Daredevils on Hahnenkamm mountain

January 26, 2012

By Leonhard Foeger and Lisi Niesner

Imagine a snow-covered mountain, imagine an 85 degree grade at the steepest point, imagine wearing a race suit, goggles and nothing else but a helmet and a back protector for safety. Now clip on your skis and speed straight down at a top speed of 90 miles per hour. Crazy, don’t you think?

We are talking specifically about the 3,312-meter-long “Streif” downhill course on Hahnenkamm mountain in the Austrian ski resort of Kitzbuehel. It is regarded as the most difficult track for racers and the most challenging assignment for photographers on the Alpine Ski World Cup calendar. Several racers have crashed in years past and some were seriously injured, but the winners gained immortality.

Early morning race day, skiers and photographers start to prepare to do their best work. Racers get ready at the starting area close to the top of Hahnenkamm inside a cozy tent next to the start house where they can stay warm and concentrate on their adventure of speed. On the other hand photographers have to carry their gear — which includes cameras, lenses and, of course, skis — up the hill to find a position to shoot action images on the course. They have to establish their positions at least one hour before the race starts. Sometimes the FIS race director moves photographers who could be standing in the way of a crash to a safer spot. Cold temperatures, snow and wind make photographers dress in very warm clothes, thick gloves and ski boots, while ski racers wear a thin race suit like thermal underwear to minimize wind resistance.

Now concentrate! Stay focused!

The racer jumps out of the start house, skates to build up speed, facing a 50 degree slope leading into a right and left turn before he goes airborne at the 85 degree “Mausefalle” jump. He reaches a speed of up to 62 miles as he enters the “steep hill” where the first group of photographers are ready to shoot.

Covering a downhill race requires expert skiing skills so you can reach certain photo points on the slope. On top of that you have to use crampons while standing on the steep track. It sounds simple, but have you ever tried to fix crampons to your skiing boots on a steep surface of almost pure ice? If you fall, you slip fast and far. If you are lucky your camera does not break. These conditions make the Streif the hardest race and push racers to the the edge of their abilities. Each one knows the possibility of a crash is near.

A Sssssssssssst sound and the racer has already passed by, just a few hundredths of a second in range of your 500 mm lens and yes, you got some sharp frames.

There is a bit of time to rest as the racer arrives at “Oberhausberg”, makes a turn, and jumps over “Hausbergkante”. Photographers catch him right at the moment it looks like he is flying directly into 50,000 yelling spectators in the finish area.

After a turn into “Traverse” another bunch of photographers is waiting — concentrating intensely because you never know at which point the racer will appear. You react quickly and move the camera to the left or right. Sssssssst and in a blink of an eye he disappears and speeds at up to 90 miles towards the 70-meter finish jump. After around one minute 55 seconds his job is done. He crosses the red finish line, raises both arms and the crowd cheers. Up on the mountain, photographers transmit their images directly from their cameras and focus on the next racer to come.

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