Conquering the Streif ski run by hiking the Streif in Kitzbuhel Austria
I stood at the start gate and stared down at an impossibly steep descent before me. I was steeling my nerves to attempt the Streif, the world’s most famous downhill ski run located in Kitzbuhel, Austria. I could almost taste the fear that former skiing greats — Bode Miller, Franz Klammer, Fritz Strobl, Ken Read, Didier Cuche — must have swallowed back while peering over the edge as I was now. One final deep breath and then you launch. Skiers reach an average speed of 65 miles per hour while descending 2,822 vertical feet (860 meters) over the 2.06-mile (3.312 kilometers) course. I was hoping to simply stay upright, and I didn’t plan to go much over 3 miles per hour. Ski? What are you kidding me? I was hiking the Streif, and that was good enough for me.
While competing in and completing the famed Hahnenkamm downhill ski race on the Streif is considered a lifetime accomplishment for professional skiers, hiking the Streif is something anyone can do in the late spring, summer and early fall – as long as you plan on up to four hours and realize the trail is very steep in places. Outside of the official race in late January – 2020 was to be the 80th running — all who feel their skiing skills are up to snuff are also welcomed to ski the Streif run – a bucket list accomplishment for most skiers. And of course, this attempt will be entirely at your own risk.
Therese Iknoian and I were challenging the Streif on foot this time, with KitzMountain Guides from the Kitzbuhel Cable Car Company. The company offers guided tours called Streif Live on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, meeting at the information board at the base station of the Hahnenkammbahn lifts (plan on up to six hours, including a lunch stop and explanations). While you can hike the Streif course on your own easily enough – and the LCD displays at the Starthaus, Mausefalle, Steilhang, and Hausbergkante sections showcase wonderful film clips and information — I highly recommend a guided tour for hiking the Streif as the guides offer history, stories and technical explanations along the entire course that truly bring the infamous, revered, wild Hahnenkamm race alive (which still is a men’s only event). In fact, our guide Harry Schill, and most other guides we are told, switch back and forth between German and English effortlessly, never leaving out a participant who only speaks one of the languages or shortchanging the information offered.
After riding the cable car up to the top, high above Kitzbuhel, we spent a few moments taking in the magnificent views of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains, various mountain lakes and the Kitzbuheler Horn. The starting area at the top is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
To reach the start house, we walked (well, ok, I rode the carpet lift skiers use to take them to the top) where our guide Harry pointed out a huge pile of snow not too far away. While this seemed strange in the heat of August, Harry explained that at the end of each winter, Kitzbuhel stores large piles of snow wrapped in insulation and under white protective sheets to use as a base for the start of next year’s ski season. Natural snowfall and a very high-tech snow-making effort ensure good snow cover throughout the winter in Kitzbuhel. (There are several manmade lakes along the walk that are pumped full of water via a sophisticated water system from which water is then fed to the snowguns for snowmaking as needed.)
The race and the hike both begin at the starting gate … of course. Below, you will find two-part descriptions of particular piste sections: First, in italics you get a bit of a feel for a part of the course as skiers experience it. Following that is a section about the experience hiking it from my perspective.
Staring down the Streif
It took our group about 10 minutes of walking, and sometimes sliding to reach the Mausefalle. We stopped twice to view two of the four LCD displays on the course and watching those videos and clips while standing on the course, I could not even begin to imagine skiing this. There is an observation tower we climbed to be able to better view the course as it stretches from the Starthaus above and through the Mausefalle in front of us. At least to me, it is mind-boggling to imagine this section covered with snow with skiers flying over it. On this day, the most I was going to have to contend with were a few muddy spots, some slick grassy sections, not to mention a few bell-wearing and quite curious cows.
The Streif gets nasty
It is at the Steilhang where Harry pointed out the 3rd LCD monitor, and I stood there marveling as the screen showed footage of skiers screaming through this section, skis bouncing around like a passenger on a plane flying through severe turbulence. It was here, in 2008, when Bode Miller skied too wide coming out of the Karussell and he actually skied up onto an advertising banner on the safety fencing before somehow managing to get back on course, finishing the race 2nd overall.
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If you are not on a guided hike, be sure to take a short detour to the Seidlalm Lakes, two manmade lakes designed as water storage for the snowmaking machines up and down the Streif. The views from the lake are stunning as you gaze over toward the Wilder Kaiser!
Although skiers have no intention of stopping for a snack at the Seidlalm hut, those on foot have the opportunity to enjoy a nice break from the glute- and quad-busting descent with some tasty food and beverages and a lovely view. I found it very peaceful sitting on the outside deck while sipping a tall “Radler” (a pilsner beer with lemon-lime soda that is quite refreshing) and munching on a delicious bratwurst.
Finishing hiking the Streif
We stood just off the trail at the 4th LCD monitor on the route, watching skier after skier in the video launch himself off the Hausbergkante as Harry described each section of the course above and below the jump. In the distance, I could easily make out the finishing area. What must a skier be thinking at this point? So near…. One thing I am fairly sure of is that none of them were admiring the view from here as I was.
Near the end of our hike, I stood and stared at the finish, wondering what it must feel like to know you had just survived the Streif, the greatest downhill ski race in the world. For me, I had just hiked the Streif in around five hours, and it felt pretty damn good.
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