The Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuhel, Austria, is recognized as the world’s most difficult and feared downhill ski race. Skiers are pushed to their physical and mental limits as they kick out of the starting gate and instantly accelerate to 60 mph before launching over 100 feet through the air. The ‘Streif’ is relentless from start to finish with notorious sections such as the Mausefalle jump, the fall-away Steilhang turn, and the dreaded Hausberg traverse. Recognized as the Super Bowl of ski racing, the Hahnenkamm is where legends are made and careers are broken.
In 1990, I watched two of my teammates fly over the protective fencing, abruptly ending their seasons. I tried to remain calm as my roommate was strapped to a backboard and air lifted to the nearest hospital. Moments later, I placed my poles over the start wand and starred down into the abyss. I rocked forward and let gravity take control. The next two minutes were a blur as I made a series of linked recoveries. When I crossed the finish line I thrust my arms skyward in celebration despite finishing DFL (Dead F’ing Last).
Tradition continues this weekend with the 74th running of the Hahnenkamm downhill as the world’s best skiers risk it all for the coveted title, “Hahnenkamm Sieger’ (translation = champion). Only two American’s have earned this designation and have had their names imprinted onto their own gondola car (Buddy Werner ’59 and Daron Rahlves ’03).Surprisingly, this year Daron Rahlves has decided to return to Kitzbuhel and ride to the start in his gondola car to forerun the race, eight years since retiring from the World Cup circuit.
It’s difficult to understand why anyone would want to take this kind of risk for no apparent reward. Perhaps it’s a personal challenge to see if he still has what it takes to survive the world’s most challenging test for downhill ski racers.This Saturday is filled with anticipation as Kitzbuhel marks the last downhill race before the Olympic Games. While many of the world’s best will be laying it on the line to qualify for an Olympic spot, Rahlves will be throwing down his best effort in the name of pride.
- Nat Geo Expeditions