STEVE WAS THE FIRST to fall. At the exact moment the order was given to charge down the snow-covered hill, he toppled backwards slowly until he was sitting on his skis. Bill crashed 10 yards later, fast as a sniper shot. Matthew might have made it to the bottom, but halfway there he intersected the path of a middle-aged woman skiing across the face of the slope like someone searching for a lost contact lens.
"Yaeeeeeuummmph" was the sound made by their meeting.
One by one our dirty half dozen went down. At the bottom of the hill only Cyril and I were still standing. Thirty yards later we were not. Our maiden downhill ski run came to an abrupt stop in a waist-high snow bank.
Since that night 18 years ago on the intermediate slope of what is now called Ski Liberty, I have schussed down some of America's steepest ski mountains. I have carved semi-graceful turns on the Grand Tetons' toughest runs and survived monster mogul fields a thousand feet above California's Lake Tahoe.
The scenery has been fine. But what has kept me coming back to mountains in winter, to spend money, endure cold and wait in long lift lines is the same feeling I discovered that first night on the runt-sized hill in Pennsylvania. It is a complex thing, somewhere between fun and fear. And for the real ski rush, you need generous portions of both.
y The very nature of the sport is essentially a fall -- a long controlled fall from mountain top to mountain base. Perhaps in that balancing of fearful falling and controlled descent is the source of the pleasure of skiing.
From "The Centered Skier" by Denise McCluggage.
Terry Monmaney, a science writer and local ski enthusiast, has done much personal research into the joy of skiing. He has concluded that the ultimate pleasure of the sport comes at "the moment one takes off his ski boots and puts on a pair of moccasins." But most skiers, when asked to identify the addictive ingredient in skiing, will mention speed. And the act of controlling it.
A few years ago in Wyoming, I shared a tram going to the top of a ski mountain with two women in their late 20s who appeared to be heading for an execution. As we rocked in the alpine gusts, a few hundred feet above a very steep slope, they stared straight ahead, gripping their seats with clenched hands.
"Afraid of heights?" I asked.
"No, just steep ski slopes," said one of the women. They were sisters from Minnesota. Neither had ever attempted to run any hill higher than a few hundred feet. Yet here they were, ascending to nose-bleed level, having paid for the privilege of scaring their knuckles white.
"We don't expect it to be fun at first," said the older sister.
The beginning skier has no trouble finding the proper amount of fear to face. At that level, skiing seems unsafe at any speed. But as you get better, the slopes become more tame. So you find a bigger hill and more difficult runs. The problem occurs at the expert level. To keep the wide-eyed rush, you have to constantly increase the challenge. And that usually means more speed.
Ski resorts discourage that escalation. You can have your lift ticket taken away for skiing too fast at most places. At Wintergreen, a ski resort south of Charlottesville, management has instituted a novel and, some would say noxious, policy to give experts a chance to ski fast without fear of colliding with neophytes. Before skiers are allowed to take on Wintergreen's toughest slopes, they must pass a test. The wails from intermediate skiers who fail that certification can be heard as far away as Richmond.
The alternative to such controls is to participate in organized ski races. NASTAR, a 16-year-old amateur racing organization, is the most popular. Last year, more than 200,000 skiers raced in NASTAR events at 121 ski areas in 27 states.
But most of NASTAR's events involve slalom races that require tight turns through a series of gates. That still leaves downhill racers on the outlaw fringe.
Last year, however, a new series of speed-skiing events -- the Camel Sprint Series -- was introduced in the west. The program was co-founded by Steve McKinney, older brother of Olympic skier Tamara, and the first man to break 200 kilometers an hour (124 mph) on skis.
The Sprint Series puts skiers at the top of a carefully groomed and very steep course for a straight downhill run at speeds that average between 50 and 70 miles an hour. Compared to the average speed of most recreational skiers, about 17 miles an hour, that is nearly jet-propelled.
If you're still hungry for higher speeds, there is a professional international speed-skiing circuit where downhill racers like McKinney reach speeds that surpass those of parachutists in free fall. The competitors come equipped with skintight rubberized suits, space-age helmets, skis more than 80 inches long -- and a knowledge of the risks (at least five people have died in organized speed-skiing competitions over the last 40 years).
Speed-skiing is at least a hundred years old. American gold miners in the late 1800s used to race each other down western mountains for sport. One of them, Tommy Todd, was said to have achieved a speed of 90 miles an hour in 1870. It wasn't until 1960 that a speed skier, Luigi diMarco, was credited with breaking the 100-mile-an-hour mark, on the Little Matterhorn near Cervinia, Italy.
The current record is 129 miles an hour. And no one thinks that mark will last very long.
I have no illusions about breaking it myself. But this winter, I plan to head west for a week to race on the amateur downhill circuit. I want to see how fast I can go without succumbing to the "grip," a physical expression of a mental state that occurs somewhere between fear and terror.
The last time I experienced a good "grip" was two years ago, on a steep run through trees at Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Valley. I was following a fast friend through an improvised slalom course using evergreens as gates. Suddenly my right ski hit a concealed bump and bounced into the air. That left me on one ski, heading straight for a cartoon collision with a tree.
I should have dropped my weight, bent my left knee and carved a classy escape. I could have fallen over immediately and let the ground slow my impact. Instead, my body locked into premature rigor mortis. I saw, with extreme clarity, the spot on the tree that would soon be decorated with face.
But as quickly as I was put in trouble, another bump, probably a tree root, bounced me out of it. The tree zipped past and I was again in control, still following my friend who had seen none of it.
I expected to have a shaking fit. Instead, my body flushed with a feeling that was very familiar and undeniably pleasurable. And that feeling, the ski-junkie high, scared me more than the near mishap. But not much. And only for a little while.