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 Kitzbuhel,"
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."
Russi, who 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."
In racing 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."
Austria's Stephan 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
Flintlock Jump: 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 hunt.
Arrowhead Jump 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 appearance unlikely.
Offtrack Canyon: The course is more than half done now. With
lactic acid flooding the thighs, racers will encounter a jump
called Muzzle Loader, then tuck hard and grip with their right
edges as they gather speed through Offtrack, a treacherous
sidehill so named because of the many grooming machines that have
slid sideways off it into the woods. This section forms the entry
into Buffalo Jump, which sends skiers onto the surface of
Rendezvous Face, the 74-percent slope that leads into the finish
and includes a devilish left turn just off the top of the face,
leading to a right-hander close to the bottom. "Miss that one,
and no matter what you have done on top, you could lose the
race," says Russi.
On adjacent Firecracker Alley, the gentler closing hill on the
women's course, top racers reached 81 mph in the Nor-Am race last
March that was won by the U.S.'s Picabo Street. On the men's
final section, which to a recreational skier looks and feels as
steep as a climbing wall, racers will likely approach 85 mph.
Anyone who falls here will be collected at the bottom in pieces.
As if the course and competition weren't factors enough, the
downhill, scheduled for 10 a.m. on Feb. 10, will be slave to some
of the most fickle weather in North America. Last year, World Cup
races scheduled for Snowbasin were wiped out by excessive snow.
The year before that, the hill was snow-starved. "Having lived
here for eight years and seen the weather patterns," says
Demschar, "if you're going to tell me that both downhills will go
off on the day and time that they're scheduled, I'd say you have
a very good relationship with the weather god. I think it is
likely that there will be delays and possibly postponements."
This, of course, is the final torment. Skiers will have to wait,
counting hours and watching clouds, running the race in their
minds, fighting fear.
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: INFOGRAPHIC BY JOE ZEFF; SOURCE: EASE, INC.; PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID QUINNEY/SLOC
COLOR PHOTO: NATHAL BILOW From the start house racers look down on a 1.9-mile course that drops nearly 3,000 feet and offers more thrills than a roller coaster.
COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/ALLSPORT Arrowhead Jump, halfway down the mountain, launches skiers into a tricky left turn that can make or break their medal chances.
COLOR PHOTO: HANS KLAUS TECHT/EPA/APA World Cup leader Eberharter, who won this year's downhill on the daunting Kitzbuhel course, is favored for the gold on Grizzly.
START OF MEN'S DOWNHILL RUN
ELEVATION: 9,286 feet
EPHRAIM'S FACE EXPECTED PACE 0:10
Like skydivers without parachutes, racers plummet down a
harrowing 70-percent incline, reaching speeds exceeding 75 mph
in 10 seconds.
JOHN PAUL TRAVERSE 0:25
Buffeted by crosswinds, skiers hang on their right edges along a
200-yard sidehill, trying to hold their speed, before swinging
hard left and right.
FLINTLOCK JUMP 0:35
The first of four jumps sends racers flying as far as 150 feet.
TV cameras frame them against the sky, making them look as if
they've been launched into space.
BEAR TRAP 0:50
A snowy bowl, brutal when injected with water to make it icy.
Racers must land cleanly off Flintlock and immediately nail
severe left- and right-hand turns.
TRAPPERS LOOP 1:10
A sweeping left turn--don't hit the TV scaffolding. The turn
embodies a credo of course designer Bernard Russi: Make the
skier set up properly off the jump or pay with precious tenths
of a second.
OFFTRACK CANYON AND SLINGSHOT 1:25
Offtrack is named for the snow-grooming machines that have slid
off its steep sidehill surface into the woods. Slingshot keeps
racers tipping to the left and sets up Buffalo Jump. Skiers must
come off the jump in position to turn left after landing.
RENDEZVOUS FACE 1:35
A drop even steeper than the plunge off the top. Fastest point
on the course, with speeds surpassing 80 mph, and, just for
laughs, left- and right-hand turns thrown in on the downhill wall.
THE FINISH 1:41
Hockey stop, sending snow sailing through the mountain air.
Raise skis for sponsor props. Start breathing again.
TOTAL DISTANCE 1.9 miles
5 Toughest Downhills
Olympic downhill runs have rarely found a place among the most
revered World Cup courses. "There's a reason for that," says
four-time U.S. Olympic downhiller AJ Kitt. "In the Olympics you
get [less-skilled] racers from all over the world who ordinarily
wouldn't be in a World Cup downhill. The people who set up the
courses have to control the speed for safety." Also, downhills
for the Games are slaves to location; sometimes the available
slope simply isn't mean or memorable. The 1994 Olympic downhill
course, carved beautifully out of the woods in Kvitfjell, Norway,
is one exception and remains on the World Cup circuit. The 2002
Snowbasin course could be another.
The five best downhill courses in the world.
Home of hallowed Hahnenkamm, world's most prestigious downhill
race. Steep, narrow and tough, guaranteed to ferret out best and
bravest racer. Enormous, roaring crowds. "If you get in the top
10 at Kitzbuhel, that's huge," says 1994 downhill gold medalist
Tommy Moe of the U.S., who finished in the top 10 at Kitzbuhel
The fastest of major downhills, holds racers at sustained high
speed longer than any other. "Gnarly course," says Moe. "I was
pretty intimidated the first time I saw it." Prolific course
designer and 1972 downhill gold medalist Bernard Russi of
Switzerland says essence of downhill is "first man from the top
of the mountain to the village wins." Bormio embodies that
Val Gardena (ITALY)
More jumps than any other major downhill, highlighted by famous
Kamelsprung, or camel jumps, series of three in middle of course.
"Lots of turns and flows, lots of jumps," says Kitt. "Just
At 2.7 miles in length and nearly 2 1/2 minutes in duration,
easily longest major downhill, test of not only speed and
technique but also stamina. "A real leg burner," says Moe.
Ultimately, course for gliders, not technical skiers.
Short course, running only one minute, 40 seconds, but precise
and exacting, rewarding skilled skier, not fast wax job.
Spectacular setting, with mountain rising from seemingly endless
Some people rate things with stars. For downhills Demschar uses
testicles. To win at Grizzly, he says, "you have to have big