Sledding Lake Placid, N.Y.

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2001

It was just a sled, right?

Okay, it was sort of rickety (circa 1950) and crowded (five or six people at a time were wedged into a space that would be cozy for four), and the tall guy who'd been working on the brakes was muttering ominously, and the snow was picking up, and if my spouse called me Darth Vader because of that stupid helmet one more time . . .

But it was, I kept telling myself, just a sled. A bobsled. And after a half-hour delay for repairs (hmmm. . .), it was finally our turn to "slide" down the celebrated bobsled run in Lake Placid, N.Y., the closest thing the eastern United States has to Mount Olympus.

My wife, Janet, and I are about as outdoor-friendly as shag carpeting. Sitting, however, has always come easy. We were in Lake Placid, the bouncy two-time Winter Olympics site in the Adirondacks, to get as many winter thrills as possible using only our butts, gravity and someone else's God-given talents. The bobsled ride, provided by experienced drivers and brakemen for 30 bucks a pop, would be the ultimate bum rush.

We arrived at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Sports Complex -- home to the Olympics bobsled competitions -- just as its ticket booth opened for the afternoon. Several dozen other Faux-lympians, many of them turned away earlier in the day when the morning runs sold out, were already waiting. After signing the prerequisite waiver ("I acknowledge that the use of the Sports Facilities is a hazardous activity and that I could suffer personal injury, which may be serious, as a user"), we trudged up the trail straddling the vintage bobsled run (used for the '32 and '80 Games but replaced last year).

Two bobsleds crammed with shrieking visitors took turns peeling down the mountain, their progress monitored over the P.A. ("They're into the first turn. . . . They're zigging. They're zagging. . . . They're zigging and zagging"). Ten minutes after skidding to a stop below, the sleds would reappear via flatbed truck.

Our turn. We climbed aboard behind the driver, followed by the next two people in line, Ellie and Gil Bullock from Ballston Lake, N.Y. If we'd been any more tightly packed, Ellie and I would have been registering for china afterward, but we had precisely a half-second to ponder our future together before the brakeman jumped in and the bobsled began to descend.

The screaming came easy. And quickly. We went into the first turn. We were zigging. We were zagging. I couldn't hear the announcer track our route, but as snowflakes, shrubs, pedestrian bridges and my life flashed before me, I figured the worst was over.

Until the Finish Curve. I'd been listening to other groups go down for an hour, but that last turn caught me off-guard. We whooshed through it at more than 50 mph -- seemingly upside down and with heads jerking wildly -- before zipping up an incline and coming to a rest.

Our half-mile descent had taken about 35 seconds, just enough time to freeze goofy smiles on our faces and leave us yearning for more. Fortunately, ice-at-an-angle is everywhere in this area, and the Lake Placid Toboggan Chute was only minutes away.

The chute, downtown behind the post office, has been a fixture on Mirror Lake since the '60s, when some wiseacre thought to convert an old 30-foot-high ski jump trestle into a winter roller coaster. The procedure: Drag rented toboggan to top of chute. Place on track cut into ice. Reconsider whole thing as employee pushes you off. Realize it's too late. Clasp mate as toboggan plummets at 30 to 40 mph, icy shrapnel showering faces. Tear across frozen lake top. Repeat.

We hooted and howled and made our way up the cattle ramp a half-dozen times, stopping only because the falling snow, 20-degree temperatures and hunger got the best of us. And we still had to go snow-tubing.

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