G-Force Ice

Learning to Sled at Utah's Winter Sports Park Skeleton School
By Dave Fields
  |  Gorp.com
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Sledder taking off

Little did I know, a few words—"Sure, I'll try it"—would turn into, "Ooooh my gooooooood!"

Skeleton 101, or officially the Utah Winter Sports Park Skeleton School, starts off innocently enough—a short introduction about the cumbersome 18-inch by 3-foot sled with two steel runners, some safety notes, and a walk down the track.

That's where innocence ends and anxiety begins. A couple hours after the class of thrill-seekers nervously fidgets through the introduction, the first slider is in the track.

The instructions are simple: Lie down on the rectangular sled with your shoulders hanging just slightly over the front of the craft; point your feet and toes back, creating a dart-like form; hold your chin a few inches off the ice to see where you're going; and relax. It seems simple enough but many in the class are clamoring for more detailed instructions.

The first class of its kind at Utah's bobsled and luge track is a mixed bag of doctors, attorneys, a land developer, a bartender and a journalist. None are new to sports and know that most sports involve so much, it can't be as easy as one instructor describes: "Try to be like a sack of potatoes."

With little more than the potato basics, a liability release and a precarious (it's ice after all) walk down the track, it's time to get in the icy tube and head down.

Lying on your stomach with head craned skyward provides an impressive, if not awkward, view of the icy tube that we will be ascending nine times over the next three days.

After a little shifting on the plank, and some words of encouragement, the instructor holding my booted feet lets go with the gentleness of a mother's touch. I soon find out that a little pressure on either side can send the sled on a path into the white ice wall.

The speeds are slow from the Junior Start, five turns down from where bobsledders, and possibly skeleton sliders, will start in February 2002. We are told that steering the sled is as simple as pressing down with a knee or creating downward pressure with a shoulder. Other than laying the sled in the track and picking it back up 15 turns and almost a mile later, the hands are only used for one thing: holding on.

Polished steel runners atop darkness-hardened ice translate into efficiency. Within seconds, the noticeable lack of friction accelerates the first few feet of calm and quiet sliding into a sensory overload. Two turns into the first ride and the view from behind the plastic shield protecting my face from the surface upon which I slide is beginning to fog with my nervous breath.

As my body stiffens, the "sack of potatoes" analogy is far from thought and I start to bounce off the vertical walls in between the banking turns. From the Junior Start the speeds are not overwhelming—maybe 35 to 40 mph—but upon reaching the bottom of the track, every red-faced rider crawling out of the tube comments on the intensity of the turns and the speed.

The class began on Friday afternoon, by that evening every member of the class has two trips down the track under their sled and by the very next day we are sliding from the top of the recently-spritzed track, reaching speeds of 50 mph and subjecting our bodies to G-forces four times that of a typical rollercoaster.

The first three turns of the Sports Park track are mild but the speed builds with every inch. Despite hours of backbreaking smoothing by the track crew, every inconsistency in the ice is felt in the sled. That is until Turn 4 when the thoughts of bumps and careening off a wall are replaced with sheer exertion. Instinct compels sliders to keep their faces off the ice, but it is not easy by Turn 6 when the track rips a 90-degree turn to the right.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 5 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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