Kitzbühel: The Oldest School
All (skiing) eyes have been on Kitzbühel over the last few days, as the 75th ‘Hahnenkammrennen’ welcomed the world’s best alpine ski racers. Although the World Cup’s most prestigious downhill race celebrated a historic milestone this year, the history of alpine skiing in Kitzbühel actually goes back a lot further, as our Tirol correspondent Chris Taine discovered.
Mont Blanc, Jungfrau, Matterhorn… Kitzbüheler Horn? If you were to line up the most famous mountains in the Alps, poor old Kitzbüheler Horn would definitely look like the runt of the litter. But the angular peak, which although only clocking in at 2000m can be instantly recognised from almost any vantage point in the surrounding Kitzbüheler Alps, has played a crucial role in the development of alpine skiing and winter tourism.
These days, the Kitzbüheler Horn is a sector of Kitzbühel that is mostly known as an area where beginners and novices can hone their skills on a wide, sunny, south-facing plateau. Ambitious skiers who want to follow the tracks of legendary skiers such as Franz Klammer, Hermann Meier and Didier Cuche, stick to the Hahnenkamm mountain across the valley. This is where the ‘Streif’ (the subject of a recently released documentary) is located, the most famous and feared downhill race track in the world.
Everything moves at a slower pace on the Kitzbüheler Horn though. Including the lifts. While Kitzbühel has invested heavily in lift infrastructure in recent years (3S-Bahn connecting Pengelstein and Jochberg, and now this season the new Wagstättbahn gondola in Jochberg), the lifts on the Kitzbüheler Horn are reassuringly quaint. No eight-seater express chairs with seated heats to be found here! But this is what part of the charm of the mountain, which feels a world away from the sometimes crowded pistes around Kitzbühel proper.
There’s also a snow park here, much closer for Kitzbühel and Kirchberg based skiers and riders than the Hanglalm Park over at Pass Thurn. Apparently – and unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to confirm this for myself – the Horn also hides some worthwhile off piste descents. With the redevelopment of the neighbouring Bichlalm as a touring and off piste area, it’s likely that the Horn will see even less traffic on a powder day. All the better if you want yours to be the only tracks on the mountain!
And, although the mountain may feel a bit like a forgotten corner of Kitzbühel at times, it holds an important place in alpine skiing history. Local man Franz Reisch, inspired by reading the accounts of Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, ordered himself a pair of ski planks from Norway, and set about figuring out how to use them. On 15 March, 1893, Reisch went up to the top of the Kitzbüheler Horn and successfully skied back down to the valley. The ensuing account of the descent was the first documented record of alpine skiing in the Alps.
In the decade that followed Reisch’s historic Abfahrt, the popularity of skiing and winter tourism grew rapidly in Kitzbühel, as it did throughout the Alps. As a direct result of the rising popularity of skiing, and Reisch’s passion for the wooden planks he imported from Norway, the Kitzbüheler Ski Club (KSC) was established in 1902, and remains one of the most successful, storied and historic ski clubs in the world.
Of course, this brings to mind another ski club established in the early years of the 20th century. The Ski Club of Great Britain was formed in 1903 by a group of enthusiastic Brits who had caught the skiing bug. In the decades that followed, influential Britons such as Arnold Lunn would play an integral role in the development of alpine skiing and alpine ski racing. The growth of ski racing saw the first international race take place on the Hahnenkamm in 1931, and the fearsome course fascinates ski racers just as much today as it did 75 years ago.
Kitzbühel is covered by the Tirol Snow Card – 87 ski areas, 1100 lifts and 4000km of pistes.