Urban Flips at Rural Bad Gastein

Free-skiers meet and compete over the streets of Bad Gastein

Bad Gastein

A view over of one of the ski-jumps in Bad Gastein, where a three-year tradition draws a plethora of interest | Photo: Christian Cummins

It’s Saturday night and it’s snowing lightly. Through what seems to be a narrow gap between two tottering hotels, a skier leaps into the floodlit sky.

With his skis crossed like an X, he rotates and then tumbles forward until his ski bases are pointed up at the sky, his head now pointing towards a gasping crowd that is huddled closely together on the steep streets of Bad Gastein. Then, within seconds, he is above us – directly above our heads – as he drops off a timber ramp that’s been built less than a meter from the walls of a hotel. And once again he’s inverted. An instinctive coward, I half duck, fearing he might land on my head. But, with a fearsome thud, he lands on the hard icy surface of the lower ramp and speeds off the rail slide over a rooftop.

I start to giggle like a child. I’m feeling the rapture of a trip to the circus. It’s all so surreal. I’ve never seen anything like this before.

When I was offered the chance to travel to Bad Gastein to watch the 3rd Red Bull Playstreets Free-skiing event on the 14th of February, I jumped at it. It seemed a deliciously incongruous mismatch – and mismatches are the perfect recipe for Valentine’s Day, aren’t they?

I remembered Bad Gastein as a ghost town – a weirdly fascinating place where, it seemed, a Wizard of Oz-esque wind had once blown a few noble villas from Vienna’s 14th district and dropped them randomly in a narrow Salzburg valley, where they stuck haphazardly to the steep and rocky slopes looking vaguely forlorn and homesick, as their paint slowly peeled and their glamour slowly faded. I remembered the town as a world of dagger-like icicles and mysterious caves. I remembered that massive old run-down casino that looked like the sort of place where you might meet Ian Fleming’s James Bond, back in town from executing a few tight-kneed Stem Christie ski turns while evading those pesky Russians, and eternally stuck in the fur-coated 1960’s. I remembered pensioners – armies of them. And I loved the place. But I would never, never, never, ever, have been tempted to call Bad Gastein gnarly!

Playstreets is frightening to watch, I can tell you. But does the mini-urban setting make any difference to the skiers themselves, who had flown in from 14 different countries to take on the course? Last night’s winner, the Aussie Russell Henshaw, told me that it was a bizarre and, at times, “scary” feeling to jump right through the centre of town, “because you feel that if you stuff up, you might fly into the crowd or into someone’s balcony!” But, he added, that’s what makes it unique and one of his favorite events of the free skiing calendar.

I was, of course, cheering on my own countryman Paddy Graham, who was wowing the crowds with his atypically tight pants as much as with his moves – thus making an almost iconoclastic gesture in a fashion conscious sport where baggy is the sacred rule; and where some of the spectators’ trousers were so low-fitting that I saw a troop of teenagers shuffling along like a colony of penguins.

But, in the end, it was a very successful night for the Austrians, who span, tumbled, and slid to 2nd (Tobi Tritscher from Schladming) and 3rd (Fabio Studer from Koblach) places on the podium. One of the benefits of holding a free-ski event in the town is that you open up the sport to a whole new audience – to those of us who love an Event as much as a competition.

Tobi Tritscher hopes that the media attention and public enthusiasm generated by Playstreets will give his still under-appreciated sport the boost it surely deserves in Austria. After all, life can’t revolve around carving between poles!

The ultra-charming Fabio told me that the key to success was to land like a “cat,” a piece of information I will file away for the next time I find myself jumping over a roof and landing on ice! Fabio was still visibly buzzing when I got to him – delighted with his podium place, delighted with the crowd and, you felt, just delighted with the experience of twisting high up above the flood-lit roofs of Bad Gastein.

“They should have more events through the city,” he said.”I love this event, man. I just love it!”

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