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The Most Beautiful Thing

The Most Beautiful Thing

Mountain Life
By Peter Shelton
posted: 01/15/2002

"I could take you, I could take anybody," Bergoust said with a perfectly straight face, "strap a couple of two-by-fours up the backs of your legs to keep you rigid, shove you off the right start point, and you'd come off that kicker, do two perfect back flips and land on your feet. It's simple physics."

That may be true on a jump sculpted for freestyle aerials. Or, I suppose, with any Newtonian endeavor. But the mind flails to imagine the forces at work on a body propelled off one of the big nordic jumps, jumps that will be mesmerizing features of this month's Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

First off, I have to get past the excruciating image of the Wide World of Sports' "agony of defeat" guy: off course on the in-run, tipping over, tumbling rag-doll off the lip and into infamy. Tuck that one behind you, and what would the ride be like-really?

Here's a description from David Bradley, Dartmouth '38, of the "Big Jump" in Hanover, N.H. "'Make it good,' you say to yourself as much as to the next jumper, and slide over the edge. Gravity hauls you down, incredible acceleration, a crescendo of roaring, the takeoff rushes up toward you. Every cell of your body is shouting: 'Hit it right, right at the lip, between the spruce boughs. Up and forward and out over your tips.'

Centrifugal force gladhands you into streaming air. The knoll flashes under, then the whole giddy panorama bursts open: the scarred hill, the upturned faces, the exact spot where you will land. Float. Float. Jolt! Catch your balance, strain to hold it through the dip, cheeks pulling down, colors going gray-then you're up and out and gliding to a stop, all the bells ringing."

That was on a 40-meter hill, meaning the longest safe jump would be measured at about 135 feet. Imagine the speed and the fall off the Olympic 90-meter (known as the normal hill) and 120-meter (large hill) ramps. The one is designed for flights of up to 300 feet, the other for an albatross-like 400 feet.

According to my neighbor, four-time U.S. Nordic Combined champion Pat Ahern, the in-run takes only three to four seconds. At the lip of the normal hill you're doing about 60 mph. On the large hill, probably 65. The make-or-break moment is the launch: "How you get from your crouch position to your flying position." That powerful spring up and into the void.

The flying part, what Bradley calls "the parabola of fall," doesn't actually take the jumper all that far above the ground. The landing hill shadows the curve of the jumper's sailing form. Ahern guesses he was never more than 12 to 15 feet above the snow surface.

A typical flight lasts no more than four or five seconds. The idea, of course, is to stretch this out, to enlarge the parabola by catching and surfing the air, to ride the cushion until the last possible split second. But do not take it too far. Every hill has a K-point, the critical point where the shape begins to flatten out. Land beyond the K-point and you have "outjumped the hill."

Last winter I went looking for Ecker Hill, the most fabled of Utah's early jumping venues, the one that put Utah on the skiing map. Back in the Twenties, skiing pretty much meant ski jumping. The general public didn't participate so much as spectate. Professional ski jumpers barnstormed cross-country through the decade of the Thirties. They'd attract huge crowds to places like L.A.'s Coliseum, where makeshift towers were packed with tons of shaved ice. Ecker Hill, up Parley's Canyon from Salt Lake City, was the best and largest jump in the world at the time. Norwegian Alf Engen, who would go on to father alpine ski areas at Alta and Snowbasin, set world distance records at Ecker Hill, culminating in 1934 with a hitherto unimagined leap of 296 feet. In 1937, Utahans first discussed the idea of hosting a Winter Games, with Ecker Hill at its center.

I wandered for a while, lost among the streets of the Pinebrook subdivision just off I-80 near the Jeremy Ranch exit. Park City's ski sslopes glistened in the distance, and less than two miles away the swooping concrete arcs of the new Olympic jumps filled a hillside at Bear Hollow.

At last, the barely discernable outline of Ecker Hill revealed itself where a high, treeless slope plunged into backyards at the subdivision edge. The natural in-run (there was no scaffold) had almost completely disappeared under scrub brush, but the very steep landing hill still showed its outline. A few ruined timbers halfway indicated a remnant takeoff and judges' stand. A new plaque at the base commemorates the hill's three decades of history and its one fatality.

To jump the distances they did, says U.S. team coach Matt Terwillegar, the old timers had to launch themselves much higher off the snow and consequently had to land much harder. Today's equipment and glider-like V-technique allow jumpers to fly farther "horizontally" with less height off the snow. Landing is much more controllable now with plastic, high-back boots. "Those old guys had to be such unbelievable athletes," Terwillegar muses admiringly.

I pictured Alf in his trademark pose way up in the sky, body erect and slightly jackknifed at the waist, arms out and forward as if to hug the rushing air.

"Everyone should jump," Alf liked to say, even to alpine skiers committed to hugging the ground. Balance in the air trains a body to balance on the snow, he'd say. For some of us, the advice comes too late. For the kids coming up, the Utah Olympic Park will provide an unprecedented training opportunity with graded jumps as small as 20 meters. And for inspiration, an image of Alf full-flight will hover above the entrance to the Alf Engen Ski Museum right there at the outrun.

The rest of us can dream, and watch what remains one of the most gripping events in any Olympiad. It must tap into our Icarus urge. Success appears so awesome, and failure so helplessly disastrous. This is way more than just physics. As David Bradley concluded, "Why do they come, the young, the old, with shining faces, lugging those heavy five-grooved skis? Because this is the most beautiful thing they have ever done, or are ever likely to do."

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. You can email him at PShelton@montrose.net, or check out his previous columns in the Mountain Chronicle archives to your right.

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