How the Niche World of Speed Skiing is Getting Even Faster

For the fastest skiers on the planet, speed is the most natural thing in the world

PHOTOS: Erik Seo

A speed skier’s world unravels before their brain can catch up. A groove in the snow, a misangled ski, and before the mind even realizes it, the body is in a 200 kilometer per hour slide for life. Snow becomes fire—the custom-made speed suit designed to eliminate wind resistance doing little to relieve the scorching friction of skin on frozen water.

“Can you imagine being in a really, really hot frying pan and not being able to escape?” asks Jan Farrell, a 34-year-old speed skier from Great Britain and the 2014 world speed skiing champion.

The Englishman knows the feeling. In Vars, France, in 2016, he hooked an edge on course. Miraculously, he walked away from the crash with a shredded suit, second-degree burns, and heavy bruising.

Surrounded by the picturesque couloirs of the Andorran Pyrenees, Farrell joins 62 of the world’s fastest skiers at the top of Grandvalira Resort for the 2017 FIS Speed Skiing World Cup Finals. As he readies for his run, he admits the mental scars from his slide have lasted a little longer.

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The April sun is warm, but the mood in the starting corral is not. Conversations are limited to single words, each competitor clawing for the mental tipping point that will push them through the start gate and a kilometer straight down the 50-degree course.

To increase speed at the finals, officials added 30 vertical feet to the course by constructing a scaffolding ramp with artificial field turf. One by one, skiers make their way up the metal ladder with their massive skis to the start area, their tight red speed suits stretching just enough to reach the next rung.

Those that wait retreat into routine, clearing ski bindings and sitting deep into one more practice tuck.

Farrell climbs the rungs to the top and throws his skis down. He steps into his Atomic Race 614 bindings—the dated, yet low-profile ski binding of choice for his speed ski brethren. As he snaps his helmet closed, he can see the banner above the finish line. In 12 seconds, it will all be over.

For a moment, the tips of his 240-centimeter Atomics dangle in open air. The top official drops his hand. Farrell takes two breaths in quick succession and plummets out of sight.

Qualifying day at the 2017 FIS Speed Skiing World Cup at Grandva
Qualifying day at the 2017 FIS Speed Skiing World Cup at Grandvalira Resort, Andorra. PHOTO: Erik Seo

The Ancient Greeks felt the pull of speed when they started racing each other on horseback around 648 BC. So too, did Catherine the Great in 17th century Russia, ordering the construction of steep, 100-meter ice luges to reach new velocities on wooden sleds.

The human desire to go fast is chemical, linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine that causes overwhelming happiness and exhilaration. While cocaine and methamphetamines artificially release the chemical messenger, death-defying acts like jumping out of an airplane or hurtling downhill release the neurotransmitter naturally.

“No one wants to die,” says Pete Cheney, a performance automotive journalist that has dedicated his career to documenting those who push the speed limit. “But feeling like you might has a strange attraction.”

Chasing speed on skis dates back to the 19th century, when Scandinavians working the California Gold Rush began skiing 12-foot-long wooden planks straight downhill (human semen was the wax of choice in those days). The first official speeds weren’t recorded until 1930, when Austria’s Gustav Lantschner clocked 105.675 kph (about 66 mph) at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Records changed hands several times in the decades following, but it was American Steve McKinney’s modern quest for 200 kph that pushed the sport into the international limelight.

McKinney skied his first speed ski track in a body cast after breaking his back in a 100-foot climbing fall. He would go on to set seven speed ski world records. He would also become the first person to hang glide off Mount Everest. He once wrote, “Racing for pure speed is uncomplicated, straightforward, and decisive.” The man never wavered.

Like track’s four-minute mile, 200 kph was considered the unattainable standard of McKinney’s era. For the Tahoe native, it was an obsession, and after a handful of failed attempts in the 1970s, he hit 200.220 kph (about 125 mph) at a custom-built track in Portillo, Chile, in 1978. (McKinney would break his record again in 1987 before being killed by a truck that hit his parked car near Lake Tahoe in 1990.)

As the 200 kph mark fell, the professional circuit in North America thrived, hosting competitions at Aspen and Silverton throughout the ’70s and ’80s. A FIS World Cup circuit followed, and in 1992 the International Olympic Committee added speed skiing as a demonstration sport.

But speed skiing’s mercurial rise hit a wall when a Swiss speed skier collided with a snow machine and died during warm-ups (he was not on course at the time). The IOC never considered speed skiing for another Olympics, and, after the sport’s brief flirtation with the mainstream, it was foisted back to the fringe.

While going fast is an obsession of all skiers, going the fastest is a niche. It doesn’t come with the celebrity acclaim of its alpine brothers and sisters, nor the paycheck to support an athlete year-round. Today, fewer than a dozen speed ski tracks still operate. The discipline’s first (and maybe last) golden era has come and gone, replaced by spectator-friendly alternatives like freestyle moguls and halfpipe.

Still, an allure remains—an intersection of athleticism, physics, and a certain adrenal necessity. Because in the end, it’s not about FIS’ Crystal Globe—it’s about redefining what is humanly possible on skis.

“I like to see how far I can push [my body]. Speed is attractive to me for that,” says Philippe May, a veteran speed skier and 2002 World Cup champion from Switzerland. “I want to find the limit.”

Qualifying day at the 2017 FIS Speed Skiing World Cup at Grandva
Speed skiing has little financial gain. Those that commit to it want one thing: to be the fastest.

Quietly, speed skiing has gotten even faster. In 2015, Italian Simone Origone was clocked at 252.631 kph (156.978 mph) at the track in Vars, France (the world’s steepest track reaches a pitch of 78 degrees). The next year, fellow Italian Valentina Greggio, shattered the women’s record, reaching 247.083 kph, a higher speed than nearly all of the men in the current field (the sport is measured by speed, not time). These records have changed hands more than a dozen times over the past two decades.

Then there’s Rauli Karjalainen. The Finnish-born American started speed skiing three years ago—at age 68. “I told my wife that I was going speed skiing, and literally the first words out of her mouth were, ‘Get more life insurance,’” says the former Air Force aircraft maintainer and Vietnam veteran who spent 31 years in the service. “Well, I did.”

Karjalainen, who lives outside Ogden, Utah, had grown tired of the masters races around Snowbasin (“I hate slalom, too many damn turns,” he says) and decided to try something faster, registering with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and making his way up to Grandvalira for his first speed race in 2014. A few runs later, he was hooked.

He went home and bought his first pair of speed skis, 214-centimeter behemoths with zero sidecut and a tip rising just 1.5 centimeters off the snow. Featuring three titanium plates for added stiffness and weighing in at about 25 pounds each, Karjalainen’s new tools helped him compete for a year in speed skiing’s developmental circuit. He then moved into the top division, called S1, alongside Origone, Farrell, and May (the only prerequisite for competing in S1 is a year skiing the developmental circuit, a loophole that many speed skiers have asked FIS to address moving forward). He doesn’t often crack the top 20, but says his own quest for 200 kph keeps him competing in a sport that has no listed age cap (though there is a minimum age of 16).

“Those things you have when you are young, reaction time and explosive muscle strength, they aren’t critical [in speed skiing],” says Karjalainen, who gets into shape by putting thousands of miles on his road bike every summer. “You need a strong mind—the mental toughness to do it and do it right. That’s why there are several people over 50 that are pretty good.”
You also need an obsessiveness for very specific gear. Karjalainen greets us with a disarming smile as we step into the orchestra of ripping tape that fills the cavernous lodge at the base of Grandvalira. Competitors grunt as they help each other into tight one-pieces, stretching fabric over mandatory back protectors. The polyurethane and polypropylene suits fit the body like a second skin, but also extend over the fins poking from the backside of their ski boots. Known as fairings, the blades reduce wind drag in a full tuck.

So too do the specially engineered helmets. Karjalainen’s cost around $1,400, featuring custom-fit carbon and Kevlar to cover his head and shoulders, saving precious milliseconds on course.

While going fast is an obsession of all skiers, going the fastest is a niche.

Like a street-racing chop shop, any unnecessary piece of equipment is shaved off, including ski boot buckles and logos. Seams are taped over—first with Gorilla Tape for hold, and then thin electrical tape for a smooth finish. Even the small window of the helmet is taped along the edges to keep wind from creeping in at over 200 kph.

Day 2 races of the 2017 FIS Speed Skiing World Cup at Grandvalir
Humans have been hooked on speed for thousands of years. Wanting to be the fastest on skis is only natural… just don’t cross your tips.

France’s Bastien Montes eliminates bumps between his shins and fairings by wrapping them in cake boxes from a French bistro. The Slovakians load into rear-entry Salomon SX 91s, swearing the antiques give them the forward lean they need to stay in their tuck. The Italians, worried competitors will copy their winning formula, get dressed in a corner away from the rest of the field.

“When you go into your tuck, every movement, every mistake, costs you. There’s no more room for kamikaze,” says May. “You can see how some people are not focused on their suits…but I know everything has to be perfect.”

The 47-year-old is one of the last of the old order, a former rock-and-roll drummer that left his band to pursue his speed skiing dreams.

After blowing out his knees in an alpine racing accident in the late 1980s, doctors told him he would never ski again. Instead, May found speed skiing—a sport that exerted less pressure on his joints—winning a Crystal Globe in 2002 and staying in the top three in the world until 2013, when he took a break to focus on running the Verbier ski school.

The doctors knocked again in 2014, this time for a heart condition that required surgery to install a defibrillator. Again, many doctors told him he’d never ski again, especially not in a sport that limits participants’ daily runs due to “heart and muscular stress.” Determined, May found his way back to the track.

“I didn’t think there was a question. I knew he was going to want to keep going,” says Tracie May, his wife and a former American speed skier. “His most natural sport is speed skiing. It has been a part of his, of both of our lives, for so long.”

In addition to holding the American women’s speed record, Tracie is currently her husband’s wax tech and coach. They met at the Les Arcs speed track in 1999, marrying a few years later. Before every race, the two discuss strategy as she twists his heavy-metal locks into a single braid.

Later that day, May wins the first of three races at Grandvalira, setting a new course record and becoming the oldest World Cup winner in any ski discipline. The speed ski OG acknowledges that it was prepping for warming snow temperatures and adjusting to bumps two-thirds down the course, not guts, that got him there.

That strategy is a departure from the Steve McKinney days. The increasingly professional world of competitive skiing has had polarizing effects on the discipline. To be the fastest in the world requires time and money, approximately $30,000 a year, according to Karjalainen. Origone is one of the lucky few whose training and competition expenses are funded by the Italian Ski Federation, but with speed skiing largely out of the public view, fewer and fewer national governing bodies are offering their athletes financial support.

With no budget from USSA, and FIS only offering $10,000 across all competitions in prize money each year (a single race win will net you around $1,500), Karjalainen pays his own way all season, spending six weeks traveling from track to track instead of buying return tickets home.

“No one came here without making sacrifices, but we’re all here for the same reason,” says Karjalainen. “It’s hard to put a price on what you love so much.”

Race day 1 of the 2017 FIS Speed Skiing World Cup at Grandvalira

When Farrell drops over the edge, the world blurs. In less than three seconds, he’s hurtling downhill faster than 160 kph. While the sound of his body cutting through air sounds like a jet taking off, the Englishman’s world is silent, his aerodynamic helmet deflecting the roar of wind friction.

At this speed, the human eye has difficulty focusing more than a dozen meters ahead. Deep in his tuck, he feels his legs caress each imperfection of the snow. Fluid. Light. Forward. Where alpine racers live on their edges, speed thrives on a plane.

With the 100-meter timing trap approaching, Farrell has to be flawless. The pitch reaches 45 degrees, and any adjustment of his well-honed position could lift him airborne and toss him like a ragdoll. Though death is uncommon, miscalculation will send him back to the frying pan.

Through the trap, he rises slowly, leaning into the wind to counteract the G-forces threatening to throw him backward. Guns clock Farrell at 192.70 kph—enough for 13th place.

Valentina Greggio. Race #3 of the 2017 FIS Speed Skiing World Cu
Race #3 of the 2017 FIS Speed Skiing World Cup at Grandvalira Resort, Andorra. Skier: Valentina Greggio

To be the world’s fastest skier
requires year-round training. Origone, who has eight World Cup globes and five World Championships to his name, works on his form in a wind tunnel and practices his tuck carrying extra weight on a slack line. The 37-year-old supplements his gym time by guiding climbs in the Alps and the Himalaya; he once rescued a Pakistani climber on K2 without supplemental oxygen.

At the base of the course, Origone paces with his jaw clenched. His coaches have just launched a formal protest after the last run of the season. Moments before, Austrian Klaus Schrottshammer edged the legend by less than one kph to win the final event. The result bumped Origone off the top of the overall podium, giving France’s Montes the World Cup title.

Schrottshammer threw a handful of snow on the artificial surface while standing at the start gate, incensing the Italians. They claimed the snow wet the carpet, reducing friction and leading to a faster speed. Officials scramble to find any FIS regulation forbidding the act, but after 45 minutes, the verdict is upheld.

The crowd breathes a bizarre sigh of relief.

“It’s uncharted territory,” says Karjalainen. “It seems underhanded in some way, however if you put yourself in his shoes, anything goes. I’m looking for the advantage.”

As podium tensions simmer, Montes sprays champagne toward the small crowd of family, teammates, and Russian tourists. It’s the Frenchman’s first Crystal Globe, but at 32, the brightest years of his speed career may still be on the horizon.

The season convenes at a raucous dinner down valley, speed suits replaced by track suits and the occasional button-down. There’s plenty of reasons to party as, in addition to Montes’ victory, Greggio has capped an unprecedented three-peat as the women’s World Cup champion. The USA congratulates Spain as Japan toasts another great season with its new German friends. France celebrates its victory with drinking songs, and eventually it’s Italy that joins in. Despite rivalries on the track, there’s a certain bond in surviving skiing’s ultimate speeds, something that only those wired for the plunge can understand.

“We don’t have a death wish,” says Karjalainen, who notes that he, in addition to five grandchildren, has two great grandchildren. “But I get to the bottom of a run and I can’t help but smile. I’m alive.”

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