Some, like Beaver Creek's Birds of Prey, get their feel from the mountain. That course's terrain threatens the racers both mentally and physically. Some get their identity from what happens on the slope. Who does not think of Hermann Maier's backflip when Nagano's Olympic course is mentioned? Others, such as Kitzbühel's Hahnenkahm, derive their spirit from long and storied traditions.
To conquer a downhill course you must carve through the turns as cleanly as possible, taking the shortest line. When catching air off the jumps, you have to know your takeoffs and landings, staying as aerodynamic in the air as possible. And you must handle speed and its forces as they try to throw you into the nets. Simple, right? Well, on many downhills it is. But the Grizzly packs a punch like no other.
Last February, I had the opportunity to run the new course. I discovered that its true character is concealed at first glance. It appears tame from outside the gates, and as I freeskied the trail, its rhythm was relaxing. And when I studied the numbers, they showed only an average vertical drop and short length. However, I soon found that this course has hidden dangers revealed only when it is raced. Aptly named "Grizzly," this Olympic race course is a fierce ride that will challenge racers with elements never before seen in downhill competition.
There is never a time when the course is not falling away from the racer. Every turn, every steep, even the flats slant to the left or right, which makes holding the correct line nearly impossible. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the course's final pitch, where the world falls out from beneath the racers as they try to make a 90-degree turn onto Rendezvous Face. "It's a roller coaster, a rodeo," says course designer Bernhard Russi. "It's rock 'n' roll all the way."
From the moment racers leave the start, they will constantly battle the hill, flailing their arms and trying to keep their edges on the snow as they prepare for the Grizzly's second hidden danger¿its jumps. The jumps in most downhills are drop-offs, where the angle of flight as the racer leaves the snow is horizontal. This allows the racer to know the takeoff point, to prepare and compress over the lip, and to stay in a tuck position throughout the flight. But the Grizzly's jumps are different. Every Grizzly jump has an uphill launch¿blind knolls where the takeoff point depends not only on the line, but also on speed. They will throw the racers up and out rather than forward and down, making it harder to know when and where to land.
Of the Grizzly's four major jumps, the Flintlock Jump, just 20 seconds into the race, is the most dangerous. With skiers cruising at 50 mph on the John Paul Traverse, the jump rises up in front of them like a wall. Competitors must pick a distant mountain peak to align themselves in the right direction before hitting the lip. Add to all of this the fact that the course actually turns to the right over the jump and you have the makings of something both exciting and dangerous. For many, this will be the most critical part of the course. It may well determine who wears the gold and who wears a cast.
The Grizzly's final concealed danger is speed. The average is more than 70 mph as racers cover 9,895 feet in just 95 seconds. That's 104 feet per second. Many things can happen at 104 feet per second¿few of which are good for the human body. The fastest parts of the course are found at the start and finish. The Grizzly's starthouse sits precariously atop the Wasatch mountain range. The first 10 seconds are a virtual free fall where racers accelerate from zero to 70 mph, faster than many cars. However, the fastest section of the course can be seen from the finish bleachers on Rendezvous Face. Racers who successfully negotiate the fall-away turn at the top of the Face will accelerate into the finish at speeds approaching 90 mph.
The Grizzly offers unprecedented terrain, jumps aand speed. It's designed and built to flow in and around the mountain's natural obstacles. However, the Grizzly has yet to be tested: World Cup races scheduled there last year were canceled due to heavy snowfall. The course now sits high above Salt Lake City waiting for February, when the world's fastest and strongest skiers will arrive. What awaits them may at first appear tame and forgiving. But the Grizzly has hidden dangers that will humble most and reward few.
The Grizzly's four jumps launch racers up and out, with Flintlock the most dangerous of all; The Olympic Tram will transport competitors to the top of the Grizzly during the Winter Games; Bernhard Russi (right), who designed both the men's and women's downhill courses (as well as those for the '88, '92, '94 and '98 Olympics), knows downhill: He won Olympic gold in 1972 and silver in 1976.
Click on the Slideshow to the right to view a detailed map of the Grizzly downhill course.