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Alessandro Casse, 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."
The world's 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 sweat.
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 velocity.
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.