Shoot the Chute on Whistler’s Bobsled
Whistler, British Columbia — “The fastest sliding track in the world.” The guides made this pronouncement over and over during our bobsled orientation, in case we had missed it in between reading the three-page liability waiver and getting a crash course in what to do if we crash.
Soon after, I was spiraling at 77 mph down an icy track at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Blackcomb Mountain, B.C. How did I end up here?
Weeks earlier, my buddy Chris had egged me on.
This is the same buddy — a former housemate — who, upon hearing rumblings in our attic years ago, turned and said, “You go check. I’ll hold the ladder for you.”
You, on the other hand, are probably thinking about coming here because you caught Olympic fever from watching the winter games in Sochi.
This sliding course, a remnant of the 2010 Vancouver Games, is a chance to race down the infamous track that many Olympians have competed on.
Which sports to try? Slide down head first like a human torpedo (skeleton) or go faster than the speed limit on Interstate 5 (bobsled)?
People are typically more scared to try skeleton than bobsledding, though the former is safer than bobsledding in Whistler’s public program, said Philippe Melun, who oversees both sports here.
For the skeleton, you start roughly halfway downthe track, while public bobsled rides start from two-thirds of the way to the top, with more distance to build speed. With skeleton, someone pushes and you slide. No steering is involved. “There’s not much you can do to crash,” Melun said.
You get two runs in skeleton, since it’s a shorter run, and just one run in the bobsled. Your time gets posted on the big board and announced on the PA system like in the Olympics.
There are always guys who will notice that a girl had a better time on the skeleton so on the second run they strip off their bulky winter gear to slide faster, he said. “You can’t strip down to boxers though,” Melun said.
If you want to see something funny, go to the finish line and watch dudes slide down in their long johns.
I want to go fast, but I want to do it with my pants on, my dignity intact. Bobsledding it was.
Best chance for Olympic fame?
I’ve been telling friends for years: My best chance of making the Olympics has got to be trying out for the four-man bobsledding team for some obscure, little country.
I reckon I can push off and jump into the cockpit and hang on for dear life while the dude in front steers and the guy in back brakes.
The Whistler track is 4,757 feet long with 16 turns and a 498-foot vertical drop, “the steepest drop in the world,” they say.
The pros can go up to 95 mph here. Talk of breaking the 100-mph barrier didn’t seem far-fetched.
During a practice run at the 2010 Games, a 21-year-old luge athlete lost control and was thrown from his sled. He died after hitting a pole. Concerns were raised the track here was too fast.
In Sochi, the track had more uphills to ensure athletes wouldn’t go as fast as on the Whistler course.
To make it safe for the public, you don’t start from the top.
Still, expect to go up to 75 mph to 78 mph, the equivalent of how fast the medal winners went during the two-woman-bobsled race in Sochi.
No running, no jumping
You don’t get to push off and jump into the bobsled because, well, you would end up re-enacting the scene from the cult movie Cool Runnings, where the Jamaican newbies chased their bobsled down the track.
Whistler’s public bobsleds are modified from Olympic regulations. They’re wider, and the brakes are moved from the rear to the front so the pilot — an experienced member of the Sliding Centre staff — has all the controls.
It’s set up like a roller-coaster ride. But things can get hairy. The pilot has to steer, and an error by the pilot can send you crashing at freeway speeds.
Melun said there’s been one crash in the three seasons of public bobsledding. No one was hurt, he said.
I was in luck. My pilot had broken the public course record days earlier, clocked at 80 mph.
I sat in second position on our four-person team. The staff gave me special instructions: Don’t startle the pilot. Don’t grab him while he’s steering. We don’t want the pilot to lose control of the bobsled.
Participants had all sorts of advice for me.
“Don’t cover his eyes,” offered one.
“Don’t squeal and spook him, man,” offered another.
Other instructions for our team: Hang on to the side cables. Keep your head up, neck rigid.
If your head is down, the G-forces won’t let you lift it back up during the ride. If your neck is loose, your head will shake like a Bobblehead’s.
Keep hands off pilot. Keep head up. Got it.
Two guys pushed us off. We built momentum around a turn. We swooshed down. My head snapped back. “Yee haw,” a teammate shouted.
Our bobsled tilted to the side. I thought we might tip over. I could feel the G-forces on those hairpin turns. The icy track looked like a blank screen in a theater.
As we reached the 10th and final corner, we picked up speed, clocked at 77 mph. The ride took 41.71 seconds.
My adrenaline was pumping. You won’t have time to be scared. By the time my eyes adjusted to the speed, the ride was pretty much over.