In the run-up to the Speed Skiing World Championships in Verbier, amateur skiers have the chance to hurtle down the same course. Are they mad?
What makes a skier into a speed freak? Are some of us born with the word “faster!” on our lips, or is every holiday skier a potential adrenalin junkie, awaiting a trigger that will unleash an addiction to breakneck thrills?
A good place to find out is in the Swiss resort of Verbier– notably in April, just before the world’s fastest skiers gather to race on the Mont-Fort.
Last weekend, on the eve of the Speed Skiing World Championships now taking place, the stomach-churning glacier course was opened to the public for the annual “Pop KL”. While seasoned racers will nudge 200kph, novices are told they can expect speeds of up to 150 kph – or nearly 100 mph.
Which raises the question – what kind of leisure skier would do this? Do you have to be insane? To find out, I spoke to two novice racers: one woman and one man, both British, yet quite different in their approach.
Marcus Bointon, 41, is from London, but lives near the French ski resort of Chamonix with his French wife and two children. He works from home, running an email marketing company, with clients in the UK. His story suggests that a craving for speed could be genetic.
“Last season I clocked my daughter skiing at 60 kph (37mph),” he says. “And she was only six.” Marcus has always liked skiing fast – especially first thing in the morning, when the slopes are empty. “I find I can do 120 (75mph) without difficulty,” he says, “but I just can’t seem to go any faster.”
For the Pop KL, his first experience of speed skiing, he dug out the most aerodynamic pair of ski boots he had – a pair of rear-entry Salomons from 1993. The left boot was broken, so he found a replacement on eBay – “just £5, though it cost me three times that for shipping” – which is why he set off for Verbier with one black boot and one white. He also took with him a pair of downhill skis bought on eBay, 2.10 metres long – brand-new, 200 euros the pair.
As well as racing on unfamiliar equipment, he faced additional personal challenges. “You’re not allowed to wear glasses on these races,” he says, “they don’t want to be pulling broken bits of frame out of your eyes if you fall at speed.” However, Marcus has always had trouble with contact lenses – and so ended up racing in a pair of 2-year-old disposables “that don’t quite fit.”
Reaching the starting point for the race is an adventure in itself: a ride up a cable car to the summit of the 3,330-metre Mont-Fort, followed by a traverse of the glacier – at this stage of the season, an icy field of moguls. The run itself is vertiginously steep, as smooth, white and scary as a blank sheet of paper in an exam.
© The Telegraph and Marcus Bointon
“You look down and all you see is this big, empty white space,” says Marcus. “And I thought – what have I got myself into? Then I started my run, and as I picked up speed, I thought – ooh, this is good! And then I picked up some more speed, and I started thinking – ooh, this is a bit bloody fast…”
The scariest part, he says, was just before the first timing beam – when you are travelling at your fastest – and “where even the slightest changes of gradient feel like big bumps.” But he kept his nerve, and at the end of the long run-out learned that he had clocked 138.72 kph (86mph).
Racers are allowed three runs, with a higher starting point each time. At the start of his second run, Marcus had a shaky start, but nonetheless scored 144.76 kph (89.9mph) – which turned out to be his highest speed of the day.
“When I left home this morning,” said Marcus, “I told my wife I’d be very happy if I do 140, and ecstatic if I do 150. So I’m delighted.” Presumably his wife was very happy, too – especially that her husband was still in one piece.
A skier with a very different background to Marcus’s, it would seem, is 23-year-old Alexandra Main from Exeter, who has been working for the season in Verbier as a masseuse and sports therapist at No. 14, a luxury chalet in Verbier. While she enjoys sporting challenges, she says she never had the urge to ski particularly fast. “In fact when I saw the speed ski run from the top of the cable car the other day,” she says, “I thought – those people must be crazy. There’s no way I’d ever do that.”
But a few days ago, a university friend who subsequently acquired a taste for speed skiing turned up in resort for the World Championship – and suggested she have a go at the Pop KL. “I didn’t even know it was going to be a competition,” Alex said, “my friend didn’t say – he didn’t want me to worry. But when I registered in the morning, I was really nervous, I was the only woman there.”
She told neither her colleagues at work – “I didn’t want them to come and watch” – nor her mother by phone – “I didn’t want her to be anxious.” Come Sunday morning, however, she was standing at the top of the glacier run, with a borrowed pair of 2.17-metre racing skis, the longest she had ever ridden.
“I was scared I might crash, and all I wanted was to get down in one piece. Before the run I was really nervous –excited nervous – but as I went down, I felt really good, and at the bottom I felt a massive sense of achievement. And I immediately wanted to do another run.”
On that first run she clocked 118.39 kph (73.56mph) – comfortably above the speed limit on a British motorway. On her second, boosted by confidence, she reached 125.70 kph. For her third run, starting higher still, she took off her puffy un-aerodynamic ski jacket, for extra speed – and clocked an impressive 127.35 kph (79mph).
As a result, she won a silver medal, which left her “really shocked and very happy.” She told her mum on the phone: “she was really proud, though I think she was glad I didn’t tell her in advance.”
For me, the most intriguing aspect of the whole day was witnessing a human transformation. Earlier in the day, Alex had told me that, much as she had enjoyed living and working in Verbier, she did not know if she would come back: she was torn between plans.
Those three runs changed everything. After the races, Alex told me she would definitely be back for next year’s Pop KL, would spend the season juggling sports massage with training and racing – and would love to join the British speed skiing team – “if they want me.” Not just a change of plan, then, but a change of life.
The initial reaction from the British team is positive. “We’ll definitely take her under our wing and help turn her into a speed skier,” said Benja Hedley, in the resort for the World Championships. “You can tell those who are going to make good speed skiers: they are the ones who get to the bottom of their first run and immediately say: I want to go faster. She looked very stable, very happy, very confident, and the smile on her face at the bottom of the run shows she has the right head for the sport.”
So a taste for speed, it would seem, can appear suddenly, and quite unexpectedly. And once acquired, it would seem hard to shake off: witness the speed fanatics in Verbier now, from the British athletes competing in the World Championships to home-grown racers such as Philippe May, one of only five people in the world to have skied at 250 kph (155mph).
You can find out how they all fare in next week’s column, the last of the season.
- 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).
- General travel information on Switzerland is available from the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com).