Pictures can't do
justice to the Olympic downhill course at Snowbasin, nearly 9,300 feet high in
the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, north of Salt Lake City. Verbal
descriptions, however animated, fall hopelessly short. Survey maps, in all
their intricate detail, are woefully inadequate, like the difference between
reading the recipe for a gourmet meal and tasting it. The men's Grizzly course,
named for the fierce and majestic animals that prowled these lands, is fully
appreciated only by being there and skiing it.
For this reason,
on a cloudy late December morning, it's instructive—and terrifying—to stand on
skis alongside former Austrian and U.S. Olympic coach and current Olympic
Alpine director Herwig Demschar at the base of Ephraim's Face, the
elevator-shaft drop at the top of the course that's buffeted by frequent 30-mph
winds. Some people rate things with stars. For downhill courses Demschar uses
testicles. "To win at Kitzbühel," he says, referring to the Austrian
home of the Hahnenkamm, the world's most famous downhill race, "you have to
have big ones. It's so steep you can barely stand on the side of the course.
This course is like that."
Grizzly and its
counterpart for the women, Wildflower, have been carved into the steep, craggy
eastern and northern faces of Snowbasin—remote parts of the resort that have
long been skied only by backcountry powderhounds willing to hike hundreds of
yards across rocky ridges to lush, unspoiled bowls. Only since 1998 have lifts
been built to serve this area. Bernard Russi of Switzerland, the 1972 gold
medalist in the downhill and designer of the men's and women's downhill courses
for this and the previous four Olympics, first saw Snowbasin in 1990. "It
took my breath away," he says. "Everything was already in place to
create a great downhill course."
despises the straight, wide-open speedways that sometimes pass for
international downhills, instead fashioned a harrowing, 1.9-mile
crescent-moon-shaped course that falls nearly 3,000 vertical feet through a
wonderland of evergreens and aspens, framed against a bowl of harsh, gray rock.
In addition to the plummeting start, there are four jumps, a succession of
sharp, high-speed turns, compressions and sidehills, and, at the bottom, a
final schuss that falls even more precipitously than Ephraim's Face. The entire
course will be injected with water, rendering it as hard and slick as a hockey
rink. The men's course has nary a stretch where racers can simply flatten their
skis; instead they will constantly be riding their edges. (By contrast,
Wildflower is less challenging, with several flat, gliding sections.)
"Top-to-bottom action, like a roller coaster," says U.S. downhiller
Daron Rahlves. "Something is always going on."
parlance Grizzly is a technical course, one on which it's highly unlikely some
fortunate skier will be helped to win the gold medal simply by getting the
right wax on his skis and gliding faster than anyone else, as France's Jean-Luc
Cretier did in Nagano in 1998. "There'll be no surprises," says Russi.
"You look at the World Cup downhill standings right before the Olympics.
The winner at the Games will be in the upper group. There's not a certain
rhythm on the course; you must be creative. The best skiers will be on the
podium at the finish."
Eberharter, a versatile racer with all the requisite skills, has dominated the
Cup circuit and will be favored. The course suits Rahlves's savvy lines
perfectly. Austrian superstar Hermann Maier, who's injured and out for the
Games, saw the course a year ago and loved it. "It has many turns,"
says Maier. "You need good technique like mine."
The winner will
have to ski flawlessly, mixing risk and technique in precise proportions
through a series of gnarly tests.
The Top: Grizzly
begins in a small wooden shack at the top of Ephraim's Face (named after a huge
bear that roamed the area years ago), a lonely precipice from which racers can
see Ogden, 17 miles to the west, a stretch of the Wasatch Mountains to the
south and east, and, presumably, their lives pass before their eyes as the
starting signal sounds. The opening drop is so steep (a 70-percent incline)
that racers will exceed 75 mph in 10 seconds. They will then cross the flattish
John Paul Traverse, fighting the crosswinds before diving into a sharp left
turn along a sidehill and turning right and reaccelerating along the tree
The racers will then hit this spectacular blind launch that will send them
sailing as much as 150 feet through the air before landing in Bear Trap, a
steep, yawning bowl. Less than 40 seconds into the race, Flintlock is crucial
because upon landing, racers have to immediately execute sharp left-and
right-hand turns. Taking the wrong line over Flintlock will make it impossible
to ski the subsequent turns cleanly or with enough speed to stay in the medal
and Trappers Loop: Demschar calls this section, approximately halfway down the
mountain, the most important part of the course. After exiting Bear Trap,
skiers shoot off Arrowhead, a low jump that would be harmless except that it
leads into Trappers Loop, a long left turn in front of a metal television
scaffold that Snowbasin workers have nicknamed the Eiffel Tower. Too much speed
entering Trappers will make the turn problematic. Too little will make a podium