It's just a little town in Austria. To most observers it's just another ski resort in the Tyrol.
But the mountain, which looms over Kitzbuhel, is notorious. It's called the Hahnenkamm, translated into German, "the Rooster's Comb."
Since 1931, and more importantly since the World Cup of alpine skiing began in 1967, a downhill ski race which descends this treacherous mountain gave rise to a fable of gigantic proportions.
"Well everyone knows that Kitzbuhel is the scariest downhill in the world," says two-time overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway. "Everywhere else people would be like 30 seconds before going, 'Good luck, nail it and ski down there.' But at Kitzbuhel it's like...silence. No one says a word. It's different."
Indeed, Kitzbuhel, and the mere mention of that single word, inspires a range of emotions encompassing, joy, loathing, fear and to some maybe even love.
"Yeah I'm not sure it's really love," says Didier Cuche of Switzerland who has been the Kitzbuhel champion a record four times. "Every time I get to the start I ask myself... 'What am I doing here?'"
The story of this place spans generations. All of the greats have won here including Jean Claude Killy of France and the Austrian Franz Klammer, who was victorious on home snow four times to equal Cuche. Pirmin Zurbriggen, another Swiss icon won Kitzbuhel to solidify iconic status in the sport.
In 1980, Ken Read spawned the Crazy Canucks mythology by conquering the Hahnenkamm. He was the first non-European skier to turn the trick. Then Steve Podborski won twice in a row and Todd Brooker followed up in 1983. Canadians claimed the king of all downhill races four years running to create a legacy of their own.
"It adds something magic and special and it just never goes away," said Podborski as he reflected on his prime. "The reality is that as you roll into that start hut...you cannot have one iota of doubt in your mind that you're meant to be racing there."
Dark side to Hahnenkamm
There is a dark side to the Hahnenkamm. It has a tendency to claim victims because mistakes on its territory are not forgiven. Former champion Brooker's career ended in 1987 after a horrific "rag doll" tumble down the mountain.
In 1989 Canadian Brian Stemmle found a ditch at the end of the steep part of the course known as "The Steilhang." He got caught in the net and it tore him apart.
"It had ripped me right open, the front of my pelvis ripped right open like a book," Stemmle said haltingly. "I was lying there completely sideways and crooked and it wasn't a lot of pain at the time but afterwards when I woke up from the coma after five days it was excruciating."
Stemmle nearly died from the internal injuries and the lingering infection of the wounds he sustained on the face of the Hahnenkamm. It was a miracle he survived.
"It was unbearable," he recalled. "I didn't care if I skied again, walked again, talked again or anything. All I wanted was for the pain to go away because it was unbearable."
Somehow for Stemmle, the pain subsided and he managed to return to World Cup ski racing for nine more seasons. He came within an ace of winning the gold medal in the downhill at the 1998 Nagano Olympics but just couldn't seal the deal. Now he commentates on ski racing for Rogers Sportsnet and marvels at the complexity the Hahnenkamm presents to its challengers.
"The glory and all that goes into winning at Kitzbuhel and spraying champagne on people and having the best time in the world and the next thing you know you're lying in the fence," Stemmle concluded. "It's something about Kitzbuhel that brings people back every year and it gives me goose bumps just thinking about it every time. I get that tingling feeling on the back of my neck thinking about standing there in the start hut and watching them race. It's the most exciting thing in the world."
Kitzbuhel, at times, inspires a grotesque kind of valour. It's ski racing's Indianapolis 500 or the Boston Marathon of running. A few will win. Most just can't and many will hurt themselves trying.
"No race is like that," Svindal said, one of this year's favourites to claim the title. "It's what the World Cup is all about, the legends, the classics."
For more than 80 years all this has been the myth and the reality of Kitzbuhel.
Back to accessibility links