The difference in feel between a typical softboot setup and hardboots is like stepping from a Jeep into a Ferrari. Very high performance. Very tight, precise feel. Provides incredible speed, edgehold, and G-forces; and the overall dynamics are just insane. Gives pretty much the same rush as launching a big jump, but it lasts from top to bottom of every run. Much more physically demanding to ride full-tilt-boogie than softies due to the G-forces involved in hip to snow carves. Results in an ear to ear smile plastered on your face.
The first time you really drop the hammer and tip one high on edge, your eyes will pop out of your head. You're mind will be so wrapped up wondering why the edge hasn't washed out, that it may not notice how fast you're rocketing towards the trees until it registers late and scares the bejesus out of you.
Gear availability is painfully scarce on the local level. You simply won't find alpine gear in local shops. Your best bet is Bomber. Read up there, and scour the classifieds. Used boards, boots, and bindings can be found for as little as $100/each, even if several years old. You sort of have to take a leap of faith in buying, though there are some options in mail-order demo-ing through Bomber and a few builders. Test that, and then you may want to go all out and order a custom board, and the latest boots and bindings. There will be a huge difference in old school/new school, but even a 10 year old setup will far outperform current jibsticks in the carving scene.
I've been on an alpine setup since the early 90s as a freecarver (nonracer). Current board is a 182cm Coiler NSR2. Just hit a local hill last week where there was a gathering of carvers and we had a blast. Wide mix of abilities from new hardbooter to high level racer/instructor. Check out Bomber for a couple of coming events.