You're in Courchevel, France, now. So forget the North American granolahead notion of skiing as a back-to-nature soul sport, bro, where the ideal is to ski "free." In the Alps, such New Age mumbo-jumbo is swallowed as reluctantly as watery American beer. Europeans want to keep score. They want to kick your ass. They ski for the same reason that the (Austrian-accented) hero of Conan the Barbarian swung a bludgeon: Because it feels good "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women."
In the spirit of keeping score, Nicolas Mermoud, a former marketing bigwig at Dynastar, has figured out a whole new way to battle on snow: His Grand Challenge is the ultimate in big-mountain multitasking, where pros and schmoes alike combat the varied cruxes of the Trois Vallées, the largest linked ski area on earth.
First held in 2003, the Grand Challenge combines seven old- and new-school events into a single race-a full day of banked slaloms, full-throttle mogul runs, synchronized freeskiing, and skiercross. Racers compete on three-person teams, blazing downhill, often simultaneously, in a snow-churning cloud. The team structure fosters unity and esprit de corps. Better yet, it provides two scapegoats to blame if things go sour.
I fully expect they will. Arriving in Courchevel, I'm woefully unprepared to race, and am here only because I could accept a last-minute invitation to represent the sum total of American media (well, this magazine anyway). At first, the identity of my cohorts remains unknown: Telemark queen Kasha Rigby is supposed to join Team Skiing, but is MIA in Italy. Kasha shows up just in time, but we need a third member-who shouldn't be less event-experienced than me. My racing career peaked on a Steamboat NASTAR course in 1989 and, whereas several of my Grand Challenge opponents own Winter Olympics medals, I have a tiny pin.
At a reception at a raclette restaurant, I find my final teammate before the first cheese course is over: Sherry Boyd, wife of Team Whistler's Rob Boyd. Good news: Sherry formerly competed on the Canadian Snowboard Team. Bad news: She's only skied for four years. Still, we figure to crush the other media team present-congenial but doughy Brits with office jobs.
Race day dawns sunny and crisp. At the 8 a.m. pre-race briefing, Germans do groin stretches. Greasy-haired Frenchmen chain-smoke Gauloise cigarettes. The briefing is conducted only in French and Team Skiing is confused, then alarmed: Mermoud has elevated us into the pro or "Speciale" division. Sherry groans. "Speciale? More like the Special Olympics, in our case. At least we'll get a hug at the end, right?"
A gondola and a tram whisk us to a ridge and the start of the first derby ("derby" being a European word for a crazed jailbreak). Sherry leads our charge out of the gate. For five seconds, we fly like hockey pucks across the bulletproof snow, then veer right onto a catwalk. The course, alas, goes left. Precious seconds evaporate. Worse, Kasha biffs. The winning derby time is one minute, 53 seconds; Team Skiing is 124 teams behind.
Traveling to Stage 2 requires almost an hour and three lift rides. The delay fails to douse the gladiatorial fires-the mere sight of another racer's bib tweaks my adrenal gland. Euro competitiveness comes surprisingly easy to me. On this densely populated continent, one can't afford to give quarter to rivals. Hence, the only-in-Europe phenomenon of hooligans cutting you off in lift lines. Curse the scrappy elbow throwers if you must. But pity them, too: A lift line, after all, is the only place left where a Prussian or Huguenot can be a "winner."
We make up some ground in Stage 2's speed run, only to relinquish it in Stage 3's banked slalom-thanks to me. Having never skied a banked slalom, my muscle memory blanks when confronted with the snot-slick walls and sudden gravity reversals.
Stage 4 could lead even an expertt to drop a merde in his pants. Another derby, it rewards an insane strategy: rocketing straight down steep moguls. Skiing absolutely out of control, our knees hammer up toward our jawbones.
Rattled both physically and mentally, we approach the aid station. Whereas North American race organizers revive contestants with tasteless electrolyte potions, the French pour Côtes du Ventoux. This stroke of genius pardons any and all French sins-soccer, wartime timidity, Renault's Le Car, you name it-and every racer seems to need a buzz.
Stage 5's skiercross finds us loose and rubbery and terrain-park ready. Between the wine and profound relief at surviving Stage 4 without gargling our own dental work, Team Skiing finally relaxes, fluidly absorbing the undulations of the corkscrewing course.
The off-piste freeriding of Stage 6 is a judged event, with bonuses for skiing in unison. Team Skiing's harmony implodes only a few turns into the rock-studded, 38-degree Saulire Couloir, when Kasha leaps over the volcanic boulders we'd agreed five minutes earlier to avoid. I follow. Sherry heads the opposite direction. Style points go the way of Franco-American relations.
In the final stage, a giant slalom pours into a blind rollover that makes my colon feel like it's wrapping itself around my stomach. The other side brings easily shredded gates. The GS, and the whole Grand Challenge, culminate at a towering, inflatable pasta box, which marks the finish line.
Team Skiing winds up in 95th place. Later, for reasons explained only in French and never fully understood by us, we're called to the stage to accept an award, perhaps for Most Hammered Americans.
Could the Grand Challenge become competitive skiing's Next Big Thing? Sure. While ennui racks the World Cup, and alternative events such as the Winter X Games turn their fruit-fly-short attention spans to stuff like snowmobile-cross, the 2004 Grand Challenge sold out, attracting more than 700 racers.
Mermoud says he hopes to grow the Grand Challenge concept, holding events throughout Europe and even in North America. I point out a few obstacles: The United States can't match France's thirst for ski competition. Our nation grows lawyers under every rock. And the U.S. now considers Jerry Falwell and Nancy
"Just Say No" Reagan moderates-meaning that wine-aid-stations may not be allowed unless endorsed by Bob Jones University.
"OK," Mermoud says, "Maybe we start with Canada...it's easier."