In Denmark, scientists used carbon dating on a ski discovered in Greenland in 1997 to reveal that the single board was at least 1,000 years old. They said the 85-centimeter plank, made from larch, was a common tool for winter travel used by the Norsemen who, in 980 A.D., somehow first crossed the cold open ocean. Older skis have been found in Mongolia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. There are Chinese cave paintings of hunters on skis thought to be more than 2,000 years old. The ski predates Christ, and in some regions, even the wheel.
But the modern birthplace of the sport of skiing is in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where the Hahnenkamm, alpine skiing’s most-famous roller coaster, is run every year. Begun in 1931, the race down the steep white throat of the Strief has only ever been interrupted by drought or war. The entire World Cup was built around the drama of the Mausfalle, and the shudder when you first drop down that face like a man falling by the window.
When Jean-Marc, the Frenchman, asked me to watch “The Race” with him, I felt as if there were offerings I should bring or old precious clothes I should wear. As if he were inviting me to Mecca, or telling me that we would be drinking lager from the Holy Grail. The two of us had met on a press trip and had talked about starting a magazine together, and had become friends in the little pleasures we took in the particulars of travel — a glass of wine with lunch in Italy, or the quality of German beer. I remember how his face lit up when they gave us a Mercedes Kompressor at the rental desk in Munich because they didn’t have the car we had reserved. On the Autobahn, he kept pushing it faster whenever the speed limit lights above the road were clear.
“Ahh,” he smiled. “I have a mee-stress now.”
He had the face of a sunburned badger, like one of those retired athletes on the sideline watching the score. He had the big strong Gallic nose, a shaggy head of pepper hair and sleepy blue eyes that lit up when it was his turn to lead the conversation, which he adored.
He said, “T-e long-eng is too Ameri-can,” when I told him about the book I wanted to write, and the story I wanted to tell. “You pee-pull all-ways talk about what ees-ent t’ere.”
The adrenaline of gravity was still on our faces like coffee with Schnapps from skiing all afternoon. We drank yellow glasses of cold Pilsener at the hotel outside of Orderndorf, outside of Kitzbuehel, and decided we would make a movie about the World Cup season. When the waitress came by, we ordered a bottle of wine and asked for menus too.
“We weel call it t-e Alpine Cir-cus,” Jean-Marc said with boozy authority. “It wheel show what we fee-yul.”
The highlight would be of the Hahnenkamm: behind the scenes with the coaches pacing in long parkas and foreshadowing shots of the slope like an icy slide straight to oblivion; the Austrian soldiers grooming the course with crampons on so they don’t fall off the edge of the earth. And the orange fencing down the Streif like a luge to the first gate covered with the “yellow line” from the piss of fear.
By the time the racers reach the first gate, they are going 70 miles per hour. The name of each winner, the flag of his country and the year he won is painted on the gondolas that you ride up the mountain. Buddy Werner, 1959, was the only American for more than 40 years, until Daron Rahlves won on a shortened course in 2003. And when we thought about who we would follow for our movie, I insisted one be an American, such as Rahlves or Bode Miller. Jean-Marc wanted one to be French, and of course, an Austrian, like Maier.
“But the French are no good.”
His thick face flushed. He looked around the room.
“They’re fading. It would be better if we could find an Italian.”
“Italian?!” Jean-Marc exclaimed, and looked at his big dark hands as if he had given up smoking only weeks before. “Merde.”
The crowds filled the streets. The bars were open all night, and more than 100,000 people took the bright red trains up from the cities, from the farms with their gray, tall uber-Abner bumpkin hats, red and white painted faces and cases of Zipfer biere. Most of them didn’t even bother to get a room, staying warm on the beer and the gluehwine as whole families — mom, dad and the kids — all got drunk together.
But they were good drunks. So we hardly saw any fighting. We would film that too, how skiing was their national pastime and their birthright in the cold speed, the crosses on the peaks and the endless road of snow. We would film the finish lines and high-speed crashes where the racers are into the nets like tossed dolls, like splaying, unfortunate fish. And in the starting house where it’s the cold and the nerves at the same time and there is always the idea of an ocean somewhere far below.
We would film their eyes as wide as headlights as they watched the mountain unfold. The size of the legs they ran on. Their feet skimming the slope. We would make gods out of wind and wine and the history of candy-coated towns with blue walls and warm windows; a beautiful eternity forever lost in the perfect faces of passing women, and that sound of our heels clicking on the cobblestone.
“Austria is t-e heart t-at’s all-ways beat-ing!” Jean-Marc said, and pounded his fist against his chest. “Eet is a love song now.”
It was a beautiful meal, the pumpkin soup in a thick orange broth and the buttery tenderloin of Chateaubriand. Headlights were curving by on the narrow road as it started to snow. I looked at the waitress in the long green Austrian dress and black vest with the straight black hair as we waited for the Williams and thought, “And my room is so close.”
I thought about how a split second can last a lifetime and how for ski racers it’s more important to win the Hahnenkamm than gold. “Because all t-e other race-airs know.”
“Kaiser Franz,” Franz Klammer, waited seven seasons between his third and fourth victories, an entire career. It was only for The Race that he even kept at it. He was still handsome and strong in the easy way he admitted it the night we had dinner with him as the guests of Head Skis, talking about how simply his victories could have been failures, “Maybe that is what I miss the most,” he said. “The nerves.”
The next day, we stopped at the top of the gondola where there is a small museum with posters and photos and a restaurant with big glass windows that looked toward the valley where the racers were all sitting by the fire. It was the first day of training and there were half-eaten plates of sausage and bread, half-empty bowls of cereal, little espressos that went untouched and songs that kept starting and stopping. From a few tables away, we could smell their fear.
“I would say ‘good luck,’” the Frenchman said. “But dey would not hear-ear.”
“The training’s even harder,” Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe told us when we went looking for former racers to interview. “Because you still have to ski the course and there’s nothing to win, or lose.”
Von Hohenlohe was a Mexican-Austrian prince and part-time rock star, who performed as Andy Himalaya or Royal Disaster. His black hair was down to his shoulders and he had thick black sunglasses and a Mexican flag on the back of the black parka that he wore. His beautiful blonde girlfriend was as fine as fresh snow. Each turn of her head revealed another discovery of her white smooth-skin, and she held a cigarette as if it were breathing on its own.
“Can I light that for you?”
Von Hohenlohe said the organizers might as well canvas the mental hospitals to try and find skiers to forerun the course — to “set the line” down the frozen groomed face for the racers to follow. He told us about being on the World Cup, and the last time he raced at Kitzbuehel. The two skiers he was traveling with were a Swiss who had skied for eight campaigns and was thinking of retiring, and an African from Senegal.
“What do you think is cheaper,” the Swiss racer asked Hubertus before the event, wondering if he shouldn’t just go and wait at the next race after the Hahnenkamm. “The hotel in Wengen, or the hospital in Kitzbuehel?”
The Swiss skier chose the hotel. “But the downhiller from Senegal did come,” Hubertus smiled. It was a flashbulb smile. “He didn’t know enough to be scared.”
He said they were like pirates off the train, with their bags, their bright coats and the bottle of wine that they shared. They stopped at every bar. It took them seven hours to make it to the hotel. But they couldn’t stop the morning, and on the gondola, they hardly spoke a word. They dressed like deep-sea divers beneath the deck, pulling their race suits on where it was cold as a morgue. Hubertus said he was curious to notice how his Senegalese friend was getting so pale. “It was a transformation, really,” he said. “He did not look well.”
They stood against the fence to watch the training runs, catching their breath as the first racers came by, and dropped away like marbles. So the Senegalese kept getting paler as he suddenly turned to von Hohenlohe and demanded, “Do you believe in god?”
“Of course,” von Hohenlohe replied. “I am a Christian.”
Then the next racer came, with the battered fabric and desperate scratch of skis as he disappeared down the Streif, on his way to the stark sudden drop of the Mausfalle, where he would have to fight with all his body to resist the forces of gravity and velocity trying to pull him sideways off the hill.
He flew like they all do, like an awkward reluctant bird toward the steep face of the Steilhang. Into some certain disaster or glory waiting far below.
The Senegalese was white as a ghost. He asked von Hohenlohe, “But does god believe in you?”
Peter Kray is the editor-at-large for Mountain Gazette, and according to Fayhee, a hopeless romantic in every sense of the term. His new book, “American Snow: The Snowsports Instruction Revolution,” will be published by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors on Nov. 21, 2011.