the 1973 record holder, was crying at 13,000 feet up on the mountainside. He
dabbed at the tears with a nylon-gloved fist and mumbled, "I can't do
it." Fellow Italian Riccardo Fiume tried to comfort him: "It takes
plenty of guts to admit you're afraid." By his own definition of courage,
Fiume also was a brave man; he, too, had decided to forfeit. "I can't
explain it, but today I'm frightened." he said. "If you're scared, it's
no use...there are simpler ways of committing suicide."
fastest ski run, the Kilometro Lanciato, or Flying Kilometer, can strike terror
into the hearts of champions. Outlined by rows of blue, red and green marker
flags, the run dips gently over three bridged crevasses, cuts straight through
a white lunar landscape with the soaring bulk of the Matterhorn as a backdrop,
and then disappears over a lip of the Plateau Rosa Glacier that marks the
frontier between Cervinia in Italy and Zermatt in Switzerland. But the
gentleness is deceptive, for over the ridge and out of sight lies the speed
trap, a nightmarish 67% grade that can make strong men break out in a cold
The last 100
meters of the track is enclosed by four banks of photoelectric timing cells
that shine brightly even in the dazzling summer sunlight. This is where Tom
Simons of Aspen, his body encased in a second skin of plastic, shoulder-length
blond hair tucked under a futuristic slug-shaped helmet, reached the crazy
speed of 194.498 kph a few weeks ago and became the world's fastest man on
skis. That is 120.59 mph, a respectable average for a Formula I car around a
Grand Prix circuit.
"I desire to
live," said Simons, a ski instructor who also designs revolutionary
sailplanes and hang gliders. "But without my philosophy of thinking that it
is not so bad to die, I could not do what I do." He had spent much of the
night before his record run relaxing over a long dinner with a U.S. camera
crew; his 22nd birthday was only hours away.
Every summer the
Kilometro Lanciato, or KL, as the initiates know it, brings some 50 racers from
three continents to Plateau Rosa in an attempt to ski faster than anyone
before. It amounts to the world speed skiing championship, which in turn means
the record for unpowered land speed.
With their long
California hair, baggy dungarees, and with beards and mustaches sprouting from
youthful faces, last month's American contingent, eight strong, stood out from
the more conventional-looking Austrians, Italians, Swiss and Japanese.
"Long hair is inconvenient," said Simons, "but we want to let the
Europeans know things are changing." Craig Calonica's plaited pigtail drew
stares when the 23-year-old from Lake Tahoe, Calif. strode through the streets
of Cervinia in his version of denim harem pants. But perhaps more shocking to
native eyes was the sight of 6'7" Doug Gedney of Olympic Valley, Calif.
washing down a ketchup-coated dinner at the best restaurant in town with
alternate gulps of milk and Pepsi.
Who are these
strange people? KL officials say they include ski instructors, carpenters,
soldiers, architects and motor mechanics. There are fewer lunatic speed freaks
than one would expect, some steely nerved ski testers from the major companies
and a lot of kids barely out of their teens drawn by a special form of
curiosity: How fast can I go? The common denominator is the quest for maximum
Simons spent four
years on the U.S. Ski Team talent squad and the B Team. Steve McKinney, his
closest friend and rival, was considered a promising downhiller in 1972 before
injuring his back in a climbing fall. But the names on the KL starting list are
not ones you're likely to recognize. The risk is too great, the rewards too
slim, to bring the big stars to Plateau Rosa. Most of the KL competition failed
to get into the Alpine or professional big league.
Their stories are
virtually the same. They started racing too late, at 17 or 18, to have any hope
of making the national squads or, like Simons and McKinney, they couldn't
accept the discipline. "I never saw why I should cut my hair like a marine
to race for the U.S.," says Simons.
Groaning with the
effort in the rarefied air, the racers pole themselves into a skater's start
from the blue starting disk painted on the snow high up on the glacier. Their
thighs and buttocks bulge as big as carthorses' under the plastic as they drop
into a fetal crouch, hands joined in front of tinted visors. When they pass,
their skis make a sound like distant jets in an empty sky. Seen from below,
they're a mere speck on the immensity of the mountain.