The Face of Fear

A head-bashing, life-threatening, five g-force tear down a mountainside. Fun?

  • Warning: The Comet Bobsled reaches speeds of 80 miles per hour and passengers experiences forces up to 5 Gs.
  • We strongly discourage anyone with chronic neck problems, back or kidney problems, heart problems, recent surgery, and/or high blood pressure from riding the Comet Bobsled.
  • Anyone questioning their health status or experiencing hesitations should not ride the Comet Bobsled.
  • Please note that there is a possibility of injury whether the above listed conditions and symptoms apply to you or not.
  • If you are pregnant you may not ride the Comet Bobsled.

I was pretty sure I wasn’t pregnant. But as I held the pen poised over the signature line of the Comet Bobsled waiver form, I couldn’t help but think of the Wal-Mart blood pressure machine’s warning from a couple of weeks before, when it had suggested I should see a doctor at my earliest convenience. Before I could think about it any longer, I scrawled my signature across the line. After all, my wife, Laura, had already signed hers. I couldn’t back out now.

A few minutes later, as we headed up the mountain road to the top of the bobsled run, I wished I had. From the side window of the shuttle car, I saw the run in all its steep, twisted, terrifying splendor spread out before me against the side of the mountain. Only one thought passed through my mind, repeating over and over again: What the hell I am doing?

Photo by Flickr user thomas pixMy wife and I were in Salt Lake City to see our friends, Kent and Beth. As a change of pace from the week of Euro board-gaming we’d all been engaged in, Beth suggested we visit the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. At the conclusion of the Olympic Games, part of Salt Lake City’s Olympic Legacy Park was transformed into an amusement park of sorts. There were zip lines, ski jumps, and an alpine slide. And then there was the Comet Bobsled, an actual professional bobsled run, redesigned for a single driver to take passengers down the same course that Olympians used in the 2002 Winter Games. The bobsled was fast, the run brutally difficult, and the whole experience apparently dangerous enough to warrant a waiver.

Kent was very interested in the waiver form. He’d just passed his bar exam and was way too excited about trying out his newly-sanctioned lawyer skills. After I’d turned my waiver in, he studied another copy of the form. “This is a good waiver,” he said, when he finished. “I don’t see any loopholes at all. If any of us die while on the bobsled, there’s nothing we could do about it.”

“Because we’d be dead?” I wondered.

“Well, that too,” Kent admitted. “But I was referring to the legal options of your surviving heirs.”

“Thanks, Kent,” I said. “It’s too late for that, though. I already turned the silly thing in.”

“You don’t have to go,” Kent said. “I’m not. The bobsled can only take up to three passengers anyway. I’m going to stay behind and watch the kids. You can watch them with me! It’ll be fun!”

More fun than the actual bobsled, I thought to myself, at the top of the mountain. The run lay below me, looking even steeper and more suicidal than it had from the bottom. The question kept on pounding: What the hell am I doing?! Extreme sports like this were not my idea of a good time. The strategic placement and maneuvering of wooden pieces on an abstract boardthat was my idea of a good time.

But now everyone was waiting on me, so I put aside my second thoughts and picked out a helmet. They sat on several shelves, arranged by size. The bottom shelf was reserved for a collection of cracked, broken, and smashed helmets. I didn’t want to think about how they got into that condition.

I forced my head into the snuggest helmet I could find and approached the Comet Bobsled. It was white, and the dark scuff marks on its battered body stood out like violent gashes. I’d heard somewhere that the seat farthest back in a bobsled made for the roughest ride, so I suggested Beth take that one since this whole adventure was her twisted idea. I volunteered to sit directly behind the ride’s driver and hoped letting Laura have the more “exciting” seat behind me looked like a gallant gesture. I cursed Kent under my breath for thinking of being gallant by watching the kids before I could.

Before I could distract myself any further, the sled took off! Slowly at first, easing over the starting line, sliding gradually down the initial incline. Oh, hey, this isn’t so bad, I thought as we approached the first turn of the run. It’s just like going down a gentle hill on a sled after a new snow.

But after the first turn the course steepened and we started to pick up speed. We rounded a curve and I clutched the bobsled’s handled straps just to keep upright. We rounded another curve, throwing me to the side. The sled picked up more speed, them more, more and more, until it felt like we weren’t in a sled at all — as though we were plummeting straight down through open air. I clamped my hands tighter around the straps, my knuckles turning desperately white.

Faster we flew. Faster, faster, faster, and faster! I wondered if the driver had any control over this thing at all. Our momentum built and built as the acceleration pulled me backwards into my wife. Then more turns. The bobsled took each one with such force that my helmet crashed into the steel side of the seat, first to the left, then to the right, left and right again. My head felt like a tennis ball in a match between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams; my brain pounded as though both of them were shrieking right into in my ears.

I remembered the bobsled crew at the top of the run telling us the whole experience lasted about a minute. It felt like 10 had passed already. I ticked seconds off in my head, and every new one surprised me as I wondered if this Ride from Hell would ever end. And still our speed increased! My vision became blurry around the edges. I no longer had the strength to fight the acceleration and lift my head to see where we were going. I opened my mouth to scream like a little girl but no sound emerged. I screamed like a mute little girl instead.

Suddenly, the bobsled stopped. My mouth was still open, and I realized there was a sound coming out of it after all — a soft, barely audible, weak and whining whimper. With the greatest of efforts, I closed my mouth and stood up. On shaky legs, I staggered over to the nearest wall and leaned against it for support. The women didn’t seem to find anything amiss at all.

Beth’s eyes were bright and shining and her breath came quick in excited exhalations. “Wow! That was really something!” she cried.

My voice came out as a squeak and I quickly adjusted it so it sounded like a manly squeak instead. “Yeah, something,” I agreed.

Laura ran a hand along the body of the sled and chuckled wryly. “I’m not sure if that’s something I would ever do again, but I’m glad I did it once so I can say I did.”

That, I couldn’t agree with. Leaning against the wall, my eyes closed, trying unsuccessfully to breathe deeply and evenly, I thought it would be the most wonderful thing in the world if I could go through the rest of my life not telling anyone I’d ridden a bobsled.

The driver motioned us over to the sled for a souvenir photo. Gamely, I held my helmet under my arm and tried to conjure up something resembling the merest hint of a smile. But I think I conjured up something else instead. The photographer promised to develop our photo later that day and post it at the park’s online bobsledder gallery, where we could buy copies of our pictures and where potential customers could see how much fun they’d have if they rode the bobsled like we did.

But the photo never appeared. Laura checked that website every day for weeks, and it never appeared amongst the other snapshots of thrilled riders standing in front of the Comet Bobsled. After awhile, she speculated our picture must have been accidentally deleted or something.

I knew better. Our picture was deleted on purpose. My face — the face of fear — was not good for business.

Article © 2013 by Bryce Journey