After departing Scandinave Spa, we went back to our apartment, ate lunch and changed into more appropriate clothing for our bobsleigh (aka bobsled) ride down the fastest track in the world at the Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC).
The Whistler Sliding Centre was home to the bobsleigh, skeleton and luge competitions during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic games and the track is open for a few months of the year to both the public and elite athletes. There are only 15 internationally sanctioned competition sliding tracks in the world and the track at Whistler is one of them. The track has a vertical drop of 152 m / 499 ft, making it the steepest in the world and is 1,650 m / 5,413 ft long, has 16 corners and has seven official starting points for men’s/women’s bobsleigh, skeleton and luge and juniors.
Fun fact: The women’s bobsleigh was introduced in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Fun fact: The skeleton was first contested at the 1928 Winter Olympics and again at the 1948 Winter Olympics, after which it was discontinued as an Olympic sport until the 2002 Winter Olympics where it was reintroduced as a men’s and women’s sport.
General speeds for elite athletes at the WSC:
- Bobsleigh: 150 kph / 93 mph, up to 5 G‐forces
- Luge: 145 kph / 90 mph, up to 5 G‐forces
- Skeleton: 140 kph / 87 mph, up to 5 G‐forces
Fun fact: Though the skeleton (head-first, face-down position) appears the most risky, it is actually the safest of the three disciplines. The luge is the least safe because the center of gravity is higher and therefore more at risk for flips.
As a member of the general public, you can tour the grounds (free), zoom down the track head-first on the skeleton ride ($169 CAD for two rides) or ride the bobsleigh down the track ($169 CAD for one ride). The track in Whistler is the only sliding track in North America to offer skeleton rides to the general public.
Fun fact: The organization running the sliding centre is non-profit and all proceeds go to professional athletes who train at the course such as Olympians.
There was no hesitation when Peter presented the bobsleigh idea to me a few months ago. I immediately responded with a “fuck yeah” and stated that we were going to buy the video footage and I was bragging to everyone I knew and did not know.
I was excited for this experience until we got to the sliding centre and then I became terrified.
In the photo above, there is a big white concrete-looking structure on the right-hand side. This is a cross-section of the track. The walls are 15 cm / 6 in thick reinforced concrete and contain 100 km / 62 mi of ammonia refrigeration piping (black dots seen in cross-section). The ammonia refrigeration creates a 2 to 5 cm (3/4 to 2 inch) layer of ice on the track and the ice on the track is maintained by hand 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
Fun fact: The colder the temperature, the faster the ice.
Peter wondered if we would be running and hopping into the sled and I was like, “Oh hell no. We are just idiot commoners with no training. There is no way they are going to allow us to run on ice and hop in a sled. That is moronic.”
There is absolutely no information online of what to wear for the bobsleigh ride but do not worry, I’m here to fill in those details for you. Peter wore his ski jacket, jeans and sneakers. I wore my ski jacket, ski pants, a hat, and sneakers. Both were perfectly acceptable wardrobes.
The main thing to consider is that you will be outside for about 45 minutes so wear warm clothing. If I were to do it over again, I’d forego my hat because it cannot be worn under the helmet (hats are stuffed inside your jacket before you are seated in the sled) and it wasn’t cold enough outside to warrant a hat.
Oh, one other thing, gloves/mittens are required.
We arrived about 15 minutes early to check-in and were greeted by a smiley lass named Emilee or Emilie or Emalee or another variation of the traditional Emily spelling. We filled out a front-and-back form, signed away our rights to sue and then hopped on the scale to weigh-in.
There were about 20 other people in our time slot and after everyone was checked/weighed-in, we were told that the computer would be working on sled assignments whilst we went through a short introductory course. We were also told that they do their best to assign people who know each other in the same sled, however, weight and height play a factor in the assignments so there’s a chance that groups could be split.
The introductory course
“Emily” asked us all to take a seat and then began the slideshow explaining the sled and track and describing the experience as a whole. There was an entire slide dedicated to reasons why you should not ride the track and the option to back out (with a full refund) was mentioned multiple times. Reasons why you should not ride the track included, but were not limited to:
- past back issues
- current back issues
- possible back issues
- back issues you may not even know you have
- back issues in another life
- herniated discs
- neck issues
- tailbone issues
- torn ligaments
Peter and I have both had our share of back issues over the past years. Peter has had two herniated discs and I’ve “thrown my back out” twice: Once when standing up from the toilet and once when sneezing in bed just after waking up. When the “reasons to back out slide” displayed, my stomach started to gurgle.
I decided to see what Peter thought before I made my final decision (to back out) so I asked him if he was nervous about his back and he said no and I thought, “Oh god. There is no way I can back out now.” I continued to smile and act like everything was cool but really I was terrified.
I turned my focus back to Emily who was explaining that the sled is the same as for elite athletes with the exception of two minor modifications:
- A thin cushion for our bums
- Metal ropes inside the sled for us to grasp on to
Fun fact: There was only one sled for the track. A group would ride the sled down the track and then it would get loaded into a Home Depot-style truck (with carved out 2×4’s as skate guards). It would then be driven up the hill to the starting position where it would be unloaded onto the track for the next group to board.
Emily did a great job at explaining what to expect during our ride which only terrified me further. Here are some of her talking points:
- The “first 10 seconds or so” will be gentle and feel more-or-less like a fast sled ride. We’ll be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and we’ll think, “This is fun! I want to do this again!”
- Shortly after the 10-second joyride, we’d notice a lot more speed.
- The turns would be aggressive so we needed to keep our bodies big with wide shoulders and strong backs, “like the Hulk”.
- We’d experience a second or two of 3-4 G’s which would feel like 3-4 times our body weight pushing down on our shoulders and body. She warned us not to “fight” the gravitational force and to stay strong and again mentioned having a strong back. I still do not understand what she meant by fighting the force. To stay strong is to fight the force because the force pushes you down.
- There is a chance of ping-ponging the sides of the sled in the lower section of the track.
- Expect top speeds of 123-125 kph / 74.2-77.7 mph.
- Expect to complete the course in 40-45 seconds.
The spectator experience
After the presentation, we were escorted to the lower portion of the track so that we could watch a few sleds fly by (and back out if we so decided). This is also the area where friends and family can watch you sled by on the final section of the track.
It wasn’t long before the announcer came over the speakers to introduce the people in the sled that was ready to depart. It was so Olympic-y! About 30 seconds after the announcement, we heard the sled barreling down the track and then it appeared out of nowhere.
Seriously so fast.
We watched two sleds fly by before our names were called and we boarded the van to ferry us to the starting point. It was in the van when I realized I had forgotten to take Dramamine.
Fun fact: Public bobsleigh rides takeoff from the lower athlete’s / women’s luge starting point on the track, allowing the general public to ride about two-thirds of the track. The reason why the rides do not takeoff from the upper athlete’s starting point is because us idiot commoners would not be able to handle the course aggression and gravitational force that comes with taking off from the upper starting point.
The starting point
Two minutes after loading into the van, we arrived at the starting point and were told that if we needed to release any “nervous liquid”, that now is our last chance (as the driver pointed to the biffy). The driver then directed us to the door of the warming house where we would receive our helmets and final instructions.
Helmets on and prepped for our ride, we stepped onto the platform and watched two sleds depart.
I felt like puking.
Then it was our turn. Peter and I were paired with a guy name Michael and a pilot named Ryan. Ryan smiled and tried to make us feel at ease but I was shaking. He said, “No worries. I’m the coach of the provincial bobsleigh team so I have a lot of experience”.
Ryan lined us up in height order and told us that we would be seated shortest to tallest so that “everyone would have the best chance of seeing the track” (ha!). The order went Ryan, Michael, me and finally, Peter. I was bear-hugging my new best friend, Michael, and Peter was so far away from me, I would not have known if he flew out of the back of the sled.
As soon as I was seated and had my feet positioned against the pegs, I grabbed the metal ropes on the inside of the sled with a deadly force and practiced my best Hulk impression. The motorcycle helmet was heavy and I was reminded of that time when we bobbleheaded through Tuscany. I remember life being more simple in those times when I was just a girl living in England with husband and a dog.
Once I came to the reality that I was sitting in a bobsleigh, I knew that my shoulders were not broad enough to brace against the sides of the sled and that I would likely experience the ping-ponging Emily had described to us a century ago.
Then the cow bells starting ringing. OH GOD. There was no turning back as two chaps pushed our sled down the track. OH GOD. OH MY GOD. OMG. O. M. G. FUCK.
My eyes were open and my head was up for the first 10 seconds. I could see the track if I tilted my head to either side which was easily accomplished during the 10-second joyride. I was having fun. I wondered why I was so terrified; we weren’t sliding that fast. I was no longer in danger of soiling my pants.
And then the joyride was over and it felt like our pilot (who was also the braker) put the pedal to the metal and we took off like a rocket. I wondered if the skates of the sled were still touching the ice. I wondered why the ride was so rough; isn’t ice supposed to be smooth like a hockey rink?
I knew that our ride was going to be about 40 seconds long, so I focused on counting but I never got past the number 2. (Our completion time was 41.43 seconds with a top speed of 124.7 kph / 77.5 mph.)
Almost immediately after our speed kicked into rocket speed, my head started banging into the back of Michael’s helmet. I asked Michael after the ride if he had noticed my head bashing into his and he said, “What? No.” My helmet smashed into his helmet half-a-dozen times and when it wasn’t smashing into Michael’s helmet, it was smashing into the sides of the sled. I told myself, “YOU ARE THE HULK!” but the reality was that my neck was not strong enough to hold my head upright.
Since I was not able to keep my head steady, I could not keep it tilted to see around Michael’s helmet to see the track and I decided to close my eyes. And as soon as I closed my eyes I thought, “No! Do not close your eyes! This is a sign of blacking out.” I then kept my eyes wide open but I don’t remember seeing anything except for Michael’s helmet.
About halfway down the track, I wondered how difficult it would be to clean puke out of the sled and if the staff would require me to help clean it. I hoped not and remembered that time at University when I puked on my friend Katie’s back at a party and I had flashbacks of that incident and wondered how upset Michael would be if I puked on his back. Would he never talk to me again? Would I care? The answers to both of those questions were no. I did not know Michael from our pilot, Ryan, except that my life is literally in the hands of Pilot Ryan.
Then the G-force hit. OH MY GOD. I reminded myself that Emily said the G-force would only last 1-2 seconds. I counted to the number one… ooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnneeeeeeeee. Have you any idea how long one second is? It is an eternity.
“Hulk it out, Camie”! I told myself.
The weight pressing down on my shoulders and back was incredible. I cannot imagine the G-force experienced by Olympians and astronauts.
After the G-force lifted, things got fucking rough. The tight turns. The sled knocking back and forth. The speed. Were we airborne? I did not know.
And just when I thought it was never going to end, I saw the black lettering of WHISTLER on the track and the next thing I knew, we were getting out of the sled. I do not remember approaching and arriving at the finish line nor do I recall the sled actually stopping.
When it was mine turn to get out of the sled, I was not sure I could do so without vomiting. I was incredibly dizzy. I was shaking like a leaf. I was not sure my legs would work but they did and they somehow transported me to the stage to take a [fake] smiling group photo. I only have faint memories of taking this photo.
Micheal stayed on stage to wait for his friend (who was in the next sled) and Peter and I walked into the audio-visual room and were shown a sample video of the ride. The sample video contained rear and front-facing footage and she asked if we would like to purchase our videos for $45 CAD and I said, “Yes” while swallowing my own puke.
She then said, “Oh, you’re shaking”! And all I could focus on was not puking. I spent the next two hours trying not to puke. Beer helped. As did sitting incredibly still.
We paid the lady and were told that I’d be emailed a link to download the video within 48 hours. The email arrived in my inbox the following day and Peter and I watched the video about six times.
Here’s that video:
The only problem with the video is that it is not our video. I noticed this after we returned to Seattle and I was in the process of editing the video (to remove the promotional introduction) and noticed that the jacket colors of the riders did not match our jacket colors.
I emailed the company and alerted them of the issue and explained how I knew it was not our video and I provided them with our group photo so they could see the jacket colors and ensure round 2 yielded the correct video. They said, “oops” and sent me a link to another video. The problem with the second video was that it was also not our video. I again alerted them of the issue.
The company responded and explained that, unfortunately, our rear-facing video (the most important of the two directions) had not survived the ride “due to the aggressive nature of the track and the cold weather” but that our front-facing video survived and that I could:
- opt for a full ($45) refund or
- receive the front-facing video along with a partial ($25) refund
Upset and not too keen on the options provided, I kindly requested a full refund plus the front-facing video. After all, I would never be able to prove that the front-facing video they wanted to charge us for was actually our video. They obliged so without further adieu, here’s “our” front-facing video.
I’m happy I followed through with the experience but I do not feel as though I need to ride in a bobsleigh ever again. My only regret is not taking Dramamine beforehand because that would have made “recovery” much easier. I recommend that if you have the opportunity to ride the bobsleigh down the track, go for it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and keep your fingers crossed (or for the British readers, “touch wood”) that your videos survive the ride.