Chris McGrath: The ragged edge between death and glory

The Last Word

Hurtling between the craggy jaws of the Hundschopf, suddenly they are spat into the void, the valley spreading below.

It is a fleeting window on to oblivion. And then they clatter back on to the ice, only to chart a fresh dimension of eternity. To the men who today measure themselves against the Lauberhorn, it seems as though the finishing line will never come – such a purgatory, of body and soul, that even a crash might deceive you with the quality of mercy.

A deadly illusion, of course. For the longest and fastest downhill race – and, in tandem with the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbühel next weekend, the first leg of its most revered challenge – links a series of harrowing bequests. From the Hundschopf, they slam into the Minschkante, where Josef Minsch began a hospital stay of several weeks in 1965. Then comes Canadian Corner, where the Crazy Canucks, Read and Irwin, paid for their bravado in 1976. The Kernen-S chicane evokes Bruno Kernen's smash in 2006. After a section that barely qualifies as goat-track, they dash through the famous tunnel, under the railway; and eventually into the Osterreicherloch, "the Austrian Hole", which recalls the carnage that consumed so many compatriots in 1954. And then, finally, the plunge into the Ziel-S. Das Ziel. It denotes a goal, target, purpose – and, in this instance, a last challenge too laden with grief and fear for any of the braggadocio implied in the higher landmarks.

After two and a half miles, these closing twists and bounces make brutal new demands of blazing thighs and joints. During a training run in 1991, a 21-year-old Austrian, Gernot Reinstadler, could not make the turn and caught a ski in the netting. He was all but torn in two, and died that night. The race was cancelled, leaving his peers once again to ponder the paradoxes of their calling.

They hunger to join those past giants anointed by success on the Lauberhorn. Toni Sailer and Karl Schranz both won four times apiece. Between 1975 and 1977, incredibly, Franz Klammer was unbeaten both here and at Kitzbühel. But they must also adhere, however tenuously, to the margin between courage and folly. No less than in the tilt of their skis, they must stay precisely on the edge of their capacity. If they fall shy of that limit, they will not win; if they exceed it, they will not win. It's what a former racer, Chad Fleischer, described as "that ragged edge, that threshold where you can either be paralysed, dead or a champion".

So they cannot simply be fearless, or crazy. They must be intimate with fear to excise the elements of panic, and tension, to achieve a perfect compromise between control and risk. There is literally no time to think. If you are making conscious decisions, it will all be happening too slowly. Too slowly to win, certainly; perhaps too slowly even to keep your feet. Yet you can scarcely be unthinking, when you must be clinical. That leaves the racer somewhere as rarefied, as mystical, as the void that lurks beyond every precipice – and, indeed, in every rockface.

The Lauberhorn remains largely unchanged since the inaugural race of 1930. The course was designed by Ernst Gertsch, a farmer's son who did not visit the low country until he was nine. Yet some of the pathfinders of these venerable classics were in fact British, as was much of the sport's original impetus.

The construction of the railway, originally for summer tourists to view the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, enabled British skiers to establish the "Downhill Only Club" – still an institution in the village of Wengen. The runner-up in the 1931 Lauberhorn was an RAF officer, Dick Waghorn, who had won the 1929 Schneider Trophy (setting an air speed record) in a seaplane prototype that would evolve into the Spitfire. Four months later he was killed, forced to abandon a test flight.

Moreover, the winner of the first Hahnenkamm combination (downhill and slalom) that same season was Gordon Cleaver, who went on to fly Hurricanes with the swanks of No 601 Squadron during the Battle Of Britain. Credited with seven kills, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His flying career ended when shot down in August 1940, his sight severely damaged by the shattered canopy. (Surgeons' discovery that Perspex shards had not been rejected by his eyes eventually led to the development of artificial corneal implants.)

Back in 14th place, incidentally, was Roger Bushell – renamed Bartlett, when played by Richard Attenborough in The Great Escape. Bushell will have known Cleaver by his nickname, "Mouse". If these were our mice, what must our men have been like?

Since those days, of course, opportunity from the cradle has exalted the indigenous Alpine skiers far beyond British reach. But their intuitions trace deep into the boreal ancestry of all northern lands. A paddle blade excavated in Yorkshire is now thought to be some kind of prehistoric ski-stick, dating to 8,000 BC. As such, it would be the oldest such relic. Other wooden fragments – discovered in a Russian peat bog, from around 6,000 BC – include a ski tip with a wedge, carved as an elk's head, to prevent back-sliding. This preceded the invention of the wheel by 3,500 years.

No wonder skiers speak of some strange, instinctual zone. It is not something easily discovered in the maddening inanities of certain commentators. Even on Eurosport, however, it is fantastic television. For all the ensuing hedonism, downhill is a hopeless spectator sport. Television, while flattening the pitch, actually takes us closer to the silence and solitude pierced and absorbed by these men, as they explore the perimeter between fragility and virility.

There are new names to watch for – not least Beat Feuz, a young Swiss phenomenon who careered joyously over the shortened downhill course in yesterday's combination. But there also remain such sage, seasoned skiers as his compatriot, Didier Cuche, at 37 a skier of massive, impassive calm. Since abandoning his butcher's block, Cuche could have had his own bones smashed daily, his own vitals pulped. But the knife-edge is second nature to a downhill racer. Get your angles slightly wrong for 10 yards and you drop 10 places. Be too cautious, the blade will prove blunt. Too reckless, however, and the snow will run red.