Peter Shelton

The Need for Speed

Posted in Ski history, Ski racing, Watch columns by pshelton on August 8, 2013

[In honor of the recent speed skiing exhibit at the Telluride Historical Museum, I found this article in my files, written for Diversions magazine, back in 1982.]

Marti Martin Kuntz hops down out of the helicopter and unhooks her skis from the struts. They are not powder skis, though the chutes and bowls here in Colorado Basin above Silverton sparkle with 18 inches of fresh powder snow. These skis are 235 cm long, almost seven feet, nine inches, straight and slick and heavy.

Marti’s ski suit is like a second rubberized skin stretched white over her body. Slashes of red identify the manufacturer, Snofox, and Marti’s sponsor, the Telluride Ski Resort. She’s carrying a teardrop-shaped helmet under her arm and has turbulence-cutting, Styrofoam fins, called fairings, sweeping back from her calves. She wears yellow kitchen gloves, and her poles have so many curves built into them they could represent a traditional ski descent.

But Marti’s not going to be making even a single turn on the snow. The Telluride ski instructor is going down straight, trying for a new women’s speed skiing record.

It all makes glorious sense in action, when Marti pushes off onto the Velocity Peak track and rolls quickly into her tuck, head down, back parallel with the 50-degree slope, poles wrapped around body curves, hands out in front splitting the air as a diver’s part the water.

This is a venerable sport. In a competition of winter-bored gold miners, one Tommy Todd was clocked at 88 mph over a quarter mile course at La Porte, California, in 1874. In its present form, speed skiing goes back to the early 1930s and the famed Kilometro Lanciato, or Flying Kilometer, at Cervinia, Italy. Silverton and Velocity Peak (formerly Storm Peak) constitutes a relatively new chapter.

“Discovered” in 1979 by one-time Telluride ski patrolman and speed skier Jim Jackson, the course on Velocity Peak has quickly eclipsed the world’s other great speed tracks. It is the highest, steepest, and safest, course in the world. Safest because of its smooth china bowl transition from steep to not-so-steep to flat. It starts at 12,500 feet high in the couloir that splits the mountain’s granite north face. Racers accelerate instantly, blast out of the couloir at better than 80 mph, sweep straight down the face, still accelerating, where they pass through the light beams of a 100-meter-long timing trap, slowing finally, three-fifths of a mile later as they cross a snow-covered lake in the basin. Average trip time: 19 seconds.

After two years of bad weather luck (snow in 1980, avalanches and exposed rock in 1981) this year Silverton produced new records for both men and women. Cat-strong Austrian Franz Weber, long in the shadow of legendary Californian Steve McKinney, who broke through the 200 kph barrier in Portillo, Chile, in 1978, finally uncorked a big one against his rival, setting a new mark of 125.959 mph (203.160 kph). And Martin Kuntz, a rookie in only her second speed event, surprised everyone but herself to take the women’s title away from Frenchwoman Annie Breyton. After a single qualifying event in Squaw Valley, where racers went “only” about 80 mph, Marti scorched the Silverton spring snow in a world record 111.290 mph.

She has always been an athlete, a skier, rock climber, kayaker, and yoga teacher. She has always been strong and strong-willed, especially when there was a physical challenge to meet. And she always liked to go fast. She tried downhill racing on the women’s pro circuit in Colorado and liked it but felt “gypped.” “We weren’t going that fast. I wanted to go faster.”

So, Marti recalls, “I thought I’d go over to Storm Peak and just run until I got scared and say, ‘Adios.’”

She didn’t get scared. But in the preliminaries, and indeed in every run right up to the last one, Tahoe skier Kirsten Culver was faster than Marti by a couple of miles per hour. She couldn’t understand it. There must be some tiny flaw in her position. She found it, she felt certain, studying photos taken during the early runs. Her hands were a little low, scooping air. But when she corrected in front of a mirror the backs of her poles slipped disconcertingly off her hips.

So out she went into sleepy Silverton in search of a pipe bender. She found one in master electrician Buddy Kaiser, who deftly, carefully (“Say, this stiff is real stout, isn’t it?”) put the proper new curves in the already curvy poles.

Sunday, April 25, 1982. It was a perfect, clear-sky day. Everyone knew a record was possible. Kirsten Culver took off first from the new start higher up in the couloir. And, sure enough, she obliterated Breyton’s 108 mph record with a run of 111.235.

Marti was calm in the start. “It’s a quiet kind of place. You don’t think a whole lot.” She didn’t hesitate. She jumped her skis around and dove for the bottom. Streaking through the timing lights, skis vibrating more off the snow than on it, the roar of the turbulence, of the air parting around a body at that speed, is like the sound of bacon frying, in a hot pan, amplified through loudspeakers.

Marti had her record, by 55 thousandths of a mph.

“What now?” asked the television interviewer. Marti’s direct answer: “I’m gonna have a bottle of champagne and go home and plant my garden.”

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