Alpine Hi–Tech

Skiing is deeply embedded in Austrian identity. In spite of climate change, technology has made the sport smarter and safer

International families who come to Austria are often amazed to discover that a winter ski week is built into the school calendar. Throughout the month of February, the dates are conveniently staggered in the various Federal States to balance out the traffic on the slopes – and of course the bookings in the Alpine chalets.

In Austria, skiing is the national sport, as much, or perhaps even more, than soccer, a birthright born of its landscape, deeply embedded in Austria’s national identity. Heavily discounted group rates pack the hotels as combi rail and lift tickets make day trips affordable for most. In Vienna, there are even city-sponsored equipment rentals from top Austrian manufacturers available at bargain prices. All subsidized by the Austrian taxpayer. It’s a simple calculation: In a country where winter sports are key to the Alpine economy, it is in the national interest that each new generation learns to ski.

The role of technology

This is a sport where technology has always played a central role. Once confined to rugged Alpine farmers in the snow-trapped mountains, recreational skiing got a slow start, a pastime of an eccentric fin-de-siècle elite, trailing the far more popular ice skating and tobogganing. It was understandable: The skis – affectionately called “barrel staves” – were primitive and the physical demands exhausting. Still, the magic of floating across Alpine snowfields began to take hold of the Austrian imagination, and with Mathias Zdarsky’s invention of the steel binding, the first Alpine ski race was held in Lilienfeld, in lower Austria, in 1905.

In the interwar years, “skiing symbolized luxury; the sport required that one have the means to decamp to remote Alpine locations for weeks or even months,” writes Andrew Denning in The Atlantic. Most gathered in Alpine towns like St. Moritz, Kitzbühel, or St. Anton,  resort towns all reachable by train.

So it was, in a sense, the Alps themselves that helped transform the sport from the practical  cross-country “Nordic” skiing to the dazzling rush of downhill, and that made Austrian skier Hannes Schneider world famous with a 1931 ski film, White Ecstasy. In 1936, Alpine skiing joined the roster at the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, the same year the first chair lift carried skiers to the top of Proctor Mountain in Sun Valley, Idaho.

After World War II, technology continued to transform the sport, with Austrian manufacturers Kästle, Fischer and Atomic dominating the field, while ever-better ski lifts turned skiing into a major sport for the middle class.

Today, though, it can feel as though the technology is taking over, with each new season an avalanche of marketing campaigns selling “must-have” pieces of pricey ski equipment, promising to enhance skills and safety and optimize your experience on the slopes. Once again threatening to put the sport out of the reach of the middle class.

What’s going on? Well, climate change for one thing, along with advances in technology and sports medicine that together have effected a quiet revolution in the Austrian national pastime.

Rising temperatures in the Alps have been dramatic since the mid-1980s, at roughly three times the global average, and the years 1994, 2000, 2002, and particularly 2003, have been the warmest in 500 years, according to a 2004 study in the journal Climate Change. Thus ski resorts that used to be able to count on an abundance of fresh snow every season have been forced to turn to artificial snow making and other tech solutions just to stay in business. According to Guardian correspondent Charlie English, “Manmade snow production in Switzerland grew from less than 10% of the piste area in 2000 to 36% in 2010, while in Austria it reached 62%.”

At the same time, there are many more kinds of skis on the market, in varying lengths, widths and weights, allowing a choice of edge angles and sharpness, side-cut radii and stiffness, which can sometimes be adjusted.

With all these uncertainties and choices, many skiers have given up buying skis at all, preferring to rent according to ski conditions and ambitions for the day. So while 10 million pairs of skis were sold yearly in the early 1990s, only 3 million are sold today, even though the number of skiers – and the sales of ski boots – has remained constant. “This dynamic of people buying boots but increasingly renting skis,” writes journalist Kenny Hemphill on the web platform Mental_Floss, “has been one of the biggest disruptions to hit the industry.”

Helmets are another big change, the lighter and sleeker designs surging in popularity after the death of actress Natascha Richardson, hit by another
skier at high speed in 2008. As are custom-fitted boots, specially-molded to your feet and adjustable for walking.

But that’s just the beginning: Helmet-mounted cameras, airbags, GPS finder systems, and more, have made skiing smarter and safer, and for the devotee, a lot more expensive. But hey! It’s only money. Now, just pray for snow!

State of the Slopes

Get geared up with this winter’s must-haves

From SPURart’s handcrafted snowboards, or Ava’s backpack avalanche airbag, to Adidas’ hydrophobic goggles, novelty never ceases in mountain sports. // © Spurart, Atomic, Avabag, adidas

Even if you are not up there for beating records, you are still going to want to have a decent pair of planks on your feet. A price range of €500 to €600 should get you skis with bindings that will help you cruise the marked piste and its immediate environs in fine style.

For off-piste endeavors you might want to dig a little deeper: This year’s top-of-the-range powder skis – the Blackland FR117s, replete with spoon-like tips and tails for turning as well as support for cliff drops – will set you back €1,000. Remember to carve with extra care when cruising backcountry: Off-piste brings risks alongside joys – and mountain safety is not worth pinching pennies. Invest in a GPS transmitter and an avalanche airbag system before you hit those slopes; it might be your lifesaver.

If you are more into the extravagant – bespoke rather than off-the-rack – check out Ünique Skis, a Vienna-based manufacturer which delivers made-to-measure versions of the product. Or check out SPURart, a small company based in Innsbruck. They let you design as well as create your own pair of skis for €790-€850.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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