The mountains here are immense on a scale that is difficult for your mind to comprehend. You can see the mountains with your eyes, of course, and you can see the mountain next to something you understand, like a building or car, but the brain never seems to complete the connection. The size and beauty of what you are seeing are without compare. You think you understand it but just as you look a little bit harder and take in a little bit more detail, the landscape seems to shift your perspective enough to need to step back again.
Hintertux Glacier is one of the major centers of ski race training in the world. Consisting of a massive, flowing blanket of ice caught between a crown of jagged Tirolean peaks, the folds of ice and snow cut through with wide swaths of groomed runs and meticulously shaped terrain parks. The glacier sits at the end of the steep-sided Tux valley, the walls and floor of which are coated in vibrantly green grass and dotted with quintessential Austrian mountain villages. Each small village was once dedicated to raising livestock, mostly cows, but now also squeezes hotels and pubs into every available space between the barns and pastures. Tourism has become the dominant business with every hotel trying to incorporate some clever combination of ‘sport’ and ‘gletscher’ into their names. The cows can still be found wandering along the hillsides with the smell of their manure, not entirely unpleasant, being pervasive throughout the valley.
Teams come from every country that traditionally has strong skiing culture like most of Western Europe and North America, as well as a few oddball countries like Bulgaria or Kazakstan. We always arrive in Hintertux just before the beginning of the able-bodied world cup season, which means the very best of many national race teams are hard at work preparing themselves for the first race. It is commonplace to see the highest ranked athlete in the world training right next to you. The harnessing and directing of the immense energy these athletes contend with is an amazing spectacle. They flow like water down the mountain with seemingly little effort.
We always stay at the Alpenhof hotel which is one of the fanciest such places in the valley. The quality, friendliness, and attention to detail are far beyond any hotel experience we have the entire season. The staff is always friendly and will often take time to socialize with you on a personal level. The food is almost all locally sourced and amazing, especially the dairy products. I’m convinced a scientific study would conclude that drinking the milk here would change your life in a measurable and positive way. The breakfast alone is worth a trip, as it contains a vast spread of preserved meats, cheeses, grains, cereal, eggs of every persuasion, a juice bar, a juice machine to make your own, various honey and jams, as well as a myriad selection of breads and pastries. No one goes hungry for lack of inspiration.
On an average day we train on snow for about three hours in the morning. Each trip to the glacier requires three long gondola rides with thousands of other ski racers whose passion for competition isn’t limited to skiing. To navigate to each gondola requires deft maneuvering and aggressive line cutting in order to get in front of the sea of kids who all think they will be the next Wunderskier and are willing to use a great deal of aggression to that end. The collective sanity returns when you all get out onto the glacier. At the end of our training session we come back down for lunch and a quick break before the afternoon conditioning session. The urge to nap is almost overwhelming at this point due to the soft sounds of cowbells, the gurgling of the Tuxbach (creek), and the often summer-like conditions of the valley floor.
Conditioning sessions are a vital part of our training regimen. Being strong and able to do a lot of work efficiently are extremely important to every sport. After a day of skiing, however, they can be exquisitely terrible. Skiing is exhausting by itself, especially at the intensity we train, and to come home and do a workout on top of that is a most dreadful arrangement. The pain is worth it when, in competition, you need to be in top form, but it difficult to see that perspective in the moment. On occasion we end workouts with a game of wallyball, which is like volleyball but you play in a squash court and can use the walls. Our team is notoriously competitive with this game, with every point and infraction vehemently contested and the occasional trip to the local hospital needed due to injury.
Every so often I lead a group to the Strudelhaus on the pretext of doing a recovery workout. The true name is Bichlalm, and it’s a small farmhouse high up on the hillside above our hotel. The interior of the farmhouse has on display many hunting trophies of assorted local fauna, as well as numerous giant cowbells won in the local bovine beauty contest (my German isn’t great but this is how I interpreted the explanation). The food on offer is some of the best of traditional Austrian cuisine. In my professional strudel tasting career I have yet to find a better example. The crust is thin and flaky, the filling moist and flavorful, and the whole piece sits in a sea of hot vanilla sauce. I usually finish off my piece with the local schnapps, a type called Zirben, which is made with pine cones. A perfect end to any day.
Overall the training was very effective at this camp. We had almost two weeks of just slalom in very soft and rut-filled conditions which make it very difficult to make a smooth turn. After many days of this, however, your body starts to adapt and you figure out how to apply pressure to make the proper turn shapes. Race conditions are almost always better than what we train, making all future situations seem easy in comparison.