Ski tips hang precariously over open air. Below, a slope pitched at a dizzyingly steep 45 degrees has been immaculately designed to allow skiers to achieve speeds on a par with a Grand Prix motorcycle.
In the start gate, Jan Farrell adjusts his carbon fibre helmet and fights to steady his pulse. His bright red polyurethane suit is stretched over his body like a second skin, the only protection between him and a 200-kilometre-an-hour slide for life.
A fall at these speeds can result in second-degree burns – caused by the friction between skin and snow – or worse.
But Farrell can’t focus on that, nor the crash he sustained at a contest in 2016 that left him burned and bruised for weeks. He can only focus straight down, a single kilometre of adrenaline-pumping skiing standing between him and World Cup glory. Taking a few more deep breaths, he readies his poles, and drops into oblivion.
This is speed skiing – the fastest non-motorised sport on the planet and the wildest human thrill ride. Less technical than its alpine cousins, speed skiing was created by adrenaline junkies and perfected by purists, with athletes capable of reaching speeds topping 250 kilometres per hour.
Today, Farrell joins a dedicated group of over 60 athletes from around the world at the World Cup Championships at Grandvalira Resort in Andorra. The mountainous country sandwiched between France and Spain, and just a two and a half hour drive from Barcelona, has more kilometres of ski slope than highway, and has become the annual host of speed skiing’s biggest hour.
On the line is not only a World Cup Championship, but the overall World Cup title, upping the tension on an otherwise pleasant sunny afternoon in the Pyrenees (a separate World Championship event was contested earlier in the season in Vars, France).
With Farrell safely at the bottom, one after another, skiers drop from the vertiginous start gate, each determined to satiate a primal need for speed as they pursue the ultimate limit.
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This article was originally published in the December 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine