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Audi FIS Ski World Cup Val Gardena / Gröden
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Built for the World Championship, Saslong is staying on for the valley

This wasn’t only a moment of celebration but also of the realization that a lot of work lay ahead. Infrastructure such as streets and multi-purpose buildings were needed but also the place where three years of World Cup history would be written: the racing courses. First and foremost, Gardena-Gröden needed a downhill course, as none of the existing runs had the 800m in altitude difference as required by FIS. The Slope 3 from Ciampinoi to Selva-Wolkenstein just missed that mark although several FIS-A races had taken place there in the past. While the approximate 750m in altitude difference were appropriate for the women’s races it became clear that a new course had to be built.

Only two options were available under the FIS parameters. Both started from Ciampinoi at 2249m and ran along the north face of the Saslong Mountain (Sassolungo-Langkofel) towards the valley. Just shortly before the Sochers wall did they bifurcate: one course continued via the Ciaslat meadows to Ruacia, a basin which was legally on the side of Selva-Wolkenstein but geographically adjacent to downtown St.Christina. The other trail continued to the right of the Sochers wall and finished in La Pozza, a meadow between St.Christina and Selva-Wolkenstein.

Max Schenk, a member of the Ski Club Gardena-Gröden since 1957, had experience in preparing the technical drawings for ski courses and was asked to prepare a proposal for the planned race course. “I wasn’t a professional but had learned this skill over the years,” says the current Deputy Mayor of St.Christina. So while Mr. Schenk prepared the drawings of the new downhill course he knew that the decision on whether the course should end at Ruacia or La Pozza was someone else’s to make.

Gustav Thöni, 1970

Hubert Spiess, Race Director at the Olympic Games of Innsbruck in 1964 and 1976 asked during his inspection to see all the potential options for the downhill course. Mr. Spiess picked the Ruacia run after discussions with Hermann Nogler, the OC specialist for technical considerations. This course was longer (3,446m) and also marked by a higher altitude difference (839m). The plans were drawn up based on Mr. Schenk’s drafts and followed a rather straight line from Ciampinoi to the Finish. Mr. Schenk opted for passing over a ridge instead of crossing a small valley at the “Costa de Gialina” where today’s Camel Humps are. “You can’t really see any of this today since the course has been widened,” explains Mr. Schenk. Also, the bend at the Ciaslat meadow wasn’t originally part of the course. This section, included in the first race as the tight turn at the Nucia farmyard into the Finish Schuss, was taken in a straight line instead.

The technical decision had to be approved on a political level before construction of the course could begin. The local regional government in Bolzano-Bozen under the leadership of Governor Silvius Magnago immediately confirmed the decision. However, it was harder to convince the leadership of Selva-Wolkenstein who were concerned about the future of the town’s tourist business. Up to the very end it continued to lobby for a course ending at La Pozza as it would have made the village center more lively compared to the more peripheral Ruacia. After all, the development of the lift was directly linked to the course of the run. “The local council’s meeting was rather lively,” remembers then Technical Director of the World Championships Erich Demetz. “Once the decision was made, people were hostile towards the mayor of Selva-Wolkenstein and me.” Over 400 signatures were collected to support an initiative called “Salvon Selva” (“Let’s Save Selva-Wolkenstein”). Mr. Demetz is convinced that while “today nobody talks about it anymore as ultimately everybody benefited from the course and the World Championships which has catapulted Gardena-Gröden to be among the exclusive group of classic winter ski resorts.”

World Championship's staff 1970

Mr. Demetz oversaw the development of the Saslong along with all the other World Championship courses in the valley. The biggest change was necessary in the section between Sochers and Ciaslat due to deforestations as well as on the Final schuss. Twenty-eight water springs were captured and redirected including the “Lech de Ciaslat” (the “Ciaslat Lake”). In the process one habitation was left without access to water and had to be provided with a new drinking water line. “Opposition from environmentalists didn’t exist because saving the environment wasn’t a big issue back then,” remembers Mr. Demetz. “Furthermore, each felled tree was replaced by a newly-planted one somewhere else.” Total development costs for the Saslong were about 110 Million Lira and the amount was fully covered by the overall budget for the Ski World Championships.

“I trekked up to Ciampinoi over thirty times that winter” says Max Schenk who didn’t hold a specific role in the development of the course. But Mr. Schenk knew the area like the back of his hand, better than anyone else. That is why he was asked to show-case the progress on the construction to guests and interested parties. “Ski club representatives and members of the Italian Winter Sport Federation (“FISI”), ambassadors to the local tourist board, local government delegates as well as members of the Forest Unit – everybody wanted to be kept abreast of the progress on the Saslong. Even international journalists traveled to Gardena-Gröden to be able to report on the newly-developed World Championship course. In 1969 a dress rehearsal preceded the World Championships on the Saslong. The very first World Cup downhill race on the brand new course was won by Swiss Jean-Daniel Dätwyler. It took him 2:07.05 minutes to accomplish the course which was slowed due to 10 inches of fresh snow. “This course is relatively easy” complained the Austrian Downhill specialist Karl Schranz, later revising his statement because “The Saslong of 1969 has nothing in common with today’s course,” underlines Mr. Demetz. “Compared to then, this is a Giant Slalom.” One of the reasons for this is the altered line of the course on Ciaslat where the direct line was replaced by a turn to reduce the speed of the race.

But this wasn’t the only change to the Saslong over the decades. For once, the course had to abide to the ever tighter safety rules set by FIS, and it also had to accommodate the hordes of recreational skiers who took to the course in storms. The original lift, which was set up by an individual at the same time the course was built, was modernized and enlarged to take ever more skiers to the top. The course was broadened bit by bit. Starting with the Sochers wall, then the area surrounding the Camel Humps and, eventually in the summer of 2007, the Finish turn and the Finish schuss. According to FIS Race Director Günter Hujara: “this opened up the possibilities to do more than Downhill and Super-G races on the course.”

Forty years on, the Saslong course which got its name from the 3181 meter Saslong Mountain continues to lead a double life. It is one of the classic races of the Alpine Ski World Cup and belongs to the group of great Downhill courses in the world. It is a fast and very spectacular course with 17 smaller or larger jumps. The upper part is relatively easy to ski and considered a gliding course. The Looping right after the Start and the “Saut dl Moro” (“Moro jump”) on the Moro meadow where skiers literally take off for the first time all the way down to the Sochers wall named after the homonymous meadow. This is followed by the passage that makes the Saslong world-famous: the Camel Humps. The name was coined by Sepp Sulzberger, a Technical Delegate put in charge by FIS to oversee the races in Gardena-Gröden. “Up there, where the Camel Humps are” is how he described that specific section. And it is how the name stuck to those three jumps. 2007 World Cup winner Michael Walchhofer from Austria apparently jumped 88 meters on that section. The height measures up to 13 meters. Historically speaking, the first jump was successfully taken by North Tyrol native Uli Spiess in 1980. “I felt trepidation deep inside me. The fear of the uncertain – will I make it or will they be collecting my bones afterwards,” is how Spiess remembers it after preparing for this dangerous undertaking on ski jumps. The pioneer mastered the jump successfully but over the years some of his followers weren’t as lucky and the Camel Humps were defused after several skiers suffered bad falls. Notwithstanding, the Humps continue to define one of the critical sections in the Alpine Ski World Cup.

Jean-Daniel Dätwyler 1969

The course then brings skiers to the Ciaslat meadows pumped with adrenaline from the Camel Humps. Many have either made or lost the race right here. The entry into this corrugated and bumpy section is pivotal. The skier proceeds to the steep and left-bearing Finish schuss by passing the Finish turn, also called the Nucia turn after the homonymous farmyard there. The record time on the Saslong of 1:52.99 was clocked in 2003 by double champion Antoine Deneriaz from France. Jean-Daniel Dätwyler’s winning race in 1969 took almost an additional 15 second despite the more direct line.

The Saslong turns into a racing course only for about a week in December. It is a popular slope for recreational skiers during the rest of the winter. Steep and fast, but also broad and clear is how the course has been adjusted to the demands of ever modern skiers over the years. But not infrequently has the Saslong been underestimated. The steep slope section on the upper part, the bumpy passage and icy turns on Ciaslat and the Finish schuss demand it all even from the most experienced of skiers. But, in any event, whether you reach the Finish after 15 minutes or 1:53 minutes – anybody who masters the Saslong and reaches the safety of icy cold Ruacia has the right to feel a little bit like a World Champion.

Wolfgang Resch, 2008