It’s one of skiing’s eternal clichés that you have to ‘do’ the posh resort experience and famously tough descents of Kitzbühel at least once in your lifetime.
Quotes regularly aimed in my direction include ‘You haven’t lived unless you’ve been squashed into the heaving throng in a basement beer cellar in Kitz’, and ‘How can call yourself a skier until you’ve tamed the mighty Hahnenkamm?’. Last January, I set out to organize a visit. Unfortunately, however, Kitzbühel was full. Not a single bed was to be had in the resort (or, more precisely, not a single bed I could afford). So that’s how I ended up tipping up in ritzy Kitzy’s near neighbour, Kirchberg, 6km to the west.
If you’re thinking that Kirchberg is a poor relation, there’s a grain or two of truth in that, but in this case second-best doesn’t mean second-class. On my arrival, Kirchberg appeared to tick all the typically Tirolean boxes – menacing centrepiece church, shops peddling felt hats and lederhosen, plus the de rigueur ‘London pub’. While it’s certainly not as chic as its upmarket neighbour, Kirchberg has a much more relaxed feel – and price tag to match.
You won’t find any art galleries, fur shops or Michelin-starred restaurants. What you will discover is a range of hotels and pensions to suit all pockets, all run with that cosy, homely efficiency at which Austrian hosts excel. Stick around and you’ll find there’s a convenience to staying in Kirchberg that knocks a Kitzbühel address into a cocked hat.
True, you have to take a bus to either of the two main lifts, but then you have a choice of two high-speed gondolas that drop you directly in the ski area. Then there’s the access to the whole of the Ski Welt, the next-door super-area encompassing the resorts of Söll, Ellmau and Brixen im Thale, among others, via the new K1-West Gondola that takes you into Westendorf. Combined with the best access to the Kitzbühel Alps, that’s a whole lot of skiing with zero queuing.
Kirchberg was already starting to grow on me when I discovered a contender for its greatest attraction – more than six schnapps bars on the run down from the Fleckalm. That was it – totally smitten. The piste de resistance, though, is Kitzbühel ski area itself. I hold my hand up.
I always imagined that, after the mountain of hype that surrounds the resort, I would be underwhelmed with the reality. I couldn’t have been more wrong. If it’s ‘motorway skiing’ or an endless array of off-piste bowls you’re after, best look elsewhere. Here, every run demands maximum concentration, the red runs are steep enough to keep you turning, and after a few hours you learn to anticipate that beyond any dip or turn could lurk a dramatic change in pitch or direction. It’s a combination that adds up to one of the most engaging ski areas you’ll ever find.
Then there’s Kitzbühel’s bad boy, Hahnenkamm mountain, and its legendary Streif downhill course, scene of the planet’s most prestigious race since 1931, and a fixture on the World Cup circuit since its inception in 1967. The piste map describes a twisting red run and there’s nothing so steep on slopes above the Streif that an intermediate with a hangover couldn’t tackle. The lump only well and truly comes to your throat when you see the two blue stripes that denote the race line and you realise that they’re not going to lead you in a series of shallow traverses.
The speeds you can reach here are eye-watering – your average advanced skier will be flirting with 50 km/h, while local boys and girls with thighs like motorway bridge supports at least double that. Add in the Hahnenkamm factor – near-vertical in places, squeezed anorexic in others – and corners that generate as much G-force as a Eurofighter Typhoon, and it’s little wonder that this is the World Cup’s most feared course.
After witnessing the course with my own eyes I was expounding my new-found respect for the downhillers who tackle it in a bar one night to two Austrian policemen who were four beers into their nightly six. As luck would have it they were both currently charged with patrolling the area, guarding the course from thrillseeking wannabes hoping to take a sneaky run while it was closed in the preparations for a race, and were only too happy to give me the lowdown on the course’s quirks and perils.
At beer five, they even invited me to ski it. ‘I thought it was closed,’ I said, my bar-stool bravado suddenly waning. ‘No problem’, they came back. ‘Meet us at the top of the Hahnenkamm gondola at 5.30 pm tomorrow and we’ll let you take a run.’ ‘Five-thirty? Errrr, isn’t it dark then?’ Kevin Wolff travelled to Kirchberg with Thomson Ski (thomsonski.co.uk)