The first time Wiley Maple encountered the Streif, the world’s most fearsome downhill, he was twenty-one years old. Typically, downhill racers take a couple of training runs in the days leading up to the event. Before each one, they inspect the course, which entails side-slipping down while visualizing the line that will deliver them to the finish in the least amount of time. As a member of the U.S. Ski Team, Maple had side-slipped, and then skied, most of the World Cup’s other majestic, gnarly downhills, but this track—which descends an unremarkable and not particularly tall forested alp called the Hahnenkamm, in Kitzbühel, Austria—seemed to represent a whole new level of inhospitable. The thought of hurling himself down the narrow, steep, snaking flume of ice and shadow made him queasy. He wasn’t the first previously undaunted young buck to doubt himself when confronted by the Streif’s proportions and demands—no other course has inspired such fear and respect among the craft’s practitioners, or likely sent as many of them into (or over) the protective fencing and then to the hospital—but none of those predecessors had been him, here, now.
A couple of hours later, he was in the starting hut for his first training run, peering down past the first two turns toward the precipice called the Mausefalle, or mousetrap, a two-hundred-foot jump over which the previous racer had just vanished. Word reached the start, via radio, that the guy had crashed. Course hold: time to wait. Twenty minutes passed. You don’t get far in this line of work unless you have some control over your nerves, and so Maple calmed himself. Eventually, he got the alles ist klar and, in a self-imposed daze, nudged into the start. Ski poles over wand, beep-beep-beep-beep-beeeeep, two pushes, two strides, and schuss. A half-dozen seconds later, airborne over the Mausefalle at sixty-five miles an hour, he thought, Holy shit, I’m in Kitzbühel. He snapped to, and tried to bear down. Initiating the infamous hard-right turn at the bottom of a wall of ice called the Steilhang, he crossed the tips of his skis, lost the line, and careered into the fence. This was where, years before, the Canadian Brian Stemmle, off his line, had caught a ski in the netting. That crash, which came to be known as the Wishbone, split Stemmle’s pelvis open and put him in a coma. But Maple got away clean. After a moment, he crawled under the netting, put his skis back on, and reëntered the course a little farther down to have a look at the rest of it. On race day, he came in fifty-third. This was in 2012.
My own “Holy shit, I’m in Kitzbühel” moment came on a Tuesday in January, earlier this year, after I stepped off the train at the base of the Hahnenkamm gondola. It was dusk. The town was still relatively quiet, in the absence of the eighty or so thousand fans who were expected to invade that weekend for the annual series of Alpine races and debauches. I glanced up and saw for the first time, shadow-blue and telephoto close, the final section of the Streif, where the racers, after soaring off a jump, come hauling across a steep, bumpy, fallaway traverse—legs burning, skis thrashing—and into the final plunge, the Zielschuss, reaching speeds of almost ninety miles an hour. I had been watching the race on television for decades, whenever and wherever I could find it, with a heart-in-throat intensity of devotion that embarrasses me, and this last hellbent stretch was always the emotional climax, the site of either life-threatening crackups or ecstatic finishes, amid the drunken, swaying throngs. And here it was, the empty stage, the star of the show. The course was marked off with blue food dye, which, in flat light, helps the skiers see the contours in the snow. Viewed in person, from below, the traverse looked narrower and steeper than it did on TV. From the angle of the course workers’ stance, as they tended to the slope in crampons, you’d have guessed that they were ice climbing. I walked up on the snow to the finish area. If the Streif was an idol, I was close enough to ask for an autograph.
The Hahnenkamm, as the event is commonly called, is the most important race on the men’s World Cup calendar, the ultimate prize, owing to its peerless difficulty, danger, and lore. (The women don’t race there; their tour doesn’t pass through the same places, and avoids the more extreme courses.) It’s dogmatic that pretty much every racer on tour would prefer victory on the Streif to Olympic gold. (The money—the winner gets about eighty-five thousand dollars—is almost an afterthought.) The Streif was first run in 1937. Then there was an eight-year hiatus, because of the war. There are now three races in Kitzbühel that weekend. In addition to the downhill (typically on Saturday), there is a slalom race (lots of tight turns) on Sunday, and a Super G (a shorter, turnier version of the downhill) on Friday. But it’s the downhill that really makes reputations, breaks bodies, and draws the vast crowds. Most of the year, Kitzbühel, a medieval town of eight thousand residents, in the province of Tyrol, is a fancy resort, with swank hotels and shops, but the Hahnenkamm-rennen transforms it into a riotous carnival, part Indy 500, part South Padre Island. The bars and the old cobbled streets fill with enthusiasts of all ages, many of them with no place to sleep, enacting the rituals of performative public inebriation, while in lamplit panelled Stuben the upper crust of Middle Europe convene for private self-congratulation over their good fortune at being here, now, at the center of the Alpine universe. The madness has always been an essential component of the experience for the racers, too. They usually stay in hotels in town and walk to the gondola, through the throngs. The revelry often keeps them up at night, occasionally luring them out and sucking them in.
Over the years, the U.S. team had always bunked at the Goldener Greif, a grand old Tyrolean hotel in the center of town, where the racers, no matter their results, could soak up the atmosphere, both high and low. This year, the Kitzbüheler Ski Club, which stages the event, had stuck them twenty minutes away, on the outskirts of a village called St. Johann. No one was happy about this. The hotel, just down the road from a particleboard plant, had the vibe of a Courtyard by Marriott, and every trip to the race hill required a drive through heavy traffic. The K.S.C. had booked me there, too, so on my first night I found myself eating with the team at their training table, such as it was. In years past, the team had hired a chef from New Zealand, but here the athletes ate like Bavarian policemen: the hotel served bratwurst, fatty pork, and boiled potatoes and carrots.
There were seven racers, four coaches, a team doctor, and three ski technicians, who tended to each racer’s vast quiver of skis. The head coach and papa bear of the team was John McBride, a fifty-four-year-old Coloradan who had coached the U.S. downhillers during the heyday of Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves—the only American to win the Hahnenkamm in my lifetime. This was McBride’s twentieth trip to Kitzbühel. McBride, known as Johno, had a four-year stint with the Canadians before returning, two years ago, to run the American men’s speed program. That spring, he brought his racers to his ranch near Aspen, where they camped in his yard (no electronics allowed) and submitted to team-bonding exercises: karate, gymnastics, ice hockey, backpacking. One day, he took them on a hike, and before they knew it they were shimmying up the knife edge of nearby Capitol Peak, among the most difficult climbs of Colorado’s fourteen-thousand-foot mountains. Once they made it home, back to their phones, they read about all the hikers who had died there. Last summer, McBride put them through a Navy-SEAL training course, where they learned to solve math problems while submerged in ice-cold water. McBride wanted the racers to get accustomed to discomfort and to learn to think and act as a team. “It’s important that we enjoy the process and each other’s company,” he told me. “We don’t get to go home to our families during the season, except maybe over New Year’s. I tell the guys, ‘This is it. This is your support network.’ ”
McBride is a bantam of a man, with sharp features, bright-green eyes, and burly sideburns. He embodies a certain maverick Rocky Mountain strain of American ski racing, an antidote to the mechanical Teutonic approach, which has occasionally been adopted here. He is nothing like the gruff scold played by Gene Hackman, based on the longtime coach Bob Beattie, in the Robert Redford film “Downhill Racer.” McBride can be exacting on the hill and is a fitness freak, but he can also hang with the boys and can certainly cut loose. The week before Kitzbühel, in a Swiss bar, he’d chipped a tooth while trying to logroll a barrel. “Fred Flintstoned it off that thing a few times,” he said.
McBride grew up outside Aspen, on a cattle ranch his parents named Lost Marbles. Until last year, his father held the Princeton ice-hockey record for the most points scored in a season; he is also a pilot, and in the early seventies he flew my aunt in a single-engine plane out over the mountains near Aspen, so that she could deposit the ashes of her recently departed twin sister. My aunt opened the box, and the remains filled the cockpit.
Johno and his siblings ski-raced, played hockey, castrated bulls, and learned to fly. McBride’s younger brother, Peter, a photographer, once told me that, when he was a kid, he found himself on a chairlift in Aspen with Anderl Molterer, a Kitzbühel native who won the Hahnenkamm twice, in the fifties. He asked Molterer what it was like to ski the Streif. Molterer replied, “Peter, when you are in ze starting gate you have shit in ze pants.”
At the hotel, the table talk turned, as it will, to the Streif. Someone suggested having recreational skiers run it, during the TV broadcast, to convey, to the viewing public, the discrepancy in aptitude.
“The night before the first training run is stressful,” Travis Ganong, a Californian who has won a handful of World Cup races over the years, said. “We try not to think about it.”
“I looked at it today and quickly looked away,” Jared Goldberg, from Utah, said. Last year, skiing with a hyperextended elbow from a fall the week before, he crashed into the fence after the Hausberg jump and got a concussion.
“You make it through this course and the rest of the season seems so easy.”
“That’s why a lot of guys get hurt at Garmisch”—the next downhill race on the calendar. “They let their guard down. It’s so chill compared to here.”
Hahnenkamms are like wines. Each year has its own bite. In 2016, one after another, the top skiers, undone by flat light, crashed out. Two Austrians were airlifted off the course; the Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal—with Bode Miller, the best of his generation not to win the Hahnenkamm—tore up his knee. Goldberg remembers waiting his turn, following the carnage on a TV in the Red Bull tent: “We were watching people eat shit. It was like every other guy was getting heli’ed out. My turn was coming up. I had a come-to-Jesus moment: I’m ready to die. Then they cancelled the race.” Once the top thirty had run, the organizers deemed the course too dangerous for the rest of the field.
Scotty Veenis, one of the coaches, had offered to get me onto the course during inspection. He felt that it was important for a civilian to see the Streif up close. Another coach said, “Show him a picture of the last guy you took down.” On his phone, Veenis called up a photograph of a middle-aged man, in a helmet, with his face covered in blood. It was the father-in-law of Ted Ligety, the American giant-slalom star, whom Veenis had brought along on the inspection of the downhill in Bormio, an icy track in Italy, the month before. On a shadowy pitch, the father-in-law lost an edge and rag-dolled a hundred yards down into the fencing. “Your edges better be sharp,” McBride said. “It’s the real deal.” It occurred to me that a headlong slide into the netting would be less than ideal for a fifty-year-old flatlander with a long list of wonky ligaments and disks, and a recent spate of concussions. It occurred to McBride that this would be less than ideal for him as well.
He asked how good a skier I was. The racers all looked at me. This was no time to make any claims. I mumbled something about having been a middling high-school racer, back in the Reagan Administration. “I mean, if you think it’s a bad idea . . .”
At six-forty-five the next morning, I crawled over a pile of skis to a spot atop a crate in back of the team’s supply truck—a windowless white van crammed with gear. I was joined, in the darkness, by Scotty Veenis and Addie Godfrey, Wiley Maple’s girlfriend. Veenis played Hendrix on his phone. The van lurched and moaned; McBride, at the wheel, exaggeratedly braked and swerved to toss us around. Twenty minutes later, the side door slid open. Out of the predawn gloom and fog appeared the final, perilous, spotlit pitches of the Streif. At the gondola station, we met up with a couple of other skiers, including Daron Rahlves, the American who won in 2003. They referred to him as D Money.
One of the coaches gave me a green leg band for course access. If anyone asked, he said, I was a doctor. The gondola (each cabin has a winner’s name on it) climbed steeply through a forest; a chute under the lift had a lone track, which, it turned out, Rahlves had made the day before. Being in Kitzbühel had awakened a yen for adrenaline.
The course is two miles long and descends about three thousand vertical feet. It takes the racers just under two minutes to make it down. (In 1937, it took the winner twice that.) The start was a short walk from the top of the gondola. There was a fancy windowed Red Bull tent for racers and V.I.P.s, and, next to that, the old wooden starter shed. At this hour, the hut was empty. Someone had put up a pair of spare wood beams in the shape of an X to block the entrance. We removed one beam and stepped inside. During the race, there would be a small crowd inside consisting of a few racers, their coaches, race officials, and whatever aura of extreme anxiety and nervousness envelops them there. The shed, and the holding pen outside—where the skiers stare into space, stretch, stand knee-deep in the snow to stiffen their boots, close their eyes and rehearse the run in their mind’s eyes—constitute the Hahnenkamm’s emotional epicenter, the germ of the mayhem down in the valley. A portion of that clenched mood plummets down the run with each racer, like unexploded ordnance, and detonates amid the pandemonium below, in a kind of steady bombardment of relief and adoration that reverberates for days.
The view from the start was unpleasant. The run falls away quickly. Rahlves pointed to the first gate and said, “That’s where you know whether you have it or not.” I knew already that I didn’t have it, so it was a relief to hear that this part was closed to inspection. We skied down outside the fence and crossed the course above the lip of the Mausefalle and then swung in below the landing, at the entrance to a section of hairpin turns called the Karussell. The compression here—an abrupt transition to flatter, rutted terrain—creates a force of more than three g’s. On race day, this patch would shatter the heel of an Austrian skier, Max Franz. Rahlves pointed uphill with a ski pole, sketching out the preferred line off the Mausefalle. I pictured the worst instance I’d ever seen of a less preferable line: the slow-motion TV replays of Hans Grugger, in 2011, twisting sideways in the air and landing on the side of his head. He was in a coma for two weeks. It felt like bad luck even to think of it.
Everything about the course was nastier than it looked on TV. The route was narrower, more variable. The scale was oddly smaller, the threats closer at hand and closer together. “The dark is darker, the rough is rougher, everything seems sharp,” McBride said. One of the great problems of ski racing is that pitch doesn’t translate on TV. If the camera adds ten pounds, it subtracts ten degrees. It also obscures the variations in terrain—compressions, dropoffs, bumps, and grooves. Only in slow motion can you get a sense of what all this does to a pair of skis, and gain some appreciation for the skill and the strength required to keep them pointed downhill. And maybe only by standing on the Streif could one see what a puzzle of misdirection, pitch, purchase, and centrifugal force it is. The transitions were abrupt, like traps. When people speak of ice, one imagines a smooth surface, but this had a nap to it, and a blue tint, from the food dye. The chatter of our skis sounded like a roar. It’s widely accepted that a course like this would never be certified as safe today, if it weren’t already grandfathered (and superheroed) in.
After the Karussell came the Steilhang, which sounds like what it is: steep as hell. As the pitch fell away, my edges failed to bite. I’d been told to stay off the racing line, and stick to the softer snow on the fringe, but I couldn’t really see any snow, as I understood snow to be. The slope dropped off into a pair of big swinging, off-camber turns. This is the crux of the course; a racer needs to nail the second turn and carry as much speed as possible into a long, relatively flat glide through the woods, the Brückenschuss. The legendary Austrian racer Franz Klammer has called this maneuver, the one that first tripped up Maple and nearly split Stemmle in half, “the most difficult turn” in downhill racing. Bode Miller once came into it with so much pace that he had to ski up onto and along the face of the safety barrier, like a surfer climbing a wave.
The Steilhang exuded the full gloom of a north face at befogged dawn. McBride had told me that this was a “no-fall zone.” I started skidding helplessly across and down. In front of me, Addie Godfrey fell. I went into a full defensive squat—what surfers call the poo stance—as Godfrey’s slide was mercifully halted by the poles of one of the gates. Clattering past, I soon found myself at the fence, still on my feet.
It’s often said that Alpine skiing is an outdoor sport, a no-duh remark intended to account for the disruptions, delays, and inevitable instances of unfairness caused by wind, fog, warmth, snow, rain, and drought. The Hahnenkamm downhill has been cancelled eight times since the Second World War. On numerous other occasions, the course has been shortened, almost always by moving the start lower. (In those instances, victory comes with a hidden asterisk.) Owing to climate change, natural snow—winter—is less dependable than it used to be, especially in this part of the Alps and at this relatively low altitude. (Even so, the president of the International Ski Federation, the sport’s governing body, known as FIS, has denied the existence of climate change.) But the advent, decades ago, of snowmaking and then of other snow-preparation techniques has made the course, and the entire World Cup tour, more reliable, more uniform. Advances in safety precautions have also tamed the trajectories and the consequences of the skiers’ wipeouts, even as better equipment and fitness have enabled the athletes to reach higher speeds.
That evening, at the K.S.C., I met one of the most significant instruments of this transformation, Christian Steinbach—“the magic ice man!,” as McBride called out upon seeing him. Steinbach, a native of Kitzbühel, is the inventor of the system, now all but universally implemented in competition, of injecting water into the snow. Previous means of firming up a racing surface, so that it won’t rut up and fall apart, entailed spraying it with a fire hose or having large groups of people stomp on it—the Austrian Army still deploys to Kitzbühel for this purpose.
The Steinbach “injektion system” consists of six connecting yellow tubes, each five metres long and perforated with nozzles at intervals of ten centimetres. A crew arrays the tubes on the snow in a zigzag pattern and runs water through them. The nozzles can shoot water thirty centimetres deep. Evaporation cools the snow; capillary action distributes the water. The goal is a durable surface—“Not icy, but hard,” Steinbach said. This system was essential to course prep at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, Sochi, Vancouver, and Nagano, whose mild temperatures were not naturally conducive to a firm racing surface.
Steinbach, who is seventy-two, has white-and-sandy hair that falls boyishly over his eyes. He holds two engineering degrees, more than four hundred patents, and a world championship for high-altitude hang gliding (nearly thirty thousand feet above sea level, in an oxygen suit). Steinbach’s son Christoph is famous in Austria as a boogie-woogie piano player, and his son-in-law is the race director for the women’s World Cup. Steinbach coached the Lebanese ski team at the Olympics in Lake Placid, in 1980. He grew up racing and was a forerunner—the skiing version of a pace car—on the Hahnenkamm six times, starting in 1967. “We don’t have any nets in those days,” he said. Well into the nineties, it was not uncommon for racers to wing over the rudimentary fencing and into the spectators, or the rocks and trees.
Steinbach took me by his workshop, in a shopping center on the way to St. Johann. He poured out cups of apple juice and gave a tour of his inventions. There were testimonials on the walls. One was a framed cover story from Seilbahn und Bus Fachmagazin, “Der Schnee Flüsterer”—“The Snow Whisperer.” “Water has a brain,” he said. “No one knows this.” Steinbach claims to have no competitors, though he reckons that the Chinese will eventually displace him. “I prepare courses all over the world, but not in Kitzbühel—they think they know better than me,” he said, with a mischievous smile. “They work with my injector here, but they sometimes don’t know how to hold it.” Steinbach went on, “The course chief now, Herbert Hauser, is my protégé. I took him to Nagano in 1998.”
For fifteen years, Steinbach was one of eight course chiefs on the Streif, in charge of the Seidlalm section, and was responsible for adding a blind jump there, in 1994. “You don’t see the next gate,” he said, and explained that, to find the proper line, you aim for the hospital, down in town. That year, Franz Heinzer, a three-time winner, misjudged the line and landed in the fencing—and, ultimately, the hospital. It ended his career. “Here he made his last jump,” Steinbach said. “He lost the skin on his face.” (When I asked Axel Naglich, a former race director, who grew up a hundred yards from the finish, about Steinbach, he said, “We fired him, because he is an asshole.”) There has always been grumbling, mostly unsubstantiated, that the race officials make the course more dangerous than it needs to be, out of some combination of sick pride and hunger for TV ratings.
“The problem here in Kitzbühel is they make almost ice,” Steinbach said. “I want high density, but not ice.” This year, one frozen bump on the course was deemed menacing enough that workers had to attack it with a chainsaw. The higher-density snow makes for a more durable surface, but over time it’s hard on backs and knees. When I mentioned that evening to the American downhillers that I’d just hung out with the injection man, one of them said, “Fuck that guy.”
Training is basically a dress rehearsal; if you didn’t know better, you’d think you were watching the actual race. It began late in the morning. I passed undetected through the racers’ waiting area and over to a perch just to the left of the starting gate. One false step and I’d be on my back, hurtling toward the Mausefalle. I was soon joined by a crew of ski-school instructors who had been deputized as Rutschkommandos to slip this part of the course after every five racers, to smooth out the snow. At one point, Franz Klammer came out of the start hut and stood with us—the Kaiser, the four-time winner here, the first downhiller whom I and many Americans had ever known, the man in the yellow suit, taking Olympic gold for the host nation at Innsbruck, in 1976. Introducing myself, I began to explain to him that I was, in some ways, also an Austrian—that my grandfather, originally from Graz, had been an Olympic skier, too (he came over to the United States in 1933 to teach skiing in New Hampshire and then married an American), but Klammer, of course, didn’t care and got distracted by Rutschkommandos seeking selfies. Two hours later, I ran into him again at a Legends Lunch held in a mountaintop restaurant, where local eminences dined on roasted suckling pig, and a guitar-and-piano duo covered Elton John, Billy Joel, and Louis Prima. The Kaiser did not invite me to join him.
The fastest American in training that day was Wiley Maple. He wasn’t even on the team. He’d failed to make the squad this year. Nevertheless, Johno McBride, who’d met him when he was a kid at the Aspen Ski Club, knew that Maple had a knack for speed, and so he agreed to let Maple travel and train with the team, as long as he paid his own way. Maple did some fund-raisers back home and hired a friend from Aspen, a former racer named Sam Coffey, to be his ski technician. Though Maple couldn’t shake the feeling of being an outsider, he and Coffey were generally welcomed by the coaches and other racers and ski techs. On Coffey’s birthday, the week of the race, a group of them sneaked up on him after dinner and pied him in the face, as they would one of their own.
Maple is a rugged kid with long curly hair and a beard. This season had brought more rough luck. Before heading to Europe, he’d broken his hand while free-skiing at Aspen. He fell ill before Bormio. At Wengen, the week before Kitzbühel, on the almost equally famous Lauberhorn course, he’d been flagged. That is, officials had halted him in the middle of his run, because the previous racer had fallen and was still on the course, which meant that Maple had to be helicoptered back to the start to begin again—a fool’s errand, as his adrenaline, strength, and ski prep were by then all basically shot. (It was also his first-ever helicopter ride, a distracting experience.) Maple hated the Lauberhorn; he couldn’t make sense of it. But he felt that he could ski well at Kitzbühel. The course suited him. His girlfriend and his parents had come to watch.
The Lauberhorn had also undone Steven Nyman, the most decorated member of the team. (He has eleven podiums—top-three finishes—in downhill, and two top tens on the Streif.) In a fall the week before, he’d kneed himself in the head. Concussion. He’d decided not to do the Hahnenkamm this time. “I’m not feeling anywhere close to ready for this place,” he told me. He’d spent the day in Munich receiving some injections for his hips and had also gone to see an acupuncturist in St. Johann. “A Chinese-medicine-type deal,” he said. He still had a magnetic reflector pad on his stomach. “Our cells have energy within them and a brain within them. A cell knows how to reboot itself, but it can lose its DNA code. It forgets what it’s supposed to do. This reflector pad reflects back into the cell what it’s supposed to do.” He laughed; he’s a big, burly Utahn, with a deep voice. “That’s what I love about here—people don’t think I’m psycho when I do this shit.”
Nyman was going to lie low with his wife and child in Innsbruck, where they’d rented an apartment for the season. Before leaving, he had a brief chat with Bryce Bennett, a tall Californian, who was the team’s leading downhiller this winter. Nyman said to him, “Commit. Ski with vigor.”
That night, the K.S.C. and FIS, with great reluctance, rescheduled the downhill for Friday, the next morning. The forecast called for weekend snow, so this was their only chance of getting the big race in. (The slalom, now scheduled for Saturday, could be credibly staged during a storm.) “We have to do it,” a K.S.C. course official said, at the team captains’ meeting, a nightly gathering of coaches and race officials. “A little luck is needed. Our heart is beating for the sport.” This was a blow to the TV broadcasters (in the mountainous nations, the Hahnenkamm is akin to the Super Bowl) and to the people with jobs who’d planned to arrive Friday night and be thoroughly pickled in time for the start the next day. Still, as Markus Waldner, the chief race director, said in the meeting, “It’s a big show, but sport is priority here in Kitzbühel.”
Race day. Packed trains pulled up, one after another, at the Hahnenkammbahn siding. Spectators poured out. Everywhere you looked, revellers in funny hats caroused at open-air sheds hastily erected for the weekend. Eat, drink, sing. Beer, glühwein, schnapps. Fireballs, Jäger bombs (a Jägermeister shot dropped in Red Bull, known around those parts as a Fliegender Hirsch, or flying stag). There was other vocabulary to learn: Würstlkönig means Papaya King. Rüscherl, if you can still pronounce it, is a rum-and-Coke. Klopfer is a bitter-cherry-and-vodka concoction available by the box. (It is also the surname of an S.S. colonel who was present at Wannsee.) Might as well start puking now.
The humans flowed uphill, converging toward the base of the Streif, amid a din of cowbells and air horns. Where the snow met the street, the downhillers, having completed their inspection run, pulled in against the spectator tide and shouldered their skis, to catch the gondola back up to the top. Hannes Reichelt, an Austrian who won in 2014, passed through unnoticed, as did Matteo Marsaglia, an Italian. They’d clocked the two best times in training the day before.
The sky was overcast but bright, with wisps of cloud and light flurries. A battery of Austrian soldiers labored in soft snow to push-carry fans in wheelchairs to the stands, which ringed the finish area. Just downhill was the Kitz Race Club, a temporary but elaborate glass-and-metal building reserved for V.I.P.s. Paparazzi waited outside. Hansi Hinterseer, a local slalom champion turned pop star and film idol, had been sighted in a bright-yellow parka fringed with fur. One photographer pointed out Roman Weidenfeller, a former goalie for the German national soccer team, and told me that Arnold Schwarzenegger, a regular fixture, wasn’t going to make it until evening, that Bernie Ecclestone, the race-car magnate, was expected any minute, and that Dietrich Mateschitz, the billionaire founder of Red Bull, typically had a helicopter drop him up by the Hausberg jump. I peered in through the Race Club glass. Turtleneck sweaters, Swedish jeans, flutes of champagne. Excellent shoes, excellent hair. It made me think of another glassed-in space in town, the A.T.M., which every year fills up with drunk kids who have no other warm place to sleep. The American racers, earlier in the week, had griped about the misaligned priorities of the Hahnenkamm’s exclusivity apparatus. They had found that sport was not always priority. Travis Ganong said, “I got sixth one year, and showed up at the V.I.P. after-party with my teammates, and they turned us away.”
I worked my way up the course, outside the fence. From towers of speakers came the sounds of hair metal from the eighties and an announcer shouting sharply in German. Halfway up the Zielschuss, I passed through the Matthias Mayer fan club (orange parkas) and the Christian Walder fan club (black parkas), before finding myself in the company of the Ski Club St. Martin, enthusiasts from Switzerland, who were passing around a flask. Austrian troops snowplowed down the fringes of the course, to push aside fresh snow, and the public-address system began to play the national anthem, as the Swiss jeered and waved flags. The announcer introduced several guests of honor, including the Landeshauptmann.
And then the race commenced. One dirty secret of ski racing is that it’s not a very good live spectator sport. The racers flash by. Sometimes you know who they are, sometimes you don’t. No one looks any faster than anyone else, unless he’s crashing into the fence. Yes, there was something primal, for me, about the sight of the racers blazing across the traverse, amid the rising clamor of the crowd, but the thrill of witnessing this firsthand at long last was soon mitigated by a guilty realization that I was, let’s say subconsciously, hoping for a spectacular wreck. To revere the Streif is in some ways to root for it. It was as if every year someone had to pay, to make the point. The ninth skier, an Austrian named Kriechmayr, came perilously close to the netting and then executed an acrobatic escape—off the course but spared an airlift. By this time, Beat Feuz, a hydrant of a Swiss, who came within hundredths of a second of the win last year, held the lead, to the delight of my new friends from St. Martin, but he ceded the spot, several skiers later, to an Italian named Dominik Paris, the lead singer in a South Tyrolean death-metal band. The racers kept coming—Hintermann, Kryenbühl, Striedinger, Schmid, Walder, Kosi, Heel. The top Americans, Bennett (“The charismatic, the cool one!” the announcer called out, in English) and Ganong, failed to place but skied respectably enough to hold spots in the teens.
Down in the finish area, the combatants mingled and laughed. “I feel pretty good about the week,” Bennett told me. “In the past, I was managing the course. This year, I feel like I’m in a position to race it. Like, this is doable.”
Ganong gave him a fist bump. “About now I usually exhale,” Ganong said. “Don’t have to do that again for another year.”
A Swede named Alexander Köll came across the traverse. He was off his line. Careering below the blue ink, he was suddenly thrown into the air. He soared over the Ziel for a moment, almost upside down, before landing hard and then sliding on his side for what seemed like several hundred yards.
“He’s O.K.,” Bennett said. Short of the finish line, Köll came to a stop, along the fence, face down. He didn’t move. “No, not O.K.”
The racers had gone quiet—a ritual pall. Bennett glanced at the giant TV screen in the finish area and saw that Maple was at the top, about to start. “Wiley’s in the gate,” he said. Maple got the green light; he pushed out of the start and onto the Streif.
“Is he gonna get flagged?” Bennett said. “Two weeks in a row? Man.”
Maple was skiing well. Halfway down, he was a little less than a second off the lead, and he tended to be fast at the bottom here. (Last year, he’d clocked the fastest split time, out of the whole field, in the lower portion of the course.) Then he got flagged and had to pull up. Köll was still on the course.
“Two weeks in a row,” Bennett said again. Such luck: it was unthinkable.
A helicopter came for the Swede. It took a while to remove him from the course. (Later, it was announced that he’d sustained no major injuries.) Another helicopter came for Maple and dropped him off near the top. On the big screen, you could see him riding the magic carpet—a conveyor belt typically for beginners—towering over a bunch of little kids. It was a lot to ask a man to run the gnarliest downhill in the world twice, on dulled skis and depleted legs.
Maple made it down, finishing almost three and a half seconds behind Paris—an eternity, in ski racing. At the bottom, he put on a wool sweater—he refused to wear U.S. Ski Team gear—and eventually, after receiving consolations from his peers, made his way out of the pen. His parents, who looked stricken, were waiting for him. “Un-fucking-believable,” Maple said. “I think I just wanna go home.” He and his father hugged for a long time.
By now, most of the spectators had retreated to town. The street party kicked in. I did a few laps. Stately town houses and hotels in mint green, terra-cotta, mustard, ochre, and pink. A fourteenth-century Gothic church. Bogner, Moncler, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton. As a day-drinking backdrop, it was almost comically grand. “Sweet Caroline,” not even the Neil Diamond version, seemed to pop up on every block, a Whack-a-Mole of song. Bands of young men in red-and-white Dr. Seuss hats erupted in drinking chants. Swiss men in white smocks marched in formation, swinging giant cowbells called Trychlers—each bell weighing more than forty pounds—with deadpan expressions, holding them at arm’s length in front of their privates.
A line had formed outside the Londoner Pub, the town’s epicenter of excess. Inside, it was hard to move—or breathe, if you were accustomed to smokeless bars. (Kelley Altick, Bryce Bennett’s girlfriend, had told me that morning, “If you go into the Londoner, you’ll have to burn everything you own.”) A clutch of women danced on a platform in one corner. “Get Down on It,” “99 Luftballons,” “Summer of ’69”—the patrons, whose average age seemed about half mine, sang along. I forced my way into an eddy by the bar and ordered a beer.
The Londoner is famous especially for the tradition of the downhill winners, and other racers, stopping by late on the night following the big race, after they make the rounds in town. They take off their shirts and get behind the bar and begin throwing beer on themselves and others. The bartenders tell them to fill two beers for each one a patron orders, and to douse him or her with the first one. Didier Cuche, the Swiss who holds the record for the most Hahnenkamm wins, with five, had a tendency to turn the entire bar into a conga line. It’s McBride’s policy that the American racers don’t go to the Londoner unless one of them makes the podium, or gets close to it. Among other reasons, he reckons it’s a petri dish of germs.
A Greek bartender named Tassos brought me a beer, and placed some ampules of Jägermeister in front of two kids on my left: Annalena, from Germany, and Alexander, from the Austrian province of Carinthia. We began shouting in one another’s ears. Annalena was living in St. Johann, in order to ski. Alexander was twenty-one and wore braces and a button-up shirt. He was studying international business and economics. “There’s no place like Austria,” he said. “We’ve changed our political system. Now we have a conservative government. It is better.” I didn’t know enough to argue, but I took this as a cue to begin working my way back toward the door. As I walked to the train, I saw a boy vomit into a hay bale, while his friends laughed at him.
Back at the hotel, John McBride, shirt off, dripping sweat, was riding a stationary bike in the stairwell; it looked like punishment. “The results were not what I wanted,” he said. “But that’s ski racing. These guys, it’s a tough job.”
For many years, the Austrian ski team has spent a week every summer training on the grounds of the Stanglwirt, a sprawling luxury hotel in the neighboring town of Going. They also hold a team dinner there during the week of the race. About thirty years ago, some racers, former victors, and friends gathered there on the Hahnenkamm Friday, and a Bavarian butcher named Toni Holnburger, in a promotional stunt, contributed a batch of his famous white sausages. They did it again the following year, and before long the Hauser family, which ran the Stanglwirt, was selling tickets. Thus was born the Weisswurst Party. I’d been told by more than one old hand that it was Tyrolean high society’s party of the year.
This year’s edition had nearly three thousand guests. I hadn’t appreciated, until I arrived and joined a crowd waiting to get in, that there was a dress code. Everyone was in some form of Trachten—traditional dress. The men had on lederhosen. The women wore dirndls. “Everyone looks great in a dirndl!” Maria Hauser, the host, told me. A case could be made. But more than a thousand Austrian men in leather shorts and knee socks? Now that’s a white sausage party.
There were, of course, tiers of tickets. Classic, gold, diamond. The celebrants wandered a warren of beer halls and taverns constructed of old wood—“a cabin atmosphere,” Hauser called it. The central ballroom, eleven months of the year, serves as the riding hall for the Stanglwirt’s collection of Lipizzaners. At one end was a kind of kitchen stage, brightly lit, with a Wurstkessel—a vat of sausages—flanked by racks of soft pretzels hanging on pegs. Here were the paparazzi again, pressing in tight. With a brass fanfare, the ceremony began. Dignitaries were announced, among them past Austrian heroes of the Streif: Leonhard Stock, Stephan Eberharter, Karl Schranz. Arnold Schwarzenegger, stubbled and wearing a leather Trachtensakko jacket, said a few words, in German, about his admiration for the Stanglwirt’s Wiener schnitzel and for its gym. Then he went to the other end of the Lipizzaner hall and led a party band from Munich through a Tyrolean marching song.
I wandered around, in a kind of hallucinatory daze. Kitzbühel: holy shit. A waitress, pouring shots from a bottle, told me, “It’s the best party of the year. You’re in the right place. Enjoy.” A Roger Federer look-alike had clothespins on his chest in place of medals, on which he’d written cheeky colloquial come-ons: “Mogst a bussi?” “Bussiprinz.” (“Kiss me?” “Kiss Prince.”) A woman from Imst—Imst!—showed me photos on her phone of a dirndl she’d made herself, with a lace-fringed bustier of old linen: “It took me half a year to make. It’s too expensive to wear here.” I stole bites from a plate of sausage as she talked; it tasted quite good with sweet mustard. After a while, I fell into conversation with a psychotherapist, who told me he’d been reading Hannah Arendt. He said, “You know about the political situation in Austria? To wear a shirt lik