10 Most Extreme Downhill Sports and Where to Try Them
Fit and ready for anything? Push yourself to the limit with 10 of the most extreme downhill sports and learn where to practice them
1. Ski jumping:
The sport is deceptively simple, but terrifying to practice: ski jumpers ride down a tall ramp and leap off the end before soaring several hundred feet in the air and landing upright down below. Combining the surge of aerial flying with the thrill of slamming into the earth, ski jumping is the ultimate feeling of “big air.” The sport is so deadly and dangerous that Olympic-level ski jumps are usually only attempted by those who have trained for them since childhood. For those newcomers looking to take up the sport now, they should give it a try but would be well-advised to not aim too high, too early.
One of the best ways to start ski jumping is to take public lessons offered at one of several public ski jumping facilities in North America and Europe. In Canada, try the Callaghan Valley/Whistler Olympic Park in Whistler, British Columbia or the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alberta. In the United States, try the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah, the Lake Placid Olympic Jumping Complex in Lake Placid, New York, or the Howelsen Hill Ski Area in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. In Europe, try the Felix Gottwald Ski Jumping Stadium in Saalfelden, Austria.
Imagine riding flat on your stomach at top speed without brakes down a tube of ice as your face rests only inches off the surface and your body only inches from the wall, with a crash prevented only by precise shifts of your body weight…welcome to the heart-racing sport of skeleton. Athletes lie face-first on a tiny 3-4 foot sled atop two metal blades as they plummet downhill at over 80 miles-per-hour along a narrow, winding tube of ice with nothing but a few fidgets of their muscles and a drag of two spikes on the tips of their shoes to fend off crashes. And that’s without mentioning that the 5-g forces riders experience are stronger than on the world’s fastest rollercoaster. Just watching skeleton is heart-pounding enough; actually participating feels death-defying on a whole new level.
Tracks for trying out skeleton can be found in North America at the Whistler Sliding Centre in Whistler, British Columbia, the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alberta, the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah, and the Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, New York. In Europe, try the Eugenio Monti track in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, the Olympic Sliding Centre at OlympiaWorld in Innsbruck, Austria, and the Lillehammer Olimpiapark in Lillehammer, Norway.
At first glance, riding the luge seems safer than skeleton, but luge is in fact the deadliest Winter Olympic event, with two athletes killed during Olympic competition, and it ties with cycling as the deadliest Olympic event overall. In the luge, athletes lie flat on their backs and feet-first atop a blade-bottomed sled connected to a set of narrow paddles which riders press against with their feet to navigate down the icy tracks. The real danger of luge lies in its extreme speed–reaching over 90 miles-per-hour–and the almost-totally obstructed view which riders must reckon with. That speed and difficulty can be addicting, though, a fact attested to by the ever-growing popularity of luge around the world.
To try out luge for yourself, visit any of the skeleton tracks listed above, as well as the Veltins EisArena in Winterberg, Germany.
Despite its being most famous from the entertaining story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team and the team’s portrayal in the 1993 comedy Cool Runnings, bobsled is no laughing matter. Bobsleds (or Bobsleigh) race down icy tracks at speeds approaching 100 miles-per-hour while their four-man crews cram together inside of 8-12 foot, missile-shaped capsules in this fastest Olympic sport. Bobsled runs require split-second reflexes and intense teamwork to avoid high-speed crashes as they navigate around turns, with the added challenge of most team-members being completely unable to see what is in front of them. And on top of that, bobsleds themselves weigh nearly 500 pounds and must be pushed down the ice at roughly 25 miles-per-hour even before the crew jumps in. It’s a sport that truly “takes your breath away” in every sense of the term.
There are dozens of tracks around the world to try bobsled, including all of those listed above, but two of the more unique facilities are the original first bobsled run in the world, the still-operating St. Moritz-Celeberina Olympic Bobrun in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and the only bobsled run in Asia, the Spiral in Nagano, Japan.
5. Downhill ice cross:
The new, thrilling sport of downhill ice cross requires athletes to draw on skills from over a dozen different sports and to brave endless collisions with the ice and other skaters. Skaters race downhill head-to-head on walled, winding tracks of ice containing countless jumps, ramps, hills, straightaways and hairpin turns to trip up skaters all the way to the finish. Races not only involve sending skaters swerving into the ice, walls and each other, but also require intense strategy in order to react to the course’s many obstacles in real time while maintaining top speed. Due to downhill ice cross’s demanding and diverse skill-set, top competitors have come from sports as diverse as hockey, mountain biking, waterskiing and surfing.
The Rider’s Cup global tournament is a great way for beginners to try downhill ice cross, with amateur events taking place annually in Wagrain-Kleinarl, Austria; Marseille, France; Laajis and Rautalampi, Finland; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Moscow, Russia; and La Sarre, Bathurst, and Ottowa, Canada.
6. Downhill longboarding:
What downhill longboarding lacks in raw speed, with competitors usually only hitting about 65 miles-per-hour between turns, the sport makes up for in the sheer precariousness of having nothing to hold onto as athletes crouch atop a small wooden plank zooming at highway speed without brakes down winding mountain roads. Given that longboarding and skateboarding were originally developed by Hawaiians seeking to imitate the blood-pumping rush of big-wave surfing on land, downhill longboarding seems to have captured exactly what those innovators were looking for.
Those looking to start downhill longboarding can beginning practicing at low speed on any empty hill or mountain road, but for real competition they’d be wise to check out the International Downhill Federation’s World Cup, an annual global tournament with races taking place from February to September across thirteen countries on five continents.
7. Downhill mountain biking:
While most racing sports require clearing a path for athletes to race on, downhill mountain bikers seek out nature’s obstacles and race directly over them. Top competitors travel at relatively high speed (20-30 miles-per-hour) while navigating over countless rocks, roots, branches, bushes, cracks and creeks. Riders also battle heat, dehydration, fatigue, and soreness as they shudder over the bone-rattling, uneven ground. Truly excelling in downhill mountain biking is definitely a case of mind over matter.
Downhill mountain biking facilities are mostly found in North America and Europe, with the most popular locations being the Alps (including “Planai” in Schladming, Austria, “Megavalanche” in Alpe D’Huez, France, “Sanremo” in Italy, and “Champery” and “Portes de Soleil” in Switzerland), Scandinavia (including Hafjell, Norway and Are Bike Park in Sweden), the U.S. and Canadian Rockies (including the challenging “94 Downhill” and SolVista Bike Park, both in Colorado, and Whistler Mountain Bike Park in Whistler, Canada), and throughout California and the U.S. Northeast (including the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California and the U.S. Open of Mountain Biking at Mountain Creek Bike Park in Vernon, New Jersey).
8. Freestyle aerial skiing:
The beautiful and death-defying sport of freestyle aerial skiing requires skiers to launch over 60 feet into the air at high speed from snow-packed ramps in order to perform dramatic aerial flips and twists in precise sequence before landing again in perfect form. The sport is so dangerous and demanding that athletes don’t even attempt new tricks until they’ve mastered them over months of practice on trampolines and in pools. Yet the challenges of freestyle skiing are not just limited to impressing judges with dramatic tricks: every moment from the take-off to the landing is also judged and timed, with even the smallest wobbles capable of eliminating athletes from final competition. And that is all without mentioning the rail and half-pipe tricks that many freestyle skiers perform as well. For perfectionists who dream of laughing death in the face during an upside-down down aerial trick, freestyle aerial skiing is an exciting place to start.
Beginners can take courses in freestyle aerial skiing at Woodward, a freestyle ski training center in Copper Mountain, Colorado.
For those skiers ready to completely leave gravity behind, paraskiing offers the ultimate release. Skiers strap on a parachute, glide downhill until the parachute catches the wind, and then fly from one run to the next. Skiers also have the added option of performing some great parachute tricks along the way. But flying is never something to take lightly and only experienced parachutists should attempt this sport.
Learning speed-riding, which also involves skiing with a parachute but remaining mostly on the ground, is a great introduction to paraskiing. Les Arcs Speed Riding School in Les Arcs, France is a well-known facility for beginners.
10. Extreme sledding:
One of the world’s youngest and smallest slope sports is the new, fast-growing sport of extreme sledding. Originating in the Northeastern United States and promoted by several stunt sled manufacturers in that region, extreme sledding is a downhill sport in which athletes ride specialized sleds (ranging from inflatables and kneeboards to tricycle or quad-style, ski-bottomed seats) in order to perform aerial tricks and make rapid turns while lying, kneeling or sitting on a sled surface. As simple as it sounds, the sport requires significant knowledge of snow surfaces and matching the proper sled and sledding style to the proper conditions. And obviously, it also involves a lot of walking uphill, as most ski resorts still do not allow sleds on their chairlifts.
To explore extreme sledding, consider traveling to Vermont and checking out the nation’s most famous extreme sled run: the Lincoln Gap road, a winding mountain highway that remains unplowed during the winter due to its extreme twists and turns, and which thus provides the perfect venue for extreme sledders.
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