Thunder on Ice
The Real Deal
Standing just two metres away, near the bottom of the track, with racers travelling between 140 and 145 kilometres per hour, the speed is mind-numbing.
To put it another way: Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
After arriving 30 minutes before my “Thunder On Ice” bobsleigh experience at the Whistler Sliding last winter, I walked to the interior of the ice-covered track — host venue for the sliding events during the 2010 Winter Olympics — and watched, along with a half-dozen others, over a period of about 10 minutes, as three skeleton racers flashed by Corner 15. I say “flashed by,” because the speed is difficult for someone who’s only seen bobsleigh, skeleton and luge racing on TV to comprehend. Standing just two metres away, near the bottom of the track, with racers travelling between 140 and 145 kilometres per hour, the speed is mind- numbing. To put it another way: Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
Several times during the check-in, weigh-in, helmet fitting and safety briefing, the friendly staff at the Sliding Centre stressed that Thunder On Ice (bobsleigh) and Lightning On Ice (skeleton) are not carnival rides; they are sport experiences. This is not a roller coaster on rails. The sleds employed for the public program are virtually the same as the ones used by competitors in the four- man bobsleigh event during World Cup and Olympic competitions. They’re also subject to the same kinetic forces that govern objects moving on ice.
During the 20-minute safety briefing, we were told that they’ve only had one sled overturn (no one was injured) on the ice since the public bobsleigh program was launched in late 2011. Full-face helmets are mandatory, and guests are advised to hold on tight to the cables inside the sled and hunch up their neck and shoulders during the ride to minimize the tendency of the upper body to flop from side to side.
Yes, you’re not launching from the top start house of the 1,450-metre (4,757-foot) track, but guests experience speeds up to 125 km/h and g-forces three to four times normal gravity. This is the real deal.
Chris Spring, the Canadian World Cup bobsleigh competitor who would be our pilot on this day, said later in an interview that seeing guests’ wide-eyed reactions helps him remember his first few rides many years ago and appreciate what a mind-blowing experience it truly is.
“I guess I take driving a sled for granted. I’ve done it for so long. But to have the chance to see people who just have a ball when they go down is pretty cool,” Spring said. “I realize it’s a huge thrill for people and it definitely makes me grateful for what I get to do as a sport.”
The Whistler Sliding Centre’s public program, which was recently listed on Trip Advisor as the third-most popular winter activity in Whistler, has helped boost interest in the sliding sports, Spring said. “Sometimes people get to the bottom and they want to remember my name and follow my results, and to follow the World Cup in bobsleigh and skeleton,” he said. “A lot of people who come from far away will develop an interest in their own national team.”
It’s common, though, for newbies to be a bit fearful beforehand, Spring said. Count me among them. Yes, there was a little fear as I prepared to go hurtling down the ice on the world’s fastest bobsleigh track. Butterflies executed an unrehearsed tumbling run in my stomach as Val and Jordan — a friendly young couple from Vancouver — and I pulled on our helmets and prepared to shoehorn ourselves into Sled 7. A lot can happen in 41 or 42 seconds at these sorts of speeds, I thought. On the other hand, it was reassuring to know that my sled mates and I were in the capable hands of an experienced World Cup bobsleigh pilot. Just before we were pushed off from the start house just above Corner 7 — the women’s and doubles luge start for competitors — cowbells rang and our names and sled number were announced on the track’s PA system.
Corner 7 seemed to pass at a leisurely pace; what one might experience on the typical toboggan hill. As we careened out of Corner 8 and into Corner 9, though, with the rapid increase in speed and commensurate side- to-side motion coming into and out of the turns, I gasped, instinctively tightening my grip on the cables inside the sled. I’ve never gone skydiving or fallen off a cliff, but I can imagine those experiences are something like what I felt as we dropped out of Corner 11, known to competitors as Shiver. Sliding Centre officials advise guests to keep their heads up and their eyes open throughout; and I did that, but as our sled hurtled through the next few turns and the g-forces increased, I had only the faintest notion of where I might be.
Two seconds after we made the sweeping right-hand turn that is Corner 16, a.k.a. Thunderbird, I suddenly realized we were travelling uphill. At that moment, I felt and heard the scraping of the metal brakes on the ice. Over the next second-and-a-half, we ground to a halt. After a collective “whoop,” Val, Jordan and I piled one at a time out of the sled, with our eyes the size of dinner plates and broad smiles on our faces. Our time: 41.50 seconds … third fastest of the 14 sleds on that day. Our top speed: More than 123 km/h. Chris shook our hands. We took off our helmets and the four of us were ushered over to an Olympic-themed backdrop to have our photo taken. The butterflies finally stopped fluttering.
“There have been multiple times where people were absolutely scared at the top. They’re not sure they want to go down, and sometimes think of backing out,” Spring said. “But I just try to reassure them that they’ll be fine and when they get done, they’ll be thankful that they did it and experienced something they can’t accomplish anywhere else in life.”