I am a sack of potatoes. I am serene. And then, I'm not: Accelerating through the soft turns of the Gold Rush Trail, I suddenly hurtle higher on the hard right bank of Turn 15 and I'm flying just shy of 100 kilometres an hour.
Under a bright sun, blue sky and dark spectre - questions about the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and what was known about track safety in the lead-up to the Vancouver Winter Olympics are in the headlines again this week - I am ahead of the crowd, above the village at Whistler on Blackcomb Mountain.
Next Wednesday, the Whistler Sliding Centre officially opens to the public, offering 20 adventurers a day, at $130 a pop, two headfirst dives on a skeleton sled down the bottom third of the world's most infamous bobsleigh-luge-skeleton track. Just one of 17 in the world, it joins its North American cousins in Calgary, Utah and New York State's Lake Placid in a twin effort to welcome (and inculcate) the curious (adrenalin-hungry) public and raise funds for relatively obscure and financially strapped sliding sports.
The $105-million venue has had a speedy and extreme reputation from its inception. And, frankly, fear is part of this track's appeal. Of course, the novice amateur does not begin at the very top like an Olympic competitor would. We launch from Turn 11. First, though, the centre's Carol MacLaine welcomes visitors and delivers an hour-long introductory session. While going headfirst on ice is (supposed to be) about fun, the levity is mitigated by a serious undertone and a legal waiver.
"We're not an amusement-park ride," notes Ms. MacLaine, whose own bucket list includes attending the Oscars but not piloting a skeleton sled down an icy track. There are, she emphasizes, ample opportunities to bail (refunds available) right up to the moment of release at the top of the track.
"There's no shame in opting out," she tells me.
Somewhat like with the introduction for first-time skydivers, the principles imparted about skeleton sliding are both obvious and worrisome:
Don't let go: "The sled is your friend and the ice is not."
Do not steer: "Let gravity do what gravity does."
And: "There are no brakes - did I mention that?"
I admit, the butterflies are fluttering. A bit.
While not dumbly brave, I am not fearfully timid. I'm trying to follow the "be a sack of potatoes" advice relayed from Germany, several days before my sliding debut, by Canadian gold medalist Jon Montgomery.
Waiting for my turn, I recall another Montgomery story. When his parents and sisters tested their mettle on a skeleton run last fall, his dad fared poorly. "Like most men, he tried to control the situation and banged around and had the slowest time." His mother, not entirely enthused, let gravity pull and booked a solid 77 km/h, the fastest of the family.
Fitted for a helmet, I step outside into the sun and the short, steep walk to the Maple Leaf rookie start. It begins with the (vaguely Olympian) ring of my name announced over the loudspeaker. I'm feeling pretty good. I'm 34, spry and fit.
My secret goal - which I reveal to those present in an attempt to will it into reality - is to imprint my name in a long-standing course record. But, I'm told, that bright sun in the sky will soften the ice, hindering my quest for a record-setting run. "The sun is the enemy," a track official says. Fast ice - but not fast enough to hit 100 km/h. Never mind the real athletes who clocked speeds above 130.
In a sweater, ski pants and Converse, I don the helmet and goggles. (No spandex, I report with regret.) I settle in on the sled. Chin up (though not too much), arms tucked, shoulders down, legs back, feet pointed. (Be a missile! I imagine.) Wisdom imparted by Mellisa Hollingsworth, World Cup champion, floats through my head: "The sled'll find its way to the bottom. Don't try to get in its way."
Beyond the fact that most of the track is above me, the start for an amateur slider differs in one other significant way: There is no sprint and dramatic leap onto the skeleton, one of the many memorable images from the Games last year. Instead - and happily enough - it begins quietly, a soft push from a track worker who offers the final chance to pull the plug.
I try to remain calm. I focus on the rush of track ahead, my chin barely above the ice. Breathe. I mute the instinct to do something - what do you do to "do nothing"? Though it begins seemingly slowly, when the contraption really starts moving and hammers up the turns, I'm a little frightened.
It all blurs in the massive 180-degree swoop of Turn 16, dubbed Thunderbird for the booming sound that evokes the thumping of that bird's massive wings. The feeling of the force of gravity is doubled, as upward of 400 pounds weighs down on me in this final corner.
It's over in an instant. The 30-second ride is surprisingly smooth, even at the finish, which concludes with a pinball motion. It's neither severe nor scary, as the bumpered skeleton bounces back and forth off the track walls as the sled slows to a stop.
The loudspeakers ring out again (this time, definitely Olympian): 96.3 km/h. Not too shabby. After a quartet of runs (and after tucking my ski pants into my socks), I've hit a personal high of 96.9.
My conclusion is the same as Mr. Montgomery's - long before he was famous for the gold around his neck and the jug of beer in his hand. After his first headfirst trip nine years ago in Calgary, he was instantly hooked.
"I had no clue what was going on the first time," he says. "You couldn't wipe that smile off my face with 40-grit sandpaper. I knew I'd experienced something phenomenal."
Likewise, Jonny, likewise.
Along with a number of other rules, participants must:
- weigh 90 to 220 pounds
- not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or be taking medication that could impair judgment or physical dexterity
- understand the potential risks associated with this activity may include motion sickness, nosebleeds, bumps, bruises, ice rashes, neck and back injury, sprains and broken bones.
- use the washroom before the start of the run, due to gravitational pressure on the bladder
- be physically prepared to experience downward G-forces that will approach two times their body weight.