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The world stops. It’s only for the merest fraction of a heartbeat, some minor multiple of a nanosecond, but there comes a moment in every monster wipeout when it seems as if time and natural law have been suspended. (Animator Chuck Jones knew this. Wile E. Coyote, you’ll notice, always hovers motionless for a beat before disappearing into a dot on the canyon floor.) What hangs for a moment, hovering in midair, will very shortly and quite inexorably plummet back to earth. There’s plenty of time to realize that you’re at the epicenter of an uncontrolled event, the outcome of which is very much in doubt.
That’s the fragile beauty of the wipeout. In that silent, elongated moment before impact, you can’t predict how it’ll turn out. You might slide a thousand feet over hill and dale and then bounce up, a bit woozy but more or less ready to have another go. Or you might merely slump to one side, like a stack of books falling over, an insignificant loss of balance that doesn’t deserve to be at the same party with a true, epic wipeout-the kind where you wake up much later with bright lights in your eyes and IV tubes taped to your arm. You never know.
It’s this inherent, brush-with-death aspect that puts great wipeouts into the permanently-etched-in-memory file. As different as fingerprints in their details, really great crashes all share several powerful attributes: terror and helplessness on the part of the victims, awe and amazement among witnesses, and enduring intrigue for the rest of us, who are reduced to hearing about them third-hand over beers in the lodge.
So let’s open the file. For sheer volume of viewership, it would be hard to top Austrian superstud Hermann Maier’s sideways somersault in the Olympic downhill at Nagano, Japan, in 1998. He was in flight for so long, arctic terns envied his endurance. When things started to unravel, several dozen yards off course, veteran race officials on the sidelines thought they were about to host an emergency helicopter evac. Then Maier got up-and won a gold medal on almost the same course a couple of days later. Just another day at the office.
Few of us can even imagine skiing as fast-or as courageously-as Hermann Maier. But many of us have experienced wipeouts that are every bit as extraordinary. I certainly have.
It’s the spring of 1976, mogul qualifications for the Chicken of the Sea Freestyle Classic at Keystone, Colo. I am eager. I am also nearly blind, sporting glasses so thick I’m not allowed in natural forests lest a stray sunbeam flash through a lens and set an ancient sequoia stand on fire. Not that I’m using that as an excuse. No, my defense is youthful exuberance and the fact that competition officials allow two shots at qualifying, making the second run something of an exhibition.
I more or less straight-line the top mogul field, approaching the speed at which Gore-Tex melts. As I near the second, steeper mogul section, my glasses bouncing off the bridge of my nose in a frenetic Latin rhythm, I aim for the biggest launch pad in sight, a mogul the size of a buried orca, and hit it as hard as I can.
Airborne! My first hint that all is not going as planned is the special perspective I have of the Continental Divide, viewed through my splayed feet while in a supine position, at an airspeed that usually requires filing a flight plan. No amount of training could have prepared me for what happens next. I land on my back in a trough between moguls, spewing glasses, goggles, hat, gloves and poles in separate directions in a supernova of accessories. Then I shoot off the face of the bump (still on my backside, skis in the air), throw a full, involuntary flip and land in another trough some 50 feet further downhill, again on my spine. I toss in a bonus 270-degree aerial, somehow twisting around so that I finally land on my feet, with both skis on (they haven’t touched snow since liftoff), facing downhill. I suddenly find myself at the finish linne, upright and alive, having “skied” an entire mogul field without once touching it with my skis. I ranked high on the list of fan favorites and dead last among the judges, who feared any positive reinforcement would only encourage further mayhem.
On the plus side, good wipeouts are unfailingly instructive-powerful behavior-modification tools more effective than a crate-load of videos. For instance, the admonition not to sit back in powder takes on new meaning after you’ve spun like a starfish down a double-diamond chute. That’s one mistake you’ll never make twice. Ditto any of skiing’s hallowed foibles, from crossing your ski tips to over-weighting the uphill ski. Do them once to magnificent, negative effect and you’ll do everything in your power to avoid them in all future endeavors.
As invigorating as they are to endure, wipeouts are very nearly as cathartic and educational to observe at close range. Another vignette: My buddy Woodsie and I are tucking, neck and neck, down the west side of Copper Mountain, Colo. The terrain is nearly flat, the radarscope is clear. As we approach the nexus of trails near the base area, I pull up to a canter, but Woodsie presses on, despite the sudden appearance of a ski-school flock of snowplowing children, traversing a gentle road. Swerving to avoid 72-point newspaper headlines the next morning, Woodsie hits the road sideways. What ensues is best described as a horizontal tornado, a churning funnel of snow from which exits, at periodic intervals, a pole, a ski, a glove, an indecipherable chunk of matter. I glide alongside the carnage like a U.N. observer, recording the damage but not nterfering. At the far end of the funnel, Woodsie emerges, visible for the first time since clearing the road, not only unscathed, but walking. He’d shed nearly everything he owned in a Cuisinart of chaos and walked (well, maybe staggered) out the other end as if nothing could be more natural.
That’s the thing with wipeouts. You can never tell. Whether you’re in the eye of the hurricane or close enough to feel the impact, you experience a heart-in-the-throat moment when life hangs in the balance. You want to seize control of the hurtling vessel that is your one-and-only body, but when you grasp for the wheel it’s a phantom. And that’s when you know. The next few moments will be perhaps brutal, perhaps elegant, crowned with victory or submerged in ignominy, but one thing is for sure: They will be memorable.
Click the slideshow below to view some hair-raising wipeouts.