Ski Jumping – in the slip stream of legends

By Gordy Skoog - March 17th, 2008

Standing on the lofty wooden scaffold trying to calm my nerves, I stared down the parallel track that ran straight as an arrow like railroad rails off into oblivion. With little conviction, I called "OK" down to the knoll. Back came the response, "Clear", which was received with mixed response. My heart leapt as my spirit said "Go", but my reason said, "What are you doing, this is crazy".

Leavenworth, WA. reconfigured D hill
The take off is everything for going far
Michael the bird  flys in Leavenworth style
I shuffled forward, and instantly was sucked into an acceleration vortex, chest on the knees, head down, eyes maintaining focus on the end of the known world…the "take off" where the rails abruptly stopped. With a quick snap from the knees I launched, arms tucked back pressing my torso forward toward my ski tips searching for an air pillow of lift. It wasn't a big jump by modern standards, but to me it lasted a life time, and once in flight it was total bliss. Putting on the brakes I made a quick 180 turn, heading back to the up lift for another crack. How much was enough? It was never enough. Watch the video.

It wasn’t until 1924, when Hannes Schneider unveiled to the skiing world the Alberg technique, that the art of the turn became a cultural phenomenon that changed the face or skiing forever. Prior to that time, from its' 1860's Norwegian roots, when one talked about skiing they meant Ski Jumping. It's hard to imagine what possessed the minds of the first flying forefathers as their object was simple; hurtle yourself head long down an "in run" on wide/long boards (270cm, 9 ft.) up to 60 miles/hr and hit a take-off ramp "the jump" in an attempt to go as far as possible. Gold Medal winner Toralf Engan once described it this way, "When I jump I feel like a bird. Birds aren't afraid to fly. Why should I be?" "Until I touch down, I could just as well close my eyes." As those jumping passions took root, and were spread to North America by enthusiastic Scandinavian apostles, regional club ski hills (which were the life blood of early skiing) sprung up across the landscape to carry the torch.

Tucked against the hills, within walking distance of Leavenworth, Washington the local Winter Sports Club is a slice of those up-sprung days gone by. It's here, along with an eclectic cast of newbie's, that I've come in search of skiing's Holy Grail.

Local boy lets 'em fly with 1940's bullet technique
Wing flapping searches for balance rather than lift and distance
Nancy is totally engrossed in the thrill of flying on first jump
Art Devlin North American Jumping Icon fly's the Leavenworth Big Hill
Lane and Jamie jib jab for braging rights
Tiny Tots take to the air, the youngest in the competition
In run scaffold sends 'em to their fate
Lane Wilkinson begins to press into his ski tips for lift
Watching is half the fun, you never know what's going to happen
Leavenworth Jumping - in the slip stream of legends
The LWSC hill is the perfect time capsule, virtually unchanged from the 50's. Once the biggest jump hill in the country, North American Distance Records where once set here by ski legend Alf Engen (246 ft.) and 1964 Gold Medalist Toralf Engan (324 ft), and where even local boy, Ron Steele, won the Nationals in 1974. As would become the trend throughout the country, the shadows of those Scandinavian sons faded in '75 when the jumps closed in the wake of the National obsession with Mega Destination Resorts. The LWSC spirit flickered, but managed to duct tape the ski hill together on a flourish of cross-country skiing interest, and by turning its two rope tows into servicing rough-cut terrain parks.

As with all passions it takes a spark to ignite them. Kjell Bakke, whose father and uncle established the original LWSC ski hill, recently returned to Leavenworth after a life with the Forest Service, and immediately got to reminiscing about the original days of skiing. With Bakes' guidance LWSC reconfiguring its small 'D' hill, throwing the door open to our hap hazard gathering of air seeking leaping gnomes. On this warm mid-February day participant's young and old (5 – 55 year olds) materialized like ghosts of their skiing past on a sojourn to spread their wings. Like Engan, the ever present desire was to uncover that bird like feeling of flight. The equipment was a ski swap array of optional two planks and helmets. From tele, to alpine straight and carve, to traditional jump boards the grins came out during the many attempts to manage ones gear, while executing a sack full of damage control. It was all about mimicking the style of our skiing forefathers. For those who dared, and it was hard not to, the jumping was something like walking on water—the first step was the hardest. The view from the top got the attention of even the most courageous as the starting "in-run" fell away at an abrupt 35 degrees. It was the lock and load commitment that sent moments of panic through the synapses. Once launched, there was no turning back, no exit. You knew you were going off one way or another, while trying to cast off visions of a classic Wide World of Sports agony of defeat. A wobbly takeoff, a sudden updraft, a slight miscalculation could mean uncertain results, as it was easy to forget that the geometric shape of the hill remedied all of that. Once airborne, however, it was a frozen moment in time that seemed to last forever. The instant emersion in space that projected a sense of floating, calm, and peace was so addictive that all the participants immediately returned to face their demons again and again.

The young were naturals without fear, finding the flexible chest down – arms back in-run position easy to achieve. Upon take off, results varied. Nancy, a local Nordic XC coach, found it challenging to wrestle control of her tele set up, as she made her first ever attempts. Eric, an original world class Hot Dogger, discovered a longer learning runway than imagined, but quickly pronounced, "this was a kick in the pants, I'll be back". Lane, one of the few possessing modern jump equipment complete with aerodynamic suit, showed everyone how it was done, only to be matched in distance by Jamie on fast alpine boards and ever youthful springs for legs. As in the hey day, when Egan was King of the Hill, we all took turns imagining we were Toralf…."he is on his way, whistling down the slide, tucking his body into a ball to get more speed. Soaring high above the hill, arms pressed tightly along his sides, body tilted forward until his nose is inches from the tips of his skis, Engan has perfect balance".

More about LWSC Jumping.


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