Friday, November 26, 2010

Speed skiers once ruled the roost

Sun Valley has rich history in daredevil sport


In the (Northern Hemisphere) summer of 1955, some of America's best ski racers were training on the (Southern Hemisphere) winter snows of Portillo, Chile, when their training regimen veered off into the arcane world of speed skiing. This esoteric activity is to competitive skiing something like Bonneville is to automobile racing. One of the racers, Dartmouth's Ralph Miller, set an unofficial world speed skiing record of nearly 109 mph, unofficial because his speed was timed by hand watches over 50 meters rather than by more precise timing instrumentation over 100 meters. Among the participants in these speed runs were two racers with close Sun Valley ties, Marvin Melville and Ron Funk. Melville (a two-time Olympian) owns a second home in Sun Valley and still skis regularly (and well) on Bald Mountain.

Funk set an unofficial record of his own by falling at more than 90 mph while attached to his skis with bear trap/long thong bindings that do not release. He was seriously injured and gained a certain notoriety for the highest-speed fall in skiing history. Ron was not enamored of either the reputation or the leg that never again was quite the same, and he worked very hard to overcome the limitations of both. Though he has never been accorded the recognition he deserves for it, Funk was instrumental in changing the future of speed skiing and giving it a public face it never had before.

In January 1963, Funk, who lived for many years in Sun Valley and is well known here, convinced me to join him and a few others in running what turned out to be the last Diamond Sun race on Bald Mountain. This rarely held event was likely the fastest standard race (starting gate and finish gate and nothing in between) ever run anywhere in the world. It is the fastest I know of. Tammy Dix and I set new records (2:21 for me and 2:35 for Tammy) from the top of Baldy by the east end of the ski patrol hut to about where the bear resides in front of River Run Lodge, and Ron, despite a major mistake, broke the old record in 2:31.

I had never before gone that fast on a pair of skis (estimated at 80 mph coming out of Canyon), and the experience helped give me the confidence or at least the bravado to allow Funk to talk me into joining him in returning to Portillo with the goal of setting a new speed skiing record. Retiring from speed skiing on a fall and a broken leg just didn't sit right with Ron and he wanted to set it right. I had my own reasons for wanting a world record, and among the consequences of that desire was that within a couple of years, I better understood my friend's feeling of not wanting to quit speed skiing with a fall and a broken leg. (See the November issue of Mountain Gazette or, better yet, buy a copy of my new book "The Perfect Turn and other tales of skiing and skiers," published by Western Eye Press and available at your local, independent book store. Even better, buy several copies and give them to your skiing friends for Christmas.)

But I digress. Ron and I went to Chile that summer, teamed up with American ski racer C.B. Vaughan, who was working on the Portillo Ski Patrol, and spent more than three months of effort, excitement and exhaustion seeking the record. During that time the official record of 101 mph was bumped up to 104 mph by an Austrian named Alfred Plangger in Cervinia, Italy, making our endeavor 3 mph more difficult. With Ron as organizer, public relations master (not Ron's strongest skill), counselor and mentor, we had the full cooperation of the Chilean Ski Federation, which had the only electronic timing apparatus and qualified people to operate it in Chile to make our runs official. Ron had slain his demons of the fall of '55 by making some runs above 90 mph before he broke his leg again in a giant slalom race. His speed skiing days were over but he dedicated himself to organizing our efforts, and on the last day that Portillo was open that season, C.B. and I set a new official world record of just under 107 mph.

Good stuff. Fine memories. Our record helped raise awareness of speed skiing in the American ski world (it had long been an integral if eccentric part of European skiing), and in the late 1970s, largely through the efforts of the great speed skier Steve McKinney, a professional speed skiing circuit was formed. It came undone after a few years for several reasons, but that circuit eventually morphed into what is now the Speed Skiing World Cup, which is alive and well in Europe.

Nearly 20 years after we were in Portillo, speed skiing again attracted the attention of Sun Valley speedsters, a few of whom became competitors on the professional circuit mentioned above. A speed skiing competition at Elkhorn was held in the late 1970s, with several racers reaching speeds above 85 mph, and from that event a loose affiliation (the only kind that could possibly develop from the personalities involved) of Sun Valley speedsters formed. They called themselves "Team Shred" and, alternatively, "Danger Rangers" with the team motto "No snow too deep, no slope too steep." They had another motto as well, but not one that could be published in a family newspaper. If such a group could have a leader it was probably Bruce Smith, who today owns and operates Alpine Enterprises in Ketchum, a surveying and mapping business. Among the other local Sun Valley speed skiers of that time were Jim Kjelland, Scott Curtis, Brent Hansen, Chris Petersen and Brian Prescott. The lone Sun Valley female speedster of that time, Stella Sylvester Keane, was born in Kenya and raised in England, and in 1983 set the women's world speed skiing record of more than 118 mph. A fine athlete in several sports, Stella died in an avalanche while skiing north of Ketchum in 2009.

The Sun Valley Danger Rangers raced in several competitions in Squaw Valley, Calif., Arapahoe Basin and Silverton in Colorado and Les Arcs in France. Silverton and Les Arcs were the fastest tracks of the time and by then the record was more than 120 mph. None of the Rangers set a speed record but they all went very fast (118 to 119 mph) several times and Petersen went 122 mph in 1983. Smith had the best result in a Les Arcs race in 1982 when he finished third behind Steve McKinney and Franz Weber, the two dominant speed skiers of the day.

Brent Hansen, owner of Ketchum's Ski Tek and Hansen Orthotics Lab, said of those days, "I started speed skiing on a lark at Bruce Smith's instigation. Never took it too seriously. After regular ski racing for years, it seemed like it would be fun and amazing to just point 'em straight and see what happens. My favorite day was a 1982 midwinter Les Arcs race in France. It was in a giant avalanche chute with a mile runout and a totally smooth surface. We had two beautiful runs that morning, getting closer to Steve McKinney's more than 120 mph record each time.

"The last run was the highest starting place that had ever been run. Somehow it was decided I was to go first out of 10 racers. I was close to throwing up waiting to go, but once I launched down the slope everything felt just perfect—very quiet and slow. I stood up too soon on the runout and almost went down, not knowing I was still going 90 mph. My speed was 118.7 mph. I was happy with that. McKinney came down two racers later and broke his own record. Bruce came very close to 120 a few later. I can still close my eyes and see and feel those few brilliant moments today!"

Bruce's quest for 120 mph on a pair of skis proved elusive, but, never one to let an aging body slow him down, four years ago he took his motorcycle to the Bonneville Salt Flats Race Track and broke his personal 120 mph barrier. He said that because of the white salt flats, the experience was similar in many ways to speed skiing.

As of this writing, the fastest male skier is Simone Origone of Italy, who has traveled 156.2 mph. The fastest female skier is Sanna Tidstram of Sweden, who has gone 150.74 mph.

The next generation of Sun Valley speed skiers have their work cut out for them.

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