) après-ski party on Friday, January 23, followed by the Kitz Charity Trophy on Saturday and the Playboy “after-race” party on Sunday. Whatever the results, thousands of visitors will applaud their ski heroes at the awards ceremony on Saturday night.
For the racers, the downhill has acquired an almost mythic status. Franz Klammer, who dominated the race in the 1970s, said he regarded his fourth victory, as an “old man” of 30 in 1984, as more satisfying than his Olympic gold medal. Bill Johnson, the 1984 Olympic gold medallist, summed it up: “No one is a champion until he has won at Kitzbühel.”
But perhaps the event’s most surprising feature is that each year, after the racing is over and the course has been tidied up, it is opened to the public for the rest of the winter. Visitors can choose to tackle the whole course – the “Streif” – or opt for the gentler “Family Streif”, which bypasses the most terrifying sections, such as the nightmarishly steep “Mousetrap”. How did I do? Well I got to the bottom, eventually, but it was not a pretty sight.
Photograph: Topher Donahue