Embedded in a Bobsled
By Dalma Heyn
On a chairlift at Park City a few weeks ago I sat between two young vacationing North Carolina businessmen about to take their first ski run of the day. It was a perfect day: Lots of snow; sunny but not too. They were talking about a bobsled ride that afternoon. They and eight other guys from their firm had laid down $200 apiece (as you can, too) for the privilege of hurtling down the same ice track the Olympic bobsled teams did in 2002. (Park City’s track, in fact, is the only one in the world that lets passengers start at the same point as the Olympic athletes do.) “I did it last evening,” I volunteered softly.
“Omigod,” one of the men said through his blue bandana-covered face: “Was it amazing?”
Yes. It was.
“Amazing, like a superfast rollercoaster?”
No, not like a rollercoaster. The men were staring at me now, awaiting specific description of what, if not like the fastest rollercoaster in Christendom, it was like.
“Amazing, as in…” I started, and then took leave of my vocabulary, “as in….” I grabbed the only word I could find “…as in intense. More than intense, really. Intensely intense. Intensively intense.”
The men laughed, not because I was pathetically inarticulate but because the mere fact of my nonsensically tongue-tied outburst made them crave that intensely intense intensity even more.
I’ll try again for you, my heart having regained its normal rhythm. The bobsled differs from a roller coaster ride first because it’s not on a track, it’s on an ice chute with walls roughly 18 inches high. Mostly, though, the difference between the bobsled experience and that of other thrilling sports has to do with the Gs. The G-force is the effect of gravity (the G) on any accelerating object. It’s one thing to just go straight down along with gravity at the speed it dictates. As Wikipedia puts it, “The 1g force on an object sitting on the earth’s surface is caused by mechanical force exerted in the upward direction by the ground, keeping the object from going into free-fall.” It’s quite another to fight gravity by whipping down, up or sideways faster than–and against– gravity.
More illuminating than Wikipedia is Bob Perkins, businessman, serious skier, and former instructor pilot in the T-38A, a twin engine supersonic jet that’s the trainer version of the F-5 fighter. He knows from Gs.
He laughed when I asked him why I and the two men (not including the driver) in my sled were stunned when we got out.
“Many reasons. First, and maybe most important, is the illusion that because the bobsled itself is on runners, and it runs on ice, it must be a smooth ride–like a figure skater gliding along.” He slaps the kitchen counter hard, fast and loud, bap bap bap bap, reminding me of that first staggering moment when, gathering speed and hitting that first turn, the bap bap bap bap began in earnest. “This is flat-out wrong. You bounce around like crazy.” (I found that Vonetta Flowers, who won the women’s bobsled event with Jill Bakhen in 2002, turned out to be pregnant at the time of their gold-medal Olympic run—and a few months later, miraculously, delivered twins!)
The ice walls that keep the sleds from flying off that choppy chute and which can reach as high as 20 feet, often with an overhang for protection, are harrowing: the bobsled rocks back and forth around those curves fifteen times in one minute. The six of us who occupied two four-person sleds (each sled has a driver and three occupants behind him), had been given careful instructions about how to sit. Upright, at ninety degrees, and not even slightly forward or backward, lest those 5Gs—the same as what Olympic bobsledders experience, although they go around 90 mph and we at 80) buckle you. We were to lift our shoulders as high as possible to bury our necks inside them, turtlelike; then, to press our forearms against the sides of the sled with all our might–to help keep our bodies steady and at 90-degrees, to the extent that we could, throughout the ride. This upright position, neck buried, not only offsets the force of the 5Gs on us but also helps our driver: it’s essential that the three people behind him be in a unified position, weight centered, helmets in a row– lest the sled’s weight shift in a way he couldn’t control.
“Second,” Bob explains, “you often get pushed up by negative G’s and pulled down by positive G forces. G forces reflect changes in direction. In an airplane, if you start to climb, you pull G’s. The faster the initiation of the climb [the rate of change, in technical terms] the more G’s. If an airplane turns to the right or left, you get asymmetrical [or rolling] G’s. So, as the bobsled bounces along, riders experience both positive and negative G’s. As it twists and turns, it gets asymmetrical G’s. Pretty tough!”
My small size, by the way, makes things tougher, Gs-wise. “You’re sitting in a space built for a 240-pound man, so you slosh around, being jerked back and forth by the constantly changing G forces. If you weigh one hundred pounds, two negative G’s push you up as if you weighed fifty pounds. When that suddenly becomes four positive G’s, that’s like four hundred pounds going down. No wonder you get black and blue!”
The sport of bobsledding began in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the late 1800s. It spread rapidly and by 1914, when the first European championships took place at St. Moritz, more than a hundred bobsled runs dotted the European landscape. By 1924, the sport was introduced to the Olympics at Chamonix, France. The two-man bobsled was developed in the U.S. The sleds—which were once just wooden toboggans, are now made of sterner stuff to the tune of $50,000 to 100,000 apiece, minimum.
Just one more distinction between the bobsled and the roller coaster. You can’t see anything around you, what with your neck tucked in and your attempt to sit up and look straight ahead into the person’s helmet in front of you. “Your body loses that reference point,” Bob says. “Shut your eyes in a car [with someone else driving] on a twisting road…..you’ll throw up pretty quickly.”
I didn’t. And I had the extraordinary good fortune to be taking my aftershocked body to the Stein Ericksen Lodge, where—if any place in the ski world can restore you, no matter what shape you’re in when you arrive, this is, famously, it. The ski-in, ski-out comfort, the quiet luxury, the hot tub and jacuzzi in my suite, the constantly groomed runs, the superb cuisine—that alone would have done it. But I ventured over to see the newly redecorated 20,000 foot spa (see Gerrie Summers’ January 17th blogpost here, in Everett Potter’s Travel Report, for more on this). There I met Brian, the genius massage therapist who had helped heal a colleague of mine who’d suffered altitude sickness the day before. He took one look at me, and I said, “Bobsled.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Intense, right?”
Make your bobsled reservations online at www.UtahOlympicLegacy.com, or by calling 435-658-4206. Bobsled sessions sell out fast, so reserve asap. Public bobsled rides on ice are available through March 17th; once the ice melts, Park City opens summer bobsled rides. These, which are on wheels, on a cement track, begin the second week of June through Labor Day. And me, I’d book Brian in advance at 435-645-6475. For reservations at the Stein Ericksen Lodge, call 855-453-1302.
Dalma Heyn is the bestselling author of The Erotic Silence of the American Wife; Marriage Shock: The Transformation of Women into Wives; and Drama Kings: The Men Who Drive Strong Women Crazy, which have been published in 34 countries and are now available on all ebook platforms. Her travel and culture articles and essays have appeared in Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Elle and Diversion. Visit her website.