themselves, like Walter Mussner of Italy, who flipped head over heels eight
times before impaling himself on a marker in 1964, or like Switzerland's Jean
Marc B�guelin, who snapped his spinal cord when he somersaulted 200 yards off
the course two years ago. Some suffer multiple fractures and other serious
injuries. And a few, like Simons, set a new record, nearly every year bringing
the ultimate speed closer to the barrier of 200 kph (124 mph), which is
At normal air
pressure, terminal velocity is the maximum speed reached by someone falling off
a tall building. But few, if any, of those who leap off skyscrapers are trying
to set a record. No one really knows how fast a man can go, properly trained
and equipped, and set in a perfect aerodynamic stance. In a sense, that's what
the KL is there to find out. "Peregrine falcons have been clocked at 175
mph." McKinney says dreamily, "and that's what you're like, a falcon,
cutting through the air."
But with their
shiny airtight suits and elongated helmets, the racers resemble nothing so much
as stylish astronauts. The helmets, wedge-shaped at the front for maximum air
penetration, taper off between the shoulder blades to protect the vulnerable
spinal cord, like the headrest on a car seat. For some years now, the KL race
jury has limited the length of the helmets because at 200 kph the wind is
strong enough to pull outsized headgear right around, breaking the neck of the
McKinney, 23, from
Steamboat, Nev., was the record setter in 1974 (189.473 kph), then ran second
the next two years. With his Nazarene hairstyle, blond beard and mustache, and
what the race doctor, Zilioli Lanzini, calls his "terrifying physique."
he looks like he narrowly missed playing the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar.
This great-grandson of a governor of Maryland, heir to a now-vanished steel
fortune, says. "I got into this to train my mind to live in the moment, to
let my mind remain on an even keel and not let fear take over." He is an
associate of Simons in the sailplane and hang glider business, although his
star quality means he may now be able to live on KL spinoffs and endorsements.
Still, Simons is the best bet to make 200 kph because he is stronger than his
fellow racers and can hold the murderous crouch position longer than
"You're at the
top and the glacier is dropping away on all sides," McKinney says.
"There's a small track, with flags defining the course, and it drops over
the edge of the mountain so you can't see the bottom. At first there is no air
resistance. You pick up speed fast and before long everything is vibrating very
quickly. You pre-jump the first crevasse, negotiate a slight line to the second
crevasse and after the third you bring your knees up toward your chest. You get
into your position and all of a sudden you're in the air. There is no sound, no
vision, no vibration. You're in space. You can no longer think because
everything is moving too fast. When the compression comes and the Gs are on
you, your knees bang into your thorax and you feel you're getting sucked into
the earth. You might feel fear before the run and sometimes afterward, but not
during the race, there's not enough time."
show that though the racers' heartbeats can reach a level of 230/240 just
before a descent, the rate drops to a more normal 160 during the run. "If
you're frightened, you'll fall," says Dr. Lanzini.
Early on a Monday
morning the KL trials begin with the racers starting individually down the
slope just 300 meters above two twin sets of photocells that register their
entry into the timed section. Precisely 100 meters later, the second bank of
cells times them out, and a computer calculates the average speed over the
section to thousandths of a kph. The results are broadcast over a loudspeaker
system, though few listen. There are only a handful of onlookers because the
sight of one man plummeting down a mountainside doesn't rate with the locals as
a spectator sport.
Simons took 1.851
seconds to cover the 100 meters on his record run. His winning margin over the
1975 mark, set by Cervinia's Pino (D'Artagnan) Meynet, was 1/1000 second over a
full kilometer. If the two men had been skiing the course side by side, Simons
would have reached the finish 5.4 centimeters ahead of the Italian. Few other
contests are decided inside such limits.
Almost as hard as
skiing 121 mph is stopping afterward. Below the second bank of cells the
glacier curves upward again for another 300 meters, and when the skiers'
momentum is suddenly inverted on the upward swing, they experience a downward
gravitational pull equivalent to a force of three Gs. This has the effect of
tripling their body weights and throwing them back on their skis. Only immense
leg strength keeps them from falling. The race jury ruthlessly weeds out anyone
who looks unsteady. Also eliminated are those failing to come within 5%, and
later 3%, of the day's best time. On successive days, the start moves
progressively higher up the glacier to a dizzy maximum of about 900 meters.
KL racers use
intricately grooved long skis, 2.40 meters in length and terminating in a
sawed-off lip to minimize air resistance. They are useless for anything except
going straight down. Ski poles are twisted to tuck in behind the body and some
are sand filled to prevent them from flying out of control. The suits are shiny
stretch plastic of the kind banned in international downhill competitions where
no one goes more than 130 kph. But the KL race jury believes that at more than
180 kph it is preferable to slide in a fall rather than tumble and bounce.
Normally, there are no obstacles in the way and, unless the snow is very soft,
a man can escape serious injury by skimming 200 yards to a stop. There is one
drawback: the friction, which makes the plastic heat up on contact with the
snow, causes severe burns, but that's better than broken limbs.