NORMALLY PUKING MY GUTS OUT IS NOT PART OF MY BLUEBIRD SKI DAY EXPERIENCE, but it almost happened a few weeks ago at the most terrifying and steep men’s downhill start gate I’ve ever had the “good” fortune of seeing up close and personal.
On assignment in glamorous St. Moritz, the world’s first ski resort – which also happens to be one of the most posh on the planet – I was offered the opportunity to see the exact location where the creme de la creme of the World Cup Tour would be pushing out of onto the three kilometre long Pista Corviglia downhill track in search of gold at the upcoming FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.
Pushing out is probably the incorrect nomenclature, as “falling out” is really what the racers will, in truth, be doing after they hear that last beep and blast off. Not shockingly, the official name of the start is Free Fall, a monster created by Swiss ski racing legend and prominent track designer turned mad scientist Bernhard Russi.
Don’t get me wrong, there are other horrifying starts in the world of ski racing. Until I met the Free Fall, the start house at the Kitzbühel Hahenkamm was at the top of my list for places I’d least like to test my ski racing mettle … and I’ve been very intimate with that holy place on numerous occasions covering the World Cup as a journalist.
The stories of the stinky old Hahnenkamm wooden start house where racers would – sorry to be rude – pass gas en masse out of the fear of possibly meeting their maker 8.5 seconds later when they launched off the death-defying Mausefalle jump, recounted to me in great and glorious detail by legendary UVEX serviceman Joe Labarbera still haunt my dreams.
Still, the Free Fall is the Frankenstein of downhill starts, a ferocious, intimidating beast like no other.
As my piste guide, an old colleague named Silvan Caderas now working with the St. Moritz World Championships organizing committee as a press attaché, pointed his finger down the nasty sheer rock face (it still needed snow when I was there) just below the Free Fall, and explained that with a 45 degree gradient, it’s the steepest start point out there, I turned green.
“The first 150 meters make racers feel like they’ve fallen down a deep elevator shaft,” he told me as I quietly fought off barfing, peering into the gnarly abyss just over the edge of a flimsy fence which would soon be turned into a regulation FIS start gate.
Caderas also pointed out, with a diabolical grin, that tests have shown the pulse of racers hitting 120 while setting up in the gate, which is probably not far off as my pulse almost surely hit 160 simply peeking over the precipice at Free Fall, and I was there merely as an observer.
It soon became obvious to me, that if nauseating vertigo doesn’t turn your stomach, the obscene speeds you reach hurtling out of the start Russi built with Hitchcockian zeal will definitely get your gut churning. As Caderas pointed out, racers will accelerate to 140 km/h down a gradient of 100 percent (or 45 degrees) very quickly, which to you and me may be a tad overwhelming. Still, for the elite skiers who are skilled at navigating down icy mountains at incredible velocity, it’s not speed that will get their pulses racing at Free Fall, it’s the what they have to do at the end of the elevator shaft from hell that’s got them thinking.
“High speed and steep pitches are not a concern on this track, we can all handle the Free Fall, it’s not our first rodeo,” veteran Canadian World Cup downhiller Manny Osborne-Paradis confessed to me during the recent Lauberhorn races in Wengen.
“It’s that sudden sweeping left turn you have to rip into just after the Free Fall with all the speed you’ve built that’s got our attention. It’s a big high velocity corner and will wake you up fast,” Osborne-Paradis added with his trademark “haha” chuckle.
The biggest stat that anyone visiting Free Fall should concern themselves with, and this was especially relevant to me, a lifelong sufferer of the head spinning affliction called vertigo, is the number of steel-grate steps you have to take to get up there –187.
Yes, 187 steps up a winding metal, see-through stairway NOT to heaven. “God help the servicemen lugging gear bags up here,” was all I could think the sunny day I was lured up to the Free Fall. In the end, I’m proud to say I made the trudge in sketchy unbuckled ski boots, desperately clinging to the railing for dear life, trying not to look down the super steep mountain face beneath me. Thankfully I survived, and didn’t hurl all over my beautiful white Amundsen Sports anorak, which was a distinct, but odd concern on that fateful day.
Now on terra firma back in Canada, I can’t wait to see the Free Fall again – but only on TV – as I scrutinize the looks on the racer’s faces for a glimpse of the fear in I know they’ll have in their minds and their stomachs on downhill day!
– By Michael Mastarciyan, for S-Media