A disused railway tunnel in a Genevan gorge offers an intriguing location for one of the world’s fastest skiers to train
As the Swiss have so many spectacular mountains to choose from, you might find it odd they would opt to ski underground. In a city.
Perhaps they are drawn by Geneva’s reputation for high-speed underground travel – the city is, after all, home to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where scientists accelerate sub-atomic particles through subterranean tunnels to close to the speed of light, and smash them together in the hope of discovering the secrets of creation among the debris.
The skiers’ experiments with speed, meanwhile, take place in a disused railway tunnel, concealed under a bridge spanning a gorge, high above the river Rhone. The location seems to have come straight from a James Bond film: a discreet flight of steps leads down the side of the Pont Butin, and up to a plain metal door built into the side of the gorge, invisible from the road above. Swinging open the heavy door, I half expect to see Q, tinkering with gadgets.
Instead I am greeted by staff from Geneva’s School of Engineers, who lead me deep into the cliffs lining the gorge to their biggest toy: a wind tunnel. We climb into a small cabin alongside, and squeeze around the operator seated at the control panel.
Through a window we can see a figure in a shiny red skin-tight suit, wearing a Darth Vader helmet. The operator turns on the fans, and as the wind picks up speed, the skier goes into a racing tuck, and the control cabin creaks ominously. Soon, a display on the computer is reading nearly 250 kph (155mph) – more than double the speed limit on a British motorway – and we can see the skier’s muscles quivering as he battles the forces bearing down on his head and body.
The skier is 40-year-old Philippe May from the Swiss resort of Verbier. Director of the Swiss Ski School there, he is also a passionate speed skier. Speed skiing is the fastest and arguably the purest form of ski racing: you simply point your skis straight down the mountain, tuck your body into as aerodynamic a shape as possible, and rocket as fast as you can through the speed trap at the bottom.
The best athletes can exceed the speed of a plane on take-off, and accelerate as quickly as a Formula 1 car, going from 0 to 200 kph in less than six seconds.
May is one of them: FIS World Champion in 2002, then Pro World Champion in 2007, he has been among the top three racers worldwide for nine consecutive years. He is also one of only five people in the world to have skied at 250 kph.
May is here today for two reasons. One is to train for the Speed Skiing World Championship, due to be held in Verbier in mid-April, high on the Mont-Fort glacier. The second is to launch a bid to break the world speed skiing record, which currently stands at 251.40 kph.
There is, however, an obstacle to setting a new record in Verbier: the fastest speed achieved on the glacier is 219.28 kph, recorded in 2010. The slope is simply not long enough to produce significantly faster speeds. Which is why Verbier is planning a stunt that could have been dreamed up by Ian Fleming: artificially lengthening the piste by extending it skywards.
Since last May, engineers have been welding a 2.6-ton metal ramp, 23 metres (75 ft) long, which will effectively drape over the top of the glacier, creating a new, higher, starting point by the top station of the Mont-Fort cable car. The ramp’s designers estimate that by the time athletes reach the bottom of the ramp – roughly the starting point for previous record attempts – they will be travelling at about 120 kph. Skiing at motorway speeds down a ramp just 2 metres wide with an incline of more than 105 per cent will take a strong nerve – as, indeed, will getting down to the bottom of the glacier alive.
One of May’s tasks today is to test a new helmet, with improved streamlining. He is also trying on a new pair of fairings, strapped to the back of his calves – the only artificial aerodynamic aid allowed in this sport. Each of May’s tests lasts only about a minute, but when the wind finally dies down, and he takes off his helmet, he is sweating and thirsty – this is obviously hard work.
For today’s launch, journalists have been invited to experience the high winds of speed skiing for themselves. I climb into a thin, stretchy racing suit from the Swiss national team, squeeze through a narrow hatch from the control cabin into the wind tunnel, and clip my ski boots into a pair of bindings attached to the floor. Behind me are four giant turbines: I may be about to battle a ferocious head wind, but in fact I will be sucked backwards, from behind.
May gives me some advice. “Tense all your muscles – especially your legs, abdomen, back – and stay in a racing tuck all the time,” he says. If I so much as raise my head, the wind will knock me backwards. Likewise, if I want to abort the test, I must not turn or wave: I should simply flick one index finger forwards. “And whatever you do, don’t drop the ski poles,” he says. They will get sucked into the giant turbine blades, and “sent back like shrapnel”. I don’t need telling twice.
The operator closes the hatch, settles in front of the computer, and switches on the four 75 kW fans. The wind rises steadily. I crouch quickly, sensing that the longer I wait, the harder it will be to mould my body into a racing tuck. I force my elbows onto my knees, as the gale buffeting me builds up strength. Projected onto the floor in front of me, I can see a video of myself, sideways on, and straighten my spine to streamline my head and back. I get the feeling that if I were to turn sideways, I would be sucked clean out of my ski boots.
When the wind has died down, one of the engineers climbs through the hatch into the tunnel. That was 100 kph, he says. How about going a little faster? I gulp. 100 kph is Force 10 on the Beaufort Scale, a storm capable of uprooting trees.
Over the course of two more tests, we ratchet the speed up to 170 kph – nearly half as fast again as winds that would qualify as a Force 12 hurricane. By the time we have finished, my muscles are aching and I feel completely drained of energy: one extra gust of wind, and I would have spun over backwards.
It would take a speed half as fast again for May or any other skier to set a new world record – and I cannot begin to imagine what that would feel like. I will be there to watch the Speedmaster races, though, up on the Mont-Fort glacier – along with any other skiers or snowboarders who happen to be in resort on April 22 and 23.
Just before the world record attempt, the piste will stage the World Championship, from April 18 to 21. International Ski Federation (FIS) rules state that runs should not exceed 200 kph for safety reasons, so the start will be lowered accordingly. Verbier is expecting about 100 athletes, from up to 20 nations.
And just before the World Championships is possibly the most intriguing and compelling event of all: the “Pop KL”, held from April 16-17. This speed skiing event is open to everyone – or rather, any recreational skier with nerves of steel and a sufficiently cool head. According to May, many skiers achieve speeds on their first run of 100 to 120 kph, while by the end of the day the best are hitting 150 to 160 kph.
So, if you like idea of skiing at speeds that would earn you a fine on a motorway, now is your chance. Just make sure you read the small print of your travel insurance first…
- Entering the Pop KL 2011 costs CHF 100 per person per day, including lunch and lift pass. For further information on all the speed skiing events, see www.xspeedski.net.
- For general travel information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
- Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)