Sixty years ago, in February 1952, when (as LIFE magazine put it) “a gay and gaudy invasion” of athletes descended on Norway’s capital, Oslo, to take part in the sixth Olympic Winter Games, “a select band of winter warriors paused there only long enough to catch their breath and another train.”
Leaving behind the main force of 1,200 athletes, this small group pushed on north to a sterner battleground. These were the true daredevils of winter sport — the downhill ski racers. Their destination, 62 miles from Oslo, was Mount Norefjell, a snow-capped peak whose terrain is considered rugged enough for the most hazardous of all Olympic events. No sport on earth matches in danger the downhill race: the course at Norefjell drops a breathtaking 2,400 feet in a mile and half.
Among the men en route there this week, with less chance of winning a race than of losing a limb, was the underdog eight-man American team. All in their 20s and pink-faced from weeks of outdoor training, they included three college boys from New England, a lumberjack from the Pacific northwest, a ski-tow mechanic, a yeoman 2/c on leave from the U.S. Navy, an Air Force private and one fellow who had no other occupation than skiing for the fun of it. With them in the role of keeper was one middle-aged Frenchman named Emile Allais, their trainer and technical adviser.
Norefjell looks no more formidable than a dozen other mountains they have conquered: it is no tougher than the “rock garden” at Sun Valley — or skiing down the side of the Empire State Building.
LIFE was right, in the end, in its estimation of the team’s chances in Norway — or rather, LIFE was right about the men’s chances. No one on the American men’s ski team medaled in 1952. But a young native Vermonter on the women’s squad, 19-year-old Andrea Mead Lawrence (a future National Ski Hall of Fame inductee), made up for the dearth of laurels on the male side, winning gold in both the Slalom and Giant Slalom.
Here, LIFE.com presents photos of the men’s squad as they trained for the ’52 Oslo games — pictures that capture the rigor and the beauty of, as LIFE put it, “the most hazardous of all Olympic events.”
Cover image: French Olympic skier Henri Oreiller, photographed by Mark Kauffman/Time & Life Pictures