(Author’s note: This essay is composed of three sections taken from “The Straight Course,” a book I wrote in the late summer and fall of 1969 while recovering from an injury. The book is about the three years I was a speed skier in Portillo, Chile, and Cervinia, Italy, and has never been published. I made these into a single essay in the early 1970s.)
Portillo, 1963: The Record
The process of detachment — of viewing myself abstractly — had reached an astonishingly intricate, fragile state. I was in an incredible state of mind. Fear, desire, frustration, the scope of our attempt, and pure physical and mental exhaustion had combined to wind me up so tight, so fast, that the contest was not as much with time as whether the record or the human mechanism would fall first.
The next day, the twenty-ninth of September, was the last day Portillo would be open for the season, the last possible chance for the record. Accordingly, we decided to go up early in the morning and run while the track was still ice. We were sure ice would make the difference. With one day, perhaps only one run left in us, it was necessary to extend ourselves. Sleep the night of the twenty-eighth was restless and unfulfilling. Fatigue sleep of a job undone.
We rose early, ate, and were out on the hill while most of the hotel slept. It was cold and clear. The shaded track was rock hard. Springtime frozen corn; it would remain firm for several hours. We had prepared the track perfectly at the end of the previous day. For the first time, every condition was in our favor.
We took a practice run to test the timing from 20 yards above the measured area. We averaged more than 100 kilometers per hour, and I knew in the center of my spine our track was as ready as we. I would not allow the thought that it was more ready. I remembered what Reddish had told me many months before.
The sun began to climb the track. C.B. Vaughan and I went with it. Because of the steepness, 400 meters takes great amounts of time and energy, and I was very tired. We climbed slowly, planning to reach the top before the sun exposed the entire track. I felt C.B. had more energy than I, but that may have been hypersensitivity to my own state.
We talked and joked, but the next day, we could not remember any of it. When we got to the top, the sun was on the track. Portillo was awake. Far below — an impassable distance — people came out to watch. On the hotel porch, many had binoculars. Skiers came down the plateau and stood off to one side near the bottom of the track. Spectators of a play in which the actors had not learned their parts, an audience removed, but only on the surface of action. They feared and hoped as did we. Difficult to realize at that moment, but we needed and used their positive energy, for it is true that each is a part of the main.
In that critical state and time, reality was C.B., the gigantic track below, the feeling of vertigo, and the hard knowledge that the next few minutes were the culmination of all that was behind, the determinant of much of what lay ahead. Funk, Purcell, the timers, other racers and many friends were down there watching with varying degrees of interest and involvement; our friends; warm human beings with whom we had formed close and not-so-close relationships, laughed, danced, drank, gotten angry, forgave and were forgiven; our immediate companions in eating, sleeping, working, relaxing — life; but at the top of the Portillo speed track, those people might as well have been on another planet. All living, except my reality, was suspended. They could not really understand the high degree of control we had made from the chaos of our feelings, nor our predicament, nor the mind, which equates self-abstraction with being near God. They could only see us as tiny figures on a white wall of snow, but even the least thoughtful could not help but realize our commitment.
I was nearly sick with vertigo and fear. We did warm-up exercises (a delicate task on a slope of 80-percent steepness), and in those last minutes, I discovered a bit of the structure of action. The months of discipline, work, self-abstraction and the winding-up process, honed to a fine, sharp edge by the last run on the last day under the iciest, most difficult, most perfect conditions enabled me to see myself marvelously clear.
I nearly laughed and would have but for physical fear. A great calm and confidence (not in success, but in my self) filled me. “Duped again,” I would say at a later time. I was at the precipice of the fastest skiing ever done, the fastest a human body had moved without free-falling or mechanical aids, hanging on the side of a snow-blasted cliff, stinking with fear and the stubbornness not to be beaten by it, when I saw the absurdity of my position. Many things had put me up to where I was — whatever it was in my inherent personality that caused me to recognize skiing as my form of expression when a young boy had put me there, and a racing potential that eluded my best efforts. And a public school education with its accent on grade rather than content. And the power of the great yellow lie called journalism, which warps the world’s mind with its pretension and shallowness. And the Hollywood ethic upon which I was weaned, an ethic preaching that what matters is coming through in the end — a barely disguised belief in a better life after death, which makes light-headed excuses for lifetimes of misery. And people like Number 7, who wage war on the past with inverted minds. And all the sweet experiences that had gone to hell. And Beattie with his clumsy feet and blind assurance. And all the teams I and others would never make. And all the old racer friends like Marvin Moriarity and Gardner Smith and Jim Gaddis, who had been caught by the sharp, sly, double-edged axe of politics, wielded by the universal soldiers of my particular way of life; but there was also the strength that learning about those kinds of things gives. And there were the good examples of how a man should be; I had once categorized them according to three fine competitors — Werner, Miller and Buek. There was Funk down there taking pictures; broken leg and all his hopes. There was Marcelle, dying the hard way. And Barnes, Lieder and Tiger, already gone. And my parents, who never understood but took pleasure when it reached newsprint. There was the good life and people of La Parva. And there were all the friends right there at Portillo. Somewhere in the world was a guy I didn’t know named Plangger, and he had something I wanted. And with me was my comrade, C.B. Vaughan. All the people and times and places I had known, and all the shades of emotions I had ever felt, and all the work I had ever accomplished came with me to Portillo. Pushed, pulled, or just came along as disinterested observers. Hard to know, but assuredly there.
And every one of them copped out at the last minute, leaving me entirely, flat alone. Duped again. Abandoned by my own illusions, leaving just me to do whatever was necessary.
The essential education.
The territory my mind had chosen as its battling ground — my place to wage war on all the inequity, hypocrisy, stupidity and frustration I had ever known; and my time to justify myself for Marcelle, Ken, Tiger, Brett, Brunetto, Funk, Lewellen and to my particular friends in Reno, Ron the Mustache and Joan the Potter, and to a few others for their faith, friendship and a smile at the right time, was an icy precipitous piece of snow on the side of an Andean mountain, useful in nature only for the tiny bit of water it would hold a little longer. Absurd. Pathetic in its attempt. Yet, something would be saved. Something communicated all around. Duped again, but not entirely for nothing.
I could have laughed.
Inside, where action begins, I was peaceful, confident and supremely happy. Calm, because preparation gives self-control, and I had come prepared. Confident, because confidence is the only possible state of mind under such circumstances; to be where we were without believing in ourselves would be suicidal, and, while life is richer and more poignant when it is risked (an effect carrying over and preceding the act of risking), it is so through a deep desire to
go on living. And happy, supremely so, to discover in that structure mentioned earlier, that life was okay, and so was I; the important thing was commitment, and I found in myself the ability to give everything, to lay the whole show on the line. In that ability is hidden happiness, and all men have it, lurking somewhere amidst neuroses, education, experience and belief, centered in the heart. Success, while certainly not unimportant, is a problematical (mathematical?) afterthought.
While in that delicate, beautiful state, I adjusted my goggles one more time and signaled my readiness to the timers, feeling more-than-usual action in the center of things. Far below (like looking through the wrong end of a telescope), the signal pole waggled back and forth. I wished C.B. luck, said I’d see him at the bottom. I felt a sentimental reluctance to leave the big redhead up there alone.
“Good luck, Boy,” he said. C.B. called his friends “Boy.”
I planted my left pole below and to the back of my skis, the right above and to the front, executed a quick jump turn, pulled my poles out in midair, and landed in a full tuck, headin’ down.
Acceleration like a rocket launched in the wrong direction. The sound of endless cannons, moving closer. Irreversible commitment.
The soles of my feet said this was the one. My eyes saw the transition and peaceful flat, far, far away. My body, appalled at the danger in which it had been placed, acted automatically, reluctantly perhaps, but with an instinct and precision that preceded the mind that put it there. My naked mind had finally gotten hold of the big one that had always gotten away.
Jesus, it is fast.
After 100 meters, I estimate the speed at over 150 kph. That left 200 meters to the timing and 100 meters in the trap before the longed-for landing. Never have I wanted more to be finished with something. A few seconds — less than ten — a long way, more than time can record. More than anything, I wanted not to fall. Probably there is little difference in the end result of a fall at 150 kph and one at 170 kph, but the ice that morning accentuated everything that was happening. Acceleration. Sound. The beating against the legs. The texture feeling. The thin line of error.
In big speeds, the skis make peculiar movements. On ice, they make them faster, harder. Tremendous air pressure pushes the tips up; the skis want to become airborne. You push forward with everything you have. The air pushes up the tips; you push forward; there is a continuous change of pressure from tip to tail of the skis. Continuous and violent. On a good run, your body absorbs both change and violence. On a bad run, your body demonstrates them. The tips tend to make a curious, fishtail motion, which, combined with the tip-to-tail pressure change, cause the ski to pivot slightly underneath the foot. These things are happening to the skis you are riding. Happening as fast as a vibration and with as much power as the speed you are carrying.
While this is happening at the feet, the rest of the body is trying to hold a stable, compact, tuck position. Air pressure tries to push you over backward with a continuous, ever-mounting force. If you break the tuck, the pressure tries to rip your arm off. If you stood up at those speeds, your back would hit the snow before the thought could come of what a mistake you had just made.
About a hundred yards above the trap, my right arm, as it had the previous day, flew out to the side for some inexplicable reason of balance. It is tremendously unsettling. (The next time you are ripping along one of America’s scenic highways at 100 miles per hour, stick an arm out the window.) I jammed both hands forward and down — a high-speed version of what, in another age, was known as the “Sailer crouch,” the most-stable position in skiing —and rocketed through the trap and into the transition.
Each mile per hour after 95 feels like a difference of 10 miles per hour at half that speed. When I reached the transition, I felt more like a Ferrari than a human, and I knew before the timers that no one had skied that fast before. The run-out was easy — gradually extending the arms and raising the body for air drag, and a long left turn entered at about 60 mph, until I was able to stop. It took a couple hundred more feet than any previous run.
I stopped. I took off my helmet and goggles. I was alive. The most alive I had been in my twenty-four years. I felt the sun and saw the beauty of Portillo in the Andes as never before. My spirit was clean. My mind could rest content. I had discovered my own structure of action, and I had acted. For the time, the illusions had been stripped away, and I was completely alive. Also, successful.
I walked back around the corner and halfway up the flat. Up on the hill,
Funk was jumping up and down with his cast like a club-foot chimpanzee.
“One-seven-one,” he yelled. “Wahoooo,” hopping about like mad, arms waving.
I stood in the flat waiting for C.B. The calm joy I was experiencing was tempered by anxiety for the big redhead. I was safe in a giant, flat expanse of snow; I was alive; I was happy; I was tuned to a very high plane; but it wasn’t over until C.B. was safely down, so I waited a little longer.
Despite fatigue, the after-effects of hyper-adrenalation, anxiety and realization of the world record with all its attendant hoopla, those few minutes were the most peaceful, satisfying moments I had ever known. I knew they would be few, and I knew they were enough.
In ten minutes, the diplomatic “Bobby” Muller and Chalo Dominquez, the timers, had reset the watches. The pole waved for “Ceb.” He came in his yellow-black racing tights like a tiger falling off a white cliff. The sound — skis rattling against ice, wind rippling skin-tight clothes, and the impact of a body moving through air at 100 mph — carried clear to the flat; a unique sound impossible to forget, and not a reassuring one. C.B. rode a tight but high tuck. Twice his arms broke position, flashing out to his sides and immediately returned. Then, quite literally, he thundered into the transition and past me on the flat and around the corner to a stop.
It was all over.
I stood within my peace wondering about C.B.’s time and looking to see if it was in me to go up again that day, in case his time was faster than mine. Almost two years later, I was to remember that moment; I remembered it because it took that long to understand what that moment, that question, that impetus in myself was. As luck would have, it was a catechism I was not to face that day.
C.B. was still around the corner, experiencing, discovering and questioning on his own when Tito Beladone, the Grand Ambassador of Chilean skiing and friend of several years, skied down the outrun to me. “You and C.B. have the same time,” he said. The moment was inordinately formal to Tito’s vision of skiing, but he gave me a hug, a pat on the back, a kiss on the check, Chilean fashion, and his congratulations. He was elated and proud; I felt humble to have a part in giving him that moment.
I thanked Tito and skied down to C.B. I told him what had happened and we had a few minutes together. During those minutes, we knew what we had accomplished, and it was a fine time.
Then the backwash of success arrived. The friends, the ones with faith, the interested, the incredulous, and even the cynical and weak doubters, came to say what we already knew. And it was wonderful to hear.
Cervinia, 1964: The Wreck
The Cervinia speed run is both objectively and subjectively different from Portillo’s. The Chilean track measures 400 meters to the transition and up to 80-percent steepness. Italy’s is a kilometer long and 62 percent at the steepest point. It starts nearly flat and falls off to about 20 percent for 400 meters. On a good run, the competitor is traveling about 60-70 mph at the end of this relative flat, then the contour changes abruptly and drastically and the rest of the track is a consistent 60 percent. This contour change coincides with a crevasse that is boarded over and covered with snow to allow a crossing. It is impossible to resist being thrown in the air where the track changes. Depending on the individual run, conditions of the track, and, of course, the competitor, seekers of speed fly anywhere from 20 to 120 feet. How the racer masters that obstacle will have an appreciable effect on his time. As in downhill racing, it is faster to be in the air 20 feet than 100 feet; but the most important factor is one’s ability to hold the extremely low, tight, body position before the bump, in flight and after landing. Opening the arms slightly for balance will cost you the race. A serious alienation from the thread of balance at this point results in one of those struggling runs that bring awareness of the depth of the will to survive, a realization that casts a glow of understanding on the terror and struggle of rising from the swamp to open air. After landing, the big speeds commence. Up to then, speed is acquired gradually; the racer has time to get into a comfortable, compact position, time to
get accustomed to speed, time to get acquainted with the muscles he will need, time to think. In elapsed time, measured in seconds, the racer is on the Cervinia track three to four times longer than in Portillo; they are tracks of different temperaments arriving at the same conclusion. Commitment. Concentration. Freedom. Or the struggle of terror.
There is another crucial difference between Cervinia and Portillo: the transition, in terms of safety the most important part of a speed run. In the transition, speed begins to diminish. The transition is like the first touchdown of a jet, except this jet lands at full speed. It is where the potency of speed, the consequence of commitment, the gyroscope of balance show their hands. It is where gravity, always tiptoeing in your shadow, adds its weight to your passing. As if to see that your legs are as strong as you have committed them to be.
The transition in Portillo goes from a 52-percent slope to a 15-percent slope. You must accept and adapt to a 37-percent change in grade. Gravity does not hit you very hard; it tiptoes slightly behind.
In Cervinia, the transition holds you the way a jet taking off forces you into your seat; except this jet reaches top speed much faster. The transition is from a 60-percent slope to a 15-yard flat to a 12-percent slope, but the 12 percent is in the other direction. Uphill. You are confronted with a 72-percent change at over 100 mph. It is a transition that would like to suck you down and break you into a million pieces and spit them out in China. Gravity romps upon your head.
There is a difference between Cervinia and Portillo that manifests itself more in psychology than objective reality. After the racer in Cervinia has gone 200 meters, he disappears from the vision of the competitors on top. More than thirty seconds pass before an impersonal loudspeaker on a post at the start announces the racer’s time and “La Piste e Libre,” the track is free. Sometimes the track is not free. This can mean several things, including a fallen racer. But you do not know because you cannot see; and the starters, in radio contact with the bottom, are arbitrary about what they tell you. Aside from his announced time, you do not know how it went for the previous racer. This can weigh heavy upon the mind.
July 15, 1964. A day I must always remember. A day that expanded the horizons of my experience, showing me something of myself that only such a day could reveal.
Good weather. The best track we had seen. C.B. had a good run the day before and was hungry for more. I, too, had banished my discouragement and felt confident. I remember, distinctly, abundant happiness; to be in Cervinia doing this was, as I told the Peace Corps girl, the best thing I could do with myself. Nothing was so important to my progress as a man than getting my body down a mountain on a pair of skis, just as fast as I could go. I don’t know why, but I know it was so.
But that superb bitch, Fate, had a fickle lesson I hadn’t learned. We were all at the top. The first run began. The timing was not functioning perfectly, and the times of several racers had been missed. C.B. was growling about the timers not missing him. Alberti and I posed for photographs. DiMarco had an early starting number; mine was several numbers later; he went, but I was not watching. Bruno and I were talking when the starters and the speaker on a post simultaneously silenced us and changed the mood of the day.
DiMarco had gone 173.493 kph. The record was his, once again.
I felt empty; I did not want to talk or look anyone in the eye. It was a private moment. I think it was a private moment for every competitor who was consciously and seriously ready to win. The others, the Italians, cheered and shouted for their countryman’s success; it was not a good position for the Americans.
I went to C.B. We encouraged each other and readied ourselves to get the record back. He had served his apprenticeship, and, when he went a few minutes later, he was prepared. He went 168.145, a run beaten only by DiMarco, Plangger, and he and I in all of skiing history, but far short of what was necessary.
Then came my turn. I moved out to the track, acutely aware of that interpersonal pressure I have always hated. What had once been an attempt on my
part was now expected of me. That was my feeling, as if a heavier load than I ever intended to carry was, suddenly, mine. But I knew the work well, and I had faith in my will.
“La piste e libre.”
I began. In relative terms, it does not seem much to build up to 20-30-40 and 50 mph when, in a few seconds, you will be hurtling along at more than 100 mph. But you must pay close attention at those relatively slow speeds; your mind is absorbed in technical details, and there can be no abstract thoughts like records or the game. Your attention must be total.
Perhaps, on that run, my attention was strained.
I rolled my body into the most aerodynamic cone I knew how to make, working the terrain changes with a flat ski to get every wave of speed before the jumps and the steep hill, velocity at the jumps helping determine the eventual speed through the timing trap. I focused down, doing my best.
I flew off the jump but held position and landed with no problem. The big speeds rolled in upon me and I aimed along the right side, the fastest line.
About a hundred yards above the trap, the inexpressible happened. That thing you must never dwell upon, that point in space and time to which Perillat referred — “You must not think too much” — had coincided with my run. The thread of balance had broken. It was apparent and inescapable that I was going to fall. I was convinced. There was no fear, only a clinical, sure knowledge. All the time I was trying to avoid the inevitable fall, and all the while I was falling, there was no fear. Only a (detached?) cool observation of the fastest flow of events I had ever witnessed. There is an infinitely fragile line of balance at 100 mph because you are more like a projectile than a skier, and once that line is broken, it does not mend easily. About 200 yards remained to the transition; it takes slightly over four seconds to travel that far that fast. It seemed like five minutes, and I tried every conceivable adaptation to regain balance — and the line is so thin that spectators didn’t know I was in trouble until I actually fell. Even C.B., watching closely, didn’t know, but only a forgiving God could have saved me and the forgiving gods were busy elsewhere that day. I knew it would expose me defenselessly once I fell, but I was not scared. I tried a hundred positions and a thousand thoughts, but I would not be forgiven inattention. Experience breeds a slight contempt for the forces in speed. When I reached the transition, it sucked me down just like I knew it would, but I thought I’d try for Iraq in two or three pieces rather than China in a million. As I went down, I tried to get on my back and bottom. Perhaps I could ride it out in a long skid. I’d seen ski jumpers do that. Now I know that strange things happen to your body when it meets the snow at 100 mph, no matter what the position. In the twinkling of hitting the snow, I regained a proper respect for speed. If you are inattentive, as well as somewhat stupid, you may breed a contempt for big speeds, forgetting respect through the grace of being atop your skis each run. No one on his back at 100 mph will ever after have contempt for speed. Something caught — a hand, perhaps — and then came one of those falls skiers have bad dreams about. Eighty yards up that hill, rising out of the transition, in every conceivable body position, including upside down and backward and five feet off the snow. A memorable fall. Visually a blur of snow and sky and an occasional form moving faster than focus. Too fast for the eye, but not for the mind. The films of the fall pass much more quickly than the memory impression left with my mind, for the mind registers feelings, the eye only illusion. The left ski went away as the binding meant it to, and was last seen on the way to Zermatt. The right ski loyally stayed, and, halfway through the fall, the leg broke. The fall and I finished our relationship and it left me in a pile. Alone. I hurt everywhere and I began to review my scant knowledge of physiology. Not until then did I fear (feel fear) that I may have destroyed my body.
I once broke a leg that took two years to put back in shape. I flashed on those years. Bad years. I knew my good leg was broken, and my body was a pulsing pain. I undid the binding, which meant I could move, and fear gave way to the objective mind. My fall deposited me apart from people, and it took a little time for them to arrive. My left ski, poles, gloves, goggles and glasses were no longer with me, and the sleeves of the ultra-tight Japanese speed suit were somehow shoved up and over my elbows in a wad. C.B. was the first person to reach me. I was happy for that and grateful that he came so fast. He supervised the first-aid men and I was touched by his concern.
Italians are really prepared for accidents; I was fascinated by the first air splint I had seen, used on my own leg. People were swarming around, and by then it was decided that, in the relative world of injuries, I was all right. There were the smiles and relief of the silence of disaster giving way to the movement of life.
There was no fear, only a clinical, sure knowledge … all the time I was trying to avoid the inevitable fall, and all the time I was falling there was no fear. Only a (detached?) cool observation of the fastest flow of events I had ever witnessed.
A few years later, I came to realize what it is to have your mind and the rest of your existence so far out of harmony. It is one thing to be intelligent, objective, aware, hip to your surroundings. It is something else entirely to observe your own impending destruction with the clinical eye of a research technologist in his laboratory, with no more feeling than the scalpel of a Dachau bone surgeon.
The mind was designed to keep body and soul (and mind) together. It was not intended to be so powerful as to block out the natural emotion of fear. If the mind can obliterate fear when there is every reason to feel fear, then what can the mind not obliterate? Love? Compassion? The sight of blood? If you are not afraid when you should be afraid, then you stand accused of stupidity. Your mind has sold you down a stream flowing nowhere.
In time, that fall gave to me a fear — not fear of broken bones or the impact after speed stops or even death, for you accept those possibilities in the act of commitment. No, not that, but fear of a mind so delighted with its own capabilities and power that it has neglected the basics of doing what it is supposed to do — keeping body and soul and mind together.
My mind failed in allowing no fear to me as I was falling up a hill at 100 mph, but valuable lessons are locked up within your failures. I learned that my natural feelings are friends, not enemies to be crushed and avoided and suppressed by a mind gone mad with power. I learned that from my fall, but I didn’t learn immediately.
1965: Second Year at Cervinia: The Death
(From my journal) The morning of July twenty-sixth the track was ice down to the blue disc (the one Gasperl hit), about 100 meters above the trap. Solid, wind-blown ice. Below that, the track was covered with soft, new snow, about 8 inches deep, blown there by the laws of terrain and wind. Those in charge prepared it in the same, masterly fashion. We were two days without skiing and this day was added to the schedule; it was an extension of our time. We went up to the Plateau Rosa early. The weather was beautiful, a slight bit cold.
At the top we joked, wished each other luck, did warm-up exercises, adjusted equipment — just like always. I was completely absorbed in what had to be done. The two days off skis were noticeable.
Mussner went first. His time came back up as 172.084. I was really excited when I heard that. The first time over 170 this year! The record was in sight! I ran fifth or sixth and held my position. It was a wonderful, free run; but I felt the change going off the ice onto soft snow. My time was 170.373, but I, and everyone else on the outrun, thought they announced 173. I hurried back up thinking I had the best run of the round, and I was full of getting the record back. I don’t know what it is about that bloody record.
When I got to the top Ninni told me I was fourth behind Mussner, Siorpaes, and Leitner. That seemed logical because I had been surprised to hear my time as 173. It hadn’t felt so fast. The slight disappointment filled me even more with desire for the record. I kept saying to myself — “I’m gonna get that bastard back.” I talked a little with Mussner and congratulated him for his fine first run. I spoke to Siorpaes. I observed the rituals. I remember grinning because I was sure Mussner and Siorpaes were as full of the record as I.
Then there came a time when no one wanted to go. There was no particular reason. One hadn’t finished waxing. Another was cold. Still another was tuning his mind. I was
still tired from climbing up too fast. Mussner appeared ready, but he didn’t want to go. I don’t know why — nerves probably. (I’m sure now that he had a premonition.) I jumped into the breach and said I was ready. Actually I was still tired, but I was so excited and anxious about finally breaking into the 170s that it didn’t matter. I went anyway, and I held my position over both jumps. I put my head down just before the soft part of the track and immediately pulled it back up. The track was a monstrous mess. It hadn’t even been side slipped between rounds. I lost my position. It was like driving a car across a furrowed field at 100 mph.
I didn’t know how fast I was, but I knew it wasn’t very good. Now I know that my time was 168.539 kph. I was mad about the track and I skied to a stop in front of Egon. I said, “The track is really bad, Egon, why don’t they work on it?” He knew what I meant and felt just about like I did, and he said something like, “I don’t know, you can’t talk to these fucking Italians.” Then I said, quote, “Well, someone’s going to get hurt up there.” Unquote.
Egon took my skis and began waxing them. A few were still getting into the 170s, and I was full of — with luck — the record.
Then Mussner came.
On Sunday night, the twenty fifth, Mussner saw a photo of Luigi taken on the first day. In this photograph Luigi’s head is completely down and all you can see is the top of his helmet. It is the most fantastic Lanciato photo I’ve seen. Walter studied the photograph for a few minutes. “Tomorrow I will do that,” he told Luigi. Luigi grinned, as any champion will whose disciples are trying to imitate him. It is the grin of pride and of being flattered, but it is also a grin of awareness of the difficulties in the refinements of any champion’s technique, the refinements which all disciples try for and hardly any ever achieve. In this case, the refinement of putting one’s head between one’s knees and skiing blind at more than 105 mph.
Mussner came and his head was down. I have the impression that when I was on top and Walter didn’t want to go he was forcing himself to be able to put his head down. (Perhaps also fighting a premonition.) This is what I think, but there is no way to know. Later, Franca told me that Mussner nearly didn’t go again; I don’t know why, nor does anybody. Then he said something like, “Well, there’s still the record.” And he left the top.
He came and I saw him from above the blue disc, just before where the track was bad. His head was already down, his position was good, and he held it like that all the way. Many things went into the sequence of what happened then, and no one will ever know exactly what they were, but this is what I think:
At the top of the timing area he began to veer right. I saw immediately that he was on his way off the track. A cold electric shock passed through me like a tidal wave of fear. My heart went numb and my blood disappeared. Walter went off the track just at the end of the timing, just missing the electric eye pillar. He went through a little post and that ridiculous net they had fanned out on each side. When he hit that post the world changed.
At that speed many things could cause a slight deviation of direction. It is impossible to have more than an opinion as to why he went off the course. It was obvious from watching how he held this position and from what he said afterward that he was unaware he was off course until he had already fallen. I believe two things killed Walter Mussner, not one more than the other. I think the bad track caused him to veer to one side against the natural slope of the track, and I think Walter’s head being down made him unaware of what was happening, and, therefore, unable to correct it. I think if the track had been properly groomed he wouldn’t have veered off course, and if he had kept his head up he would have known what was happening and he would have been able to correct it. But — and Walter Mussner is dead.
What happened when Walter hit that post and fell is something I don’t think I will forget as long as I live; and it will be more than a few days before the image leaves my mind, allowing me easy sleep at night and to write and read and be naturally of this life the rest of the time. He clocked a time of 170.132 kph just as he fell; but to the naked eye, it appears that the racers in the last 30 meters of the 100-meter trap accelerate to a much greater speed. I would not be surprised if the racer who clocks 170 for 100 meters is traveling at 190 for the last 10 or 20 meters. Right there, where there is that little boost of acceleration that anyone can observe, Walter fell. With incredible force and speed he went end over end, feet and then head hitting the snow, and each turn wrenching his body unbelievably. Afterwards, eleven holes were counted in the snow, feet, head, feet, head, feet, head, and, at the end, everything. It was difficult to believe it was a human body undergoing such gyrations, such speed, such force. The only thing I have ever seen like it were movies of Bill Vukovich’s car at Indianapolis when he was killed in 1955. It was similar to that.
For a few seconds that seemed like minutes after he stopped in a motionless pile in the transition, everyone was frozen still with astonishment and fear. There was — I am sure in everyone because it was there in me — the hope of a miracle that Walter Mussner would get up and that no one would have to go pick him up. At the same
time, I don’t think there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that he wasn’t going to move by himself. I have seen some bad falls, and I have even had a few myself; but this wasn’t like a skiing fall anyone had ever seen before. No one has ever fallen like that.
Then Rico was screaming over the loudspeaker. That snapped people out of their trance. Dozens of people were suddenly all around Walter, about 30 yards from where I stood. I started to go, but instinct told me not to; and I am glad I didn’t. Ivo (Mahlknecht) and Felice (DeNicolo) were there, and they were closer comrades than I; so he wasn’t alone when he shouldn’t be alone.
It took about half an hour to get him off the hill. During that time not one person even side-slipped the track, though competition was obviously to continue as soon as possible. I was mad and sick with the knowledgeable suspicion that if Walter wasn’t dead he was an agonizing pile of broken bones. Egon was furious, the way the German temperament gets furious when unhappy.
I stared at the group around Walter. Egon finished waxing my skis. I was, however, finished psychologically and spiritually, and I knew it. I told Egon I would run again if the track began to be fast enough for a record. I would go up and wait and listen to the times. If they got close I would go; if not, not. Egon said it was finished, but I went up and waited anyway; but I never came down on the track.
Just before I went up to wait, Hans Berger broke away from the group around Walter and came my way. Hans, who lives in Kufstein, is small, with tiny, delicate features and an expressive face. He usually looks about eighteen years old, though he is thirty. When he came up to me, he looked a hundred years old and there were tears in his eyes.
“Ist es schlecht?” I asked.
“Ja,” he said in a strange way.
“Sehr schlecht,” he answered in a way that made me know it was.
I went up to the top and waited with that in the pit of my stomach. Probably, it was best the track never got fast enough to make me think a record was possible.
They took Walter to Aosta and he lived a little more than five hours. Unfortunately, he was conscious most of that time. He fractured his skull, broke two vertebrae in his neck, pulverized his entire pelvic region, broke one femur and tore loose the femoral artery, and he tore himself open from the anus to the navel. He had acute hemorrhages of the brain, stomach, and leg. Toward the end he went blind. If he had lived he would have lost one leg, he wouldn’t have been a man any longer, and he probably would have been paralyzed. Kiki went with him to Aosta and held his hand until he died. She is only twenty and has never seen a dead person before, and she was still in shock and sometimes hysterics the next night when she and her mother told me about it.
The Italian and Swiss papers are full of stupid things about it. The people of Cervinia all say that the track was “perfetto,” and they put the whole blame on a mistake of Walter’s. They’ve gone on at some length why it’s not the fault of the Lanciato committee, the organization, or anyone’s. That is not quite true. Some say there is nothing dangerous about the Lanciato. That, too, is not quite true. Others call the Lanciato stupidly insane. Nor is that true. If I uttered to the press what I think about the track, they would interpret it as blaming those responsible for track maintenance for Walter’s death. That, also, is not the truth; and it would do infinitely more harm than good. And it would not help Walter. There is no prevention (except abstention, which is ridiculous) for such accidents, and there is no blame. It is part of skiing that fast.
I was the only one competing that day who saw Walter fall, and I returned to the top with a different perspective on our endeavors. The racers and officials asked about the delay. Why was the track closed so long? I said Walter had a bad fall that tore up the track a bit; the delay was necessary for repairs. I had neither desire nor right to elaborate. I sat at the top for a long time. Some racers got in six runs, nearly everyone got four or five. Only Mussner and I ran just twice. Visions of his fall tumbled through my brain. I could not make them leave. (They entered my dreams and woke me in the night for the next two years.) It was the same clear day, but a grainy, colorless filter had descended on the world.
Leitner, leading with 172.744, decided not to run again unless his time was beaten. It never was. My time dropped from fourth best to eighth. Luigi, suffering badly from a strep throat and cold, took five runs before breaking into the first ten. My place on the result sheets, the race itself, winning or losing, no longer mattered. What importance was the race alongside life itself? What game do we play in which the loser forfeits life? What type of men play this game? For it was obvious from the beginning that one of us would die because of some human failing, neglecting for a billionth of eternity the rules of the game. Is human failure cause to die? If it is, are we not playing with the rules and stakes of Neanderthal man? I never meant to play a game in which one of the players would inevitably, through mathematical laws as sure as those governing Russian roulette, smash his body beyond repair; yet I played and watched it happen and I felt deep in my innards that I had always known it was going to happen. I remembered waiting for C.B. at the bottom of Portillo’s track, wondering about the game’s next move if he beat my time. The questions would not disappear. I had no answers.
My friend Franca Simondetti gave Leitner and me some Sangria. We drank it over small talk and silence. Strange to drink the sweet Sangria, to feel its wonderful vapors fill your body and your brain, exploding your taste buds as you sit in the sun — sweet Sangria — all the while trapped with death in a vision of the boyish face of Walter Mussner and a fall unlike any other. Strange to sit like that with Ludwig Leitner, the big German who exudes toughness and confidence and plays the game hard, drinking and healthy. Life’s mysteries unfold through everyday functions.
Tiring of Sangria, small talk, and waiting for a run I neither wanted nor would ever make, I skied down alongside the track. Racers were still coming, about one a minute. As a competitor, I was allowed to stand close to the track, and I watched the big speeds from about 30 feet away. For the first time in three years of playing with eternity, I viewed it with a new realization of flesh-and-blood men, mere mortals, at play with the forces of the universe; it was wondrous that we dared, but never again would I view another man as a rival whose mistakes or refinements I must note and use to my advantage. I could hardly believe what I saw. I knew these men. We had joked, laughed, eaten, drunk and skied together. We had entered into freedom and struggled with terror, and together we had ignored our common reality. Walter Mussner reminded us of our negligence. I watched my friends like children in a play yard; proud, arrogant, innocent. We had accomplished great things, but, when all was done and spoken, we were just men; probably we could be better men, for we had not put away childish things.
When I got down to Cervinia, the word was around that Mussner was badly hurt. Only those who saw him fall had any idea what that meant. Most of the racers didn’t think that Walter would not be back with them. I returned to my hotel, changed clothes and packed my ski bag for Egon to take to Kufstein. Walter was in Aosta and I had heard he was alive when he reached the hospital; that is usually a good sign for the chances of survival. I put my thoughts with Walter Mussner and packed my bag.
After, I was carrying the heavy bag of skis up the street to Egon’s hotel when something happened I cannot define but only describe. It came in what I have come to know as a “flash.” Suddenly I knew Walter Mussner was dead. It was sure; it was something I knew. Walter was dead, and I no longer felt the hard sadness that had been with me since the fall. What I felt was something like intense peace and joy and relief, all together. I do not know if that feeling arose because Waller was out of his suffering, or because what had happened had happened to him and not to me, or if there was another reason. I set down my big, red Kneissl ski bag and rested. I did not question the fact of his death nor the quality or means of my knowledge, but I wasn’t supposed to feel what I felt. For I felt better and more alive than I had since Walter began veering right. An hour later, Kalevi told me Walter Mussner was dead.
Diary, July 4, 1965
From now on every man who tries seriously and truly for a record carries death in his hind pocket. I think that this year everyone will make it, but after this it will get too fast, too tough, and eventually someone will buy the farm no one ever wants but everyone gets.
Author’s note: At this writing (April 2010), the fastest skiers in history are an Italian man and a Swedish woman who set their records in Les Arcs in 2006. Simone Origone has gone 251.410 kph, and Sanna Tidstrand has traveled 242.590 kph.
Senior correspondent Dick Dorworth’s last story for MG was “The Loon of Mystic Heights Pond,” which appeared in #172. “In Pursuit of Speed” will appear Dorworth’s next book, “The Perfect Turn,” the title essay of which was previously published in the MG.