Hohenems is located in the westernmost tip of Austria on the border with Switzerland. The small historic town boasts the Museum of the Nibelungen Saga, but also the inconspicuous Kästle factory, where today some of the world’s fastest skis are produced. The Slovenian Ilka Štuhecová has already won a World Cup race on them. Ester Ledecká is waiting to face them after a collarbone injury.
I am standing in a large work room where there are practically only skis everywhere. New racing. In one corner, shorter for slalom and giants, on which the Scottish slalomer Alex Tilley is riding. Long downhill skis and supergiant slalom a little further.
“These are all the skis for Ester Ledecká, ready for when she’s able to properly train and race,” says the smaller bright fellow, her new veteran serviceman Guntram “Tschunti” Mathis. I’m trying to count them. “He has about 60 pairs, mainly for downhill, supergiant slalom, some for slalom and just a few pairs for slalom,” explains the man, who you won’t be able to take a picture of because he just doesn’t like to show himself.
I can take a picture of the skis, but when I ask about the little marks that mark them, “Tschunti” immediately starts to blur. “That’s its production secret, the servicemen don’t like to reveal their dishes, they’re a special caste,” laughs the company’s head of marketing, Markus Weeger.
Although Ester does not ride now, her skis are not idle. “They need to get going as much as possible, so we’re always taking them out on the slopes and testing them,” says Mathis.
You will immediately think how unlucky the Czech amphibian is because of her injury, that she has not yet been able to demonstrate what she can do on her new skis. Her partner from the Kästle Slovinka team, Ilka Štuhecová, already won the World Cup race on them this year and was second twice. An unprecedented thing in top speed racing.
The joke is that in Hohenems, until recently, they specialized “only” in high-quality skis for more demanding customers, but not for competitors. When the Czech billionaire Tomáš Němec bought the brand in 2018, things started to happen. The racing program was launched and soon the team led by experienced designer Rainer Nachbaur developed skis for slalom and special slalom.
Last year, Kästle had three key competitors on their side – Olympic champion Ester Ledecká, world champion Ilka Štuhecová from Slovenia and quality slalom skier Martina Dubovská. Therefore, only slaloms were not enough. The development team had to tackle a more complicated discipline – downhill and super giant slalom.
These RX 12 DH (218 cm) and SG (212 cm) skis are more than half a meter longer than slalom skis, and they have to go down the slope at breakneck speed. They made them in Hohenems in about a year and a half, and those skis won after five downhill races in the middle of the first season. Of course, Slovinka Štuhecová’s art was key, but everyone knows how important the material is in speed disciplines.
At first glance, the Kästle factory in the middle of the town is different from its modern sister factory in Nové Město na Moravá. The three-story building with a historical stylized painting of a skier and the old company logo reminds of the glorious past. In the 50 years up to 1998, competitors on the “kästlý” won 130 medals at the Olympics and World Championships. From Toni Sailer to Pirmin Zurbriggen to Kjetil-André Aamodt. But then there was a long pause.
Behind the administration building is a cluster of other halls and workshops. Warehouses for wood and other important materials, such as metal edges, fiberglass plates, titanal, carbon, slides… Then there are rooms where local experts assemble the material into ski forms, glue everything together and finally press it. By the way, such a freshly pressed ski does not look nice at all. He has to get rid of excess material from the press and properly “fine-tune” on a special Montana grinding machine.
The magic of the perfection of high-end racing equipment lies in the selection of quality material and then the correct assembly and coordination of individual elements, explains designer Rainer Nachbaur. “It’s already a pain, because in the post-covid era it’s difficult to find quality material. Moreover, during Russia’s war against Ukraine, because we were transporting a lot of special wood from Russia and Belarus,” he adds.
Then it’s mainly manual work, playing with details. This is also why the factory in Hohenems looks much more like a factory, or even a laboratory.
When you hold those heavy skis, it really is a piece of material. Unusable for a normal skier. In order to ride and turn well on them, you have to go fast. But for them to go fast, you have to be perfect on them. Ester will definitely start trying them soon.