Athletes hoping to take flight in this year’s Pine Mountain Ski Jumps have undergone months of training on and off the hill.
But, competitors aren’t the only ones going through painstaking measures to prepare for the world-class event.
A group of diehard volunteers has been working around the clock for weeks now to ensure all the high-flying action goes off without a hitch.
It takes a rare breed to climb hundreds of feet into the air, stare down the barrel of a death-defying ski run, and still have the courage to launch life and limb off a mountain at speeds upwards of 60 mph while thousands of people watch from below.
“No, no you don’t have a fear factor. Maybe on your first jump – your first jump, ever off of it – but after that you just have to concentrate on your jumping, Then, you just look down for the red line at the bottom of the hill. That’s where the money is,” laughed John Benzie, a former ski jumper and current member of the Kiwanis Ski Club.
John would know, he jumped off Pine Mountain for about 13 years, starting at the age of 15. Anyone who has dared to try can attest – it’s a tough sport to get out of your system.
“I started when I was two and a half, quit when I was 24, and started up again two years ago when I was 41,” said Tony Benzie, who competed at Suicide Hill as recently as Wednesday.
Even in the midst of training, John and Tony volunteer their time alongside a close-knit group of former jumpers; helping to get the hill they know and love ready for a new generation of FIS Continental Cup hopefuls.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Tony remarked. “It starts off right after Christmas with running water lines to start making man-made snow. There’s people that are spending 24 hours a day for seven days straight out here; making snow, moving lines, waking up every two hours in the middle of the night. It can be thirty below zero outside – it doesn’t matter.”
And they need to make a ton of snow to line the jump, 300 cubic yards in fact.
“Which is enough to do the jump three times. One might ask, “Why three times?” Well, I think, in 1996 we had six straight days of 60 degree weather and we needed to do it three times,” explained Chief of Competition and Kiwanis Ski Club member Eric Hiatt. “So, we have our 100 year storm reserve sitting up here. We hope we don’t need it, and we just have to push it over the edge. But, we’re prepared.”
Prepared to pack in an eight inch deep layer on the biggest active scaffold in North America and close to two feet deep on its table, all while hanging onto a loader that goes straight to the top.
“Just like pouring a sidewalk, two guys will go up with rakers and will strike it off with an aluminum strike off. We’ll apply 1,200 gallons of water to this and let it freeze tonight. Tomorrow, the same crews will be back out here with lasers on the track, and we’ll cut a track that’s to FIS specifications,” Hiatt added.
So, this year’s run is primped and proper. But, in order to keep the legacy in tact, a new wave of helping hands is needed. “Please come and help us,” pleaded Hiatt. “We’re continually trying to recruit folks. There’s a core group of 12 guys that are up here working pretty much every weekend. There’s a group of guys that are working most days of the week. They’re retired, and they’re getting a little older. But, they can still pull more than their weight – that’s for sure. For us to get another 75 years, we need an infusion of new talent into this.”
“It’s a volunteer club. Don’t get me wrong. Everybody that’s out here is a total volunteer. And to answer your question – yes, they are all former or club related members. They just cannot give up the place. I mean this is our life. If you go this coming week here for the competition, you’ll see. You’ll see when you see the cars parked here and the crowds pull in. There’s just a huge number of people. Spectators all over, tailgaters, it’s just the “Super Bowl” of the ski jumping world here,” stated John.
“They’re out here getting it done so the local crowd can come out here one weekend every February and get to see one of the best competitions there is in the world. I’ve skied a lot of places, and the crowd that they get here, in the United States, is probably one of the biggest that I’ve seen anywhere. When I was in high school, there was 13,000 to 15,000 people here. This is a big event, and I hope that it keeps going,” finished Tony.
It’s important to note that you don’t have to have a ski jumping background to help out. If you’d like to take part in the effort contact the Kiwanis Ski Club at 906-779-1110 or visit their www.kiwanisskiclub.com.