There’s a ton of work involved in ski racing, and putting on a ski race and participating in speed skiing is no exception. Behind the scenes, the organizers must present the event, register the participants, specify course grooming, build safety fences, pay insurance, print accreditation, hold racer meetings, advertise, secure accommodation, get volunteers, arrange lift privileges and (whew, you get the picture), much, much more than needs to be mentioned here.
Vars, France is geographically a two-tier area. Its total vertical is a bit more than Sun Peaks, B.C.’s. Of the 3,100 foot vertical, the bottom half consists of mostly intermediate trails (or pistes as they’re known here) while the top half is comprised of virtually sheer cliffs.
To get to the 1.4 kilometre long track, the skiers must get to the main gondola, hump their skis and packs up several flights of stairs, disembark at the top of the lift, put their day-to-day skis on, sling the packs and race skis onto their shoulders, hold the skis with one hand, and carry their specially curved poles in the other while they trek to the four-person chair. They have to ride that chair alone to ensure the eight-foot long speed boards don’t hit any towers.
Then, the trek is repeated for a half kilometre access to the nastiest Poma we’ve ever seen. Once through the line, you sidle up the to the detached Poma grab bar itself and stick it between your legs, like every other one, but the kicker is this one gives you a real jolt as it almost picks you off the ground and clips along faster (and longer) than what Canadians are used to.
Then, it’s a few hundred yards down a run to the transverse entry of the first start where the racers exchange their short skis for the race ones. From there they, and the Sherpas, make their way along a three-foot wide track (which thankfully has an uphill rope attached alongside a cliff) for 200 yards to the actual track itself. Once there, the racers doff their coats and warm clothes, put the helmets on and wait for their turn to run.
As Sherpas, myself and others gather the packs, cram each one as full as possible, sling over each shoulder, grab a helmet bag with only one coat in it and prepare to do the hardest skiing I’ve ever done.
Recent snowfall and a paucity of skiers next to the course has transformed our egress into a foot of schmoo with an inch of crust, thousands of death cookies, plus a few frozen ruts thrown in for good measure. All of the volunteers are good skiers, but not one of us looked like it churning through white hell. Oh, did I mention, there’s a half kilometre of it before you get to some modest grooming? Then it’s gorbie watch because the spectators think that standing in what’s a pathway for logistics gives them a better view of the event. So, we snowplow the last 200 yards, forget the screaming thighs, drop off the stuff and get ready to repeat the process.
It seems the racers have it easy. All they have to do is go on course, drop in, point the skis straight and hang on for 15 seconds through the timing trap, before slowing down at the finish. If it were that easy!