The champion from the Karwendel
The traces of the first Ganghofer runners lead deep into the Karwendel, to Hinterriß. It lies in the middle of a steep valley with no exit: Before comes Vorderriß, after that only “die Eng” (lit: “the narrow”). Here lives the old forester, Herbert Schafhuber. Today long since retired, but according to the archives, he was the first Austrian to win the Ganghoferlauf in Leutasch in 1976.
An unusual career
It all started with the trees, the forester recalls. After graduating from forestry school, the young man applied for the Federal Forest District in the Karwendel and moved into the small wooden house in Hinterriß. Today he admits with a smile that he initially bit his butt over this decision: Since skiing in the steep Rißtal valley was almost impossible, sporty alternatives had soon to be found. So at some point he got inspired by Bavarian cross-country skiers to try the gliding sport in the snow. In his day, nobody in Austria was able to keep up with the world’s top cross-country skiers, the ambitious sportsman emphasizes. A completely uninteresting niche sport, as the Alps have always been considered the skiers’ territory. So the young forester got his first equipment second handed from the Bavarians. And the rest is history, grins Herbert Schafhuber.
The long run to the top
At some point, nobody ran faster on the tracks around Hinterriß than the forester. So he joined the squad of the neighbouring ski club and shortly after started at the Tyrolean Championships in Seefeld over 15 kilometres. Maybe one or two are faster, have the better equipment, he speculated. And finished second to last. Where others would probably have given up, Herbert Schafhuber now burned with defiance for victory. He drove to Munich, to the only specialist shop at the time, and purchased the best equipment available.
The ambitious cross-country skier set out on his training track in the Eng, 16 kilometres there and back. No one had really ever taught the newcomer, but where is a will, there is a track. And where there was a public run, there soon was the Schafhuber: Koasalauf, König Ludwig Lauf, the Alpen-Tris, he even visited the Worldloppet Wasa Run in Sweden with two friends and a camper.
A victory makes history
I am and will remain a wood- and grassland runner, the old forester confesses with a grin. A circumstance that led him to victory at the 1976 Ganghoferlauf. At the start, the runners were met by a dense snowstorm. You could literally watch the trail vanish under fresh snow in minutes. Although the forefront runners were able to make distance quite quickly after the starting signal, the vanguard had to tediously re-tread the snow-covered track. As the forerunners fell back exhausted, Herbert Schafhuber took the lead. The hard training in the Eng paid off, he managed to put some distance between himself and his successors, but eventually his strength left him too.
When he already felt the breath of the competitors on his neck, some runners suddenly appeared from the flurry of snowflakes ahead. Whether they were lost tourists or runners from the Leutasch ski school who were treading the track towards the Ganghoferlauf. In the end, however, he found himself on a freshly trodden track, finishing the race with the first Austrian victory in Ganghofer history.
The styrian Oak
Herbert Schafhuber still enjoys cross-country skiing today. Not as often and by far not as fast as before, but he still likes to run his home tracks. Once he even took Arnold Schwarzenegger with him, a regular guest in his younger years. When one fine winter’s day young Arnie was eager to try cross-country skiing, the experienced forester took him along on the trail in the Eng. The Styrian was so enthusiastic about the forester’s gliding sport that he re-hired his instructor for the next day. But when Herbert Schafhuber arrived at the inn at the agreed time, there was no Arnie to be seen.
When the second coffee came at half past ten, you could hear Arnie walking down the stairs with his legs apart. He apologized meekly to the coach he had ordered, he could hardly walk. But the old Schafhuber smiled, he knew the notorious cross-country skiing condition all too well. And so that morning he just sat next to the Styrian oak and drank coffee in the sun. After all, only very few can claim to have brought an Arnold Schwarzenegger to his knees.
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Pics: Chris Weittenhiller. Cover: Stephan Elsler.