Say ahhh

One alternative to ski trails is the spa table. Those in search of pampering may find it on the menu of treatments at the Hotel Park City's spa. (Grayson West / For The Times)

As the country's best-known film festival opens Thursday, one drama that already has generated considerable buzz will play out off-screen: Park City's love-hate relationship with Sundance.

Hotels and restaurants love the Sundance Film Festival, expected to draw more than 36,000 visitors to this town of 7,400. Crowds last year, two-thirds from out of state, spent $41.4 million on accommodations, meals and various tourist trappings during the 11-day festival.

But as much as hoteliers and restaurateurs love Sundance, the ski resorts hate it, for one simple reason: Few of the filmgoers ski. For every two Sundance visitors who buy a lift ticket, three do not, according to a survey from the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business. That translates into hundreds of nonskiers who fill precious hotel rooms and displace powder hounds. Partying, not skiing, is the premier sport.

Park City can keep visitors entertained with far more than screenings and soirees, as I discovered during a four-day visit in November. It has evolved into a recreational haven for nonskiers, a place where fine dining, scenic snowshoeing and spa-going can make one forget that world-class skiing is an option.

I came with the purpose of not skiing, of enjoying everything else the town has to offer, starting with the Utah Olympic Park.

Though the 2002 Winter Games' official host was Salt Lake City, about 35 miles northwest, the Olympic Park here held 14 events, including such arcane crowd pleasers as luge, skeleton and ski jumping. The venues for these sports are still open for touring and, more surprising, for visitors to experience firsthand the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

I never imagined I would find so many thrills and so much agony at the Olympic bobsled track, the marquee attraction. The bobsled — bobsleigh in official Olympic parlance — is so popular that the park charges $200 per person for a ride, and it still sells out many days.

When I first saw our bathtub-size sled, the Comet, I didn't think four people could fit. "Yup," an employee said, "there's room for one driver and three scared riders."

My fellow scared riders were Vicki Hayes of Ogden, Utah, and her friend Mark Thompson, who was visiting from Sacramento. Like me, both had signed up on a whim, driven by curiosity. Four-fifths of a mile, 402 feet of vertical drop, 15 turns — how scary could it be?

I detected no anxiety in Hayes or Thompson until we sat down for a short safety class, during which park staff emphasized three points:

No. 1: The gravitational force exerted on our bodies would whip our heads like rag dolls', so we should keep our shoulders pinned to our ears for support. This, the instructor said, would prevent us from breaking our necks.

No. 2: The Comet would hit 4Gs on some turns — four times the Earth's natural gravitational force, meaning a 200-pound body would carry the force of 800 pounds. It was paramount that we arch our backs and not let G-forces slide us forward. If we failed to do so, we might squish the driver and make him lose control.

No. 3: We would sit in a row, squeezed onto one another's laps, with each person's feet tucked under the calves of the rider in front. Because of the G-forces, if we accidentally pointed our feet up instead of down, we could break the legs of the rider in front.

"Oh," the class leader added, "and have fun."

Vicki, Mark and I shuffled outside, shook hands with Stephan Bosch, our professional driver, then crammed ourselves into the Comet. Forget G-forces. Before we left the starting gate, the bobsled and bodies pressing my hips already made me wish I had popped an analgesic.

The first few turns, though, erased my discomfort. Bosch shot us high up on curves, and we sailed perpendicular to the ground before sliding back down onto straightaways, building speed.

By Turn 5 the bobsled's blades were roaring on the ice. With the increased velocity, my body began to lose sense of the physics being applied to it. We would slam up into a turn and immediately crash down out of it, each successive curve more punishing than the last.

The ice became a blur. I shrugged my shoulders with all my might but couldn't stop my head from flailing. As the rear passenger, Mark had the roughest ride and also clearly had lost muscle control. His helmet smacked mine about every three seconds.

I no longer saw sun or sky or even upcoming curves. The G-forces were such that I could barely hold my head up. All I remember seeing was Vicki's black helmet in front of me, swinging to and fro like some demented bobblehead. The sled delivered one brutal blow after another — a Ford Pinto in a demolition derby full of big, bad Buick Rivieras. It was at once thrilling and painful and ridiculously entertaining.