THUN­DER ON ICE

Stand­ing just two me­tres away, near the bot­tom of the track, with rac­ers trav­el­ling be­tween 140 and 145 kilo­me­tres per hour, the speed is mind-numb­ing. To put it an­other way: Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

Whistler Traveller Magazine - - CONTENT - STORY BY DAVID BURKE IM­AGES BY JOERN ROHDE

Bob­sled­ding

Af­ter ar­riv­ing 30 min­utes be­fore my “Thun­der On Ice” bobsleigh ex­pe­ri­ence at the Whistler Slid­ing Cen­tre last win­ter, I walked to the in­te­rior of the ice-cov­ered track — host venue for the slid­ing events dur­ing the 2010 Win­ter Olympics — and watched, along with a half-dozen oth­ers, over a pe­riod of about 10 min­utes, as three skele­ton rac­ers flashed by Cor­ner 15. I say “flashed by,” be­cause the speed is dif­fi­cult for some­one who’s only seen bobsleigh, skele­ton and luge rac­ing on TV to com­pre­hend. Stand­ing just two me­tres away, near the bot­tom of the track, with rac­ers trav­el­ling be­tween 140 and 145 kilo­me­tres per hour, the speed is mind­numb­ing. To put it an­other way: Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

Sev­eral times dur­ing the check-in, weighin, hel­met fit­ting and safety brief­ing, the friendly staff at the Slid­ing Cen­tre stressed that Thun­der On Ice (bobsleigh) and Light­ning On Ice (skele­ton) are not car­ni­val rides; they are sport ex­pe­ri­ences. This is not a roller coaster on rails. The sleds em­ployed for the pub­lic pro­gram are vir­tu­ally the same as the ones used by com­peti­tors in the four­man bobsleigh event dur­ing World Cup and Olympic com­pe­ti­tions. They’re also sub­ject to the same ki­netic forces that gov­ern ob­jects mov­ing on ice. Dur­ing the 20-minute safety brief­ing, we were told that they’ve only had one sled over­turn (no one was in­jured) on the ice since the pub­lic bobsleigh pro­gram was launched in late 2011. Full-face hel­mets are manda­tory, and guests are ad­vised to hold on tight to the ca­bles in­side the sled and hunch up their neck and shoul­ders dur­ing the ride to min­i­mize the ten­dency of the up­per body to flop from side to side. Yes, you’re not launch­ing from the top start house of the 1,450-me­tre (4,757-foot) track, but guests ex­pe­ri­ence speeds up to 125 km/h and g-forces three to four times nor­mal grav­ity. This is the real deal. Chris Spring, the Cana­dian World Cup bobsleigh com­peti­tor who would be our pi­lot on this day, said later in an in­ter­view that see­ing guests’ wide-eyed re­ac­tions helps him re­mem­ber his first few rides many years ago and ap­pre­ci­ate what a mind-blow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it truly is. “I guess I take driv­ing a sled for granted. I’ve done it for so long. But to have the chance to see peo­ple who just have a ball when they go down is pretty cool,” Spring said. “I re­al­ize it’s a huge thrill for peo­ple and it def­i­nitely makes me grate­ful for what I get to do as a sport.” The Whistler Slid­ing Cen­tre’s pub­lic pro­gram, which was re­cently listed on Trip Ad­vi­sor as the third-most pop­u­lar win­ter ac­tiv­ity in Whistler, has helped boost in­ter­est in the slid­ing sports, Spring said. “Some­times peo­ple get to the bot­tom and they want to re­mem­ber my name and fol­low my re­sults, and to fol­low the World Cup in bobsleigh and skele­ton,” he said. “A lot of peo­ple who come from far away will de­velop an in­ter­est in their own na­tional team.” It’s com­mon, though, for new­bies to be a bit fear­ful be­fore­hand, Spring said. Count me among them. Yes, there was a lit­tle fear as I pre­pared to go hurtling down the ice on the world’s fastest bobsleigh track. But­ter­flies ex­e­cuted an un­re­hearsed tum­bling run in my stom­ach as Val and Jor­dan — a friendly young cou­ple from Van­cou­ver — and I pulled on our hel­mets and pre­pared to shoe­horn our­selves into Sled 7. A lot can hap­pen in 41 or 42 sec­onds at th­ese sorts of speeds, I thought. On the other hand, it was re­as­sur­ing to know that my sled mates and I were in the ca­pa­ble hands of an ex­pe­ri­enced World Cup bobsleigh pi­lot. Just be­fore we were pushed off from the start house just above Cor­ner 7 — the women’s and dou­bles luge start for com­peti­tors — cow­bells rang and our names and sled num­ber were an­nounced on the track’s PA sys­tem. Cor­ner 7 seemed to pass at a leisurely pace; what one might ex­pe­ri­ence on the typ­i­cal to­bog­gan hill. As we ca­reened out of Cor­ner 8 and into Cor­ner 9, though, with the rapid

in­crease in speed and com­men­su­rate side-to-side mo­tion com­ing into and out of the turns, I gasped, in­stinc­tively tight­en­ing my grip on the ca­bles in­side the sled. I’ve never gone sky­div­ing or fallen off a cliff, but I can imag­ine those ex­pe­ri­ences are some­thing like what I felt as we dropped out of Cor­ner 11, known to com­peti­tors as Shiver. Slid­ing Cen­tre of­fi­cials ad­vise guests to keep their heads up and their eyes open through­out; and I did that, but as our sled hur­tled through the next few turns and the g-forces in­creased, I had only the faintest no­tion of where I might be. Two sec­onds af­ter we made the sweep­ing right-hand turn that is Cor­ner 16, a.k.a. Thun­der­bird, I sud­denly re­al­ized we were trav­el­ling up­hill. At that mo­ment, I felt and heard the scrap­ing of the metal brakes on the ice. Over the next sec­ond-and-a-half, we ground to a halt. Af­ter a col­lec­tive “whoop,” Val, Jor­dan and I piled one at a time out of the sled, with our eyes the size of din­ner plates and broad smiles on our faces. Our time: 41.50 sec­onds … third fastest of the 14 sleds on that day. Our top speed: More than 123 km/h. Chris shook our hands. We took off our hel­mets and the four of us were ush­ered over to an Olympic-themed back­drop to have our photo taken. The but­ter­flies fi­nally stopped flut­ter­ing. “There have been mul­ti­ple times where peo­ple were ab­so­lutely scared at the top. They’re not sure they want to go down, and some­times think of back­ing out,” Spring said. “But I just try to re­as­sure them that they’ll be fine and when they get done, they’ll be thank­ful that they did it and ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing they can’t ac­com­plish any­where else in life.”

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