Back when it all began, skiers often closed their eyes while dashing downhill and—if early accounts are accurate—held their breath as well. According to one report from the past, at the turn of the century a Vienna newspaper described this new technique: "The ski runner leans back on his stick and darts downward, eyes closed. He continues straight as an arrow until he can no longer breathe, then tosses himself sideways into the snow, and when he regains his wind, hurtles himself toward the valley." Some technique.
The modern practice of keeping both eyes open is quite a dandy technical advance all by itself, and the natural tendency to hold one's breath while speeding can be overcome by doing what the racers do: repeat choo, choo, choo over and over. After all, why miss one of the sport's greater kicks, the joy of schussing down a hill as fast as one dares? Speed comes to every skier sooner or later, no matter what the level of ability, simply because the hill is there and the skier is there and natural laws take care of the rest—even if such a descent is not exactly planned.
For a ski racer, going fast means hitting 60 to 80 mph in spots; for a beginner, 15 mph is a heady downhill pace, while 45 mph will make an accomplished intermediate feel particularly daredevilish. Importantly, improved equipment has made greater speeds possible and—God bless the release binding—much safer as well.
The pure joy of skiing fast can work like a cold form of psychiatry to ease tension and frustrations, according to such experts at the game as Billy Kidd, ex-Olympian and FIS gold medalist. "Part of the excitement is to ski at the edge of your capabilities," Kidd says. "You can choose your danger level, you can choose how much you want to be scared, how much you want to test your ability at high speed. This is part of the reason skiing appeals to so many people. At one time or another everybody is sure to be going faster than he can control."
In today's insulated, packaged society another part of the excitement of speed in skiing, says Kidd, is that "You are experiencing it so much more than if you were speeding in a car, surrounded by metal and machinery. In skiing there is the feeling of speed over uneven terrain, when you are changing from steep to Hat, and the feeling of the wind. And there is the aftereffect: when you schuss down a really steep slope and pull up to a stop your heart is still pounding, your adrenaline is still flowing, your concentration is still keen. It is a high that forces an intensity in your awareness. It is so exciting to go fast on skis, both for the danger and for the competition within yourself and against the elements. No matter what the degree, if you are convinced there is some peril involved, you can do extraordinary feats and—for just a second or two—stretch out beyond the ordinary. It's not like surfing, where your danger level is chosen by nature; it is not like car racing, where you have a lot of paraphernalia about you. In skiing it is just you who handles the bumps, the wind, the mountain."
The youngster at left has been frozen in just such a moment. The photographer's device in this case is a miniaturized battery-pack-powered adaptation of a horse racing finish-line camera, that bulky old monster that looks down on trackside and ordinarily plugs into an AC electrical outlet. To clock off this particular instant the film and skier must be moving at almost exactly the same speed—in opposite directions. As for those color bars behind the skiers, they are parkas hung at random on trees and bushes in the background, a striping effect that can be rearranged artistically by changing or adding parkas. The end result has been to move horse racing photography to hillside and capture another of sport's vital moments on film.