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The little piece of paper in my hand reveals the number 633. Six trois trois. It’s been folded neatly four times. I stare at it outside the registration area and show it to a 60-ish man with gray hair who is as lean and fit as a thoroughbred. He smiles. “It’s a good place to start,” he says. “Un point de départ très bon.” Six hundred thirty-three. This means exactly 632 competitors will be in front of me, and nearly 400 will ski behind me.
Tomorrow’s race, Le Derby de la Meije, against more than 1,000 skiers, snowboarders, monoskiers, telemarkers—and the sketchy few using gear built in their own garages—goes down at France’s La Grave, the scariest ski resort I have ever seen. We will compete in heats of 10, staggered 90 seconds apart, a civilized way to race. The rest of the event, however, is unconventional. The start of this 6,890-vertical-foot dash to the valley floor is smooth, packed snow, but only for about 300 feet. Then it quickly becomes a bouillabaisse of rocks, moguls, cliffs, and glacial ice. Avalanches and icefall are common. But the route is my call: I can ski any line on the mountain. The first one to the bottom wins, regardless of equipment.
Simple. Only La Grave doesn’t have an easy way down. Since French ski mountaineer Sylvain Admirat first held the Derby on March 17, 1989 (attracting 63 participants), the mountain has averaged about one death per year.
I’ve heard that some participants race drunk. Afraid of a life-ending miscalculation en route, I choose to do my drinking the night before. The Derby, after all, is a four-day festival of skiing, parties, and unmitigated lunacy that may or may not involve French hip-hop. I find all of it at the Bar á Mouffle, which isn’t a bar per se. It’s what the English call a caravan, a dumpy metal camper normally towed behind a grumbling station wagon. But this is France. The caravan has been styled with a Gallic suaveness. A DJ booth, tiny lounge, and bar have been squeezed into the old RV, and a rowdy crowd smokes, drinks, and babbles in different languages. Sure enough, French rap booms through the speakers. I spot my European competition, all born skis-on-feet. Tomorrow they will be so full of Gitanes smoke and confidence that it’s hard to imagine beating even one of them to the bottom. There’s nothing to do but surrender prematurely, order another vin rouge, and continue massacring the French language to anyone who will listen.
The next morning, hundreds of competitors meet at the gondola to begin the journey to the start zone at the top of La Grave’s Girose Glacier. There are skiers in costumes, serious guys wearing game faces, and monoskiers in speed suits. I stuff myself into a gondola with five other fools and we head to the top. None of us speaks. The cabin is awash with fear.
The goal of the Derby is, of course, to be fast. But the terrain requires a certain level of caution. I spent the last two days scouting for a smooth line. Would it be faster to take a longer way down to avoid the moguls and rocks? Or is the direct route—a bone-rattling, fall-and-you’re-hospitalized line—the surest road to glory?
I’m still debating as I arrive at the start. Not good. Six trois trois. I wish those next to me good luck, and then the gun sounds. Almost immediately I’m at the back of my heat. I draft, tuck, and hang on, and pass the others during a long, flat section on the Girose. As I cross the flats and reach the steeps, my strategy crumbles.
I chatter across moguls, arms flailing. A rock rips the edge out of my ski; I nearly hit three people skiing inside some sort of group spaceship costume. Then I jump off a huge ice bulge that I’d planned to avoid. I find my knees up around my ears, and then, before I even realize where I am, I’m neck-and-neck with another competitor, tucking through the finish, legs burning, lungs gasping, and heart thumping. Total time from top to bottom? Eleven minutes, 26 seconds. Good enough for 275 out of 1,000.
At the finish, spectators and competitors lounge around in T-shirts and bikinis in the spring weather. A local foists steaming cups of mulled wine on everyone wearing a racer’s bib. I peel off my jacket, collapse on a sunny boulder, and watch. Nearly an hour later, racers are still coming down. When the spaceship crosses the line, it elicits huge applause.
I’ve known all along that the Derby is not about winning. The crowd’s reaction to the spaceship confirms it. But when Frenchman Nicolas Anthonioz comes through with the winning time of six minutes, two seconds, it suddenly becomes about taking two minutes off my time and cracking the top 100 next year.