Ski jumpers take to the skies at Harris Hill

Photos by Herb Swanson

BRATTLEBORO — In the early 1900s, Brattleboro local Fred Harris smashed his skis to bits when he launched off a jump he made himself in his hometown. He wrote about the experience in his journal. But after several more attempts of hurling himself off a snow-covered ramp (and presumably breaking more pairs of skis), he finally stuck the landing. Not long afterward, he would spearhead the construction of a formal ski jump, now known as the Harris Hill ski jump.

What started as one man’s relentless pursuit continues to draw spectators and jumpers alike to a field a short distance away from downtown Brattleboro.

“Think about it,” says Fred’s daughter Sandy Harris, who works on the event’s organizing committee. “What other ski jumping event can you think of that’s run entirely by volunteers in the middle of a cornfield?”

Harris isn’t joking. Located a short drive from downtown Brattleboro, the 90-meter ski jump is the only one of its kind in the state. Billed as “the original extreme sport,” jumpers take off at speeds of nearly 60 miles per hour and soar distances of more than 300 feet. It’s a high-flying tradition that’s 93 years in the making at this local hill, which held its first formal competition in 1922.

The history of Harris Hill is littered with notable skiers, such as Torger Tokle, a Norwegian who came to the United States in 1939. Tokle won the competition there three times from 1940 to 1942, earning him the nickname “the Babe Ruth of Ski Jumping.” After he was killed in the Second World War, his brother Arthur won the event four times and later competed in the 1960 Olympics.

Art Devlin, of Lake Placid, N.Y., won the Harris Hill ski jumping event six times between 1946 and 1958, the most titles of any jumper at Harris Hill.

Brattleboro’s own Hugh Barber became the only hometown competitor to win the event, a feat he accomplished three years in a row from 1972 to 1974.

Since its opening, Harris Hill has hosted nine national championships, starting in 1924. At its peak in 1951, the jump set athlete and attendance records with 168 athletes and more than 10,000 spectators.

The local jump’s continued existence is due to the work of its caretakers. Volunteers added more than 2,000 feet of snowmaking pipe in 1985 and a $20,000 judging stand in 2003. In 2005, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association ruled the jump unsafe and refused to sanction any further competitions. The venue sat idle for three winters as volunteers weighed different plans and funding models until supporters collected a total of nearly $600,000 to reopen the hill in 2009.

Behind the jump’s 93 years is a committed team of volunteers directed by Liz Richards, the organizing committee’s vice president. Richards has been helping organize the event for 10 years and says their behind-the-scenes work is evident every year when the cars fill the parking lot.

“Nobody has the crowd that Brattleboro has,” she says. “They just don’t. At ski jumps in Lake Placid, you’ll see maybe 20 people standing around. I think we’re a lot closer to what a ski jump event is like in Europe, where they have thousands of people that come out.”

The annual event requires more than 200 volunteers working 4,000 hours, $100,000 in fundraising, 340,000 pounds of snow, 5,500 spectators, ten dump trucks of wood chips and sand, 300 pizzas, 700 hot dogs and 200 sponsors.

“That’s why everyone likes to come to Brattleboro,” she says. “We put on a good show.”

And Harris Hill put on a show this past Presidents’ Day Weekend with plenty of ski jumping action from 30 jumpers representing eight countries – the broadest international spread in the hill’s history. The weather was overcast with heavy snowfall at times and temperatures well below freezing. But spectators crowded around the outrun and hiked the steep metal staircase to claim a place alongside the slope.

Saturday’s Pepsi Cup competition saw impressive performances from both local and international skiers. Native Vermonter Spencer Knickerbocker grew up in Brattleboro and was the first to test the jump prior to its reopening in 2009. He went to high school in Lake Placid, N.Y. and after graduating spent three years training fulltime on the US Nordic Combined Development Team in Colorado. At 22, he now lives in Norwich, Vt. and plans to attend college for a degree in business or history.

While he hadn’t jumped in three months, Knickerbocker still bested a field of six Americans to win the open division with jumps of 86.5 and 93 meters for a winning 224.5 points.

“I hadn’t jumped since summer jumping and I wasn’t sure how it would go,” he said after his winning jumps. “But this was for fun and when I have fun, I jump well.”

In the afternoon’s FIS Cup Competition, Ziga Mandl of Slovenia took first with distances of 96 and 89.5 meters for 248 points. Kevin Bickner of the Norge Ski Club in Illinois took second with 93.5 and 86.5-meter jumps for 232 points. Another Slovenian, Ernest Prislic, followed him closely behind, jumping 92 and 86.5 meters for 229.5 points.

All of them began jumping at early ages; Prislic began jumping at age four on a small local hill.

“You go step by step,” he says. “That’s why I’m not scared on the bigger hills. It’s not scary when you’ve been doing it for 15 years.”

All of the top finishers have Olympic ambitions. While competing together, jumpers maintain a friendly atmosphere. After their jumps in Brattleboro, they will jump in Lake Placid, N.Y., Iron Mountain, Michigan, and then Hinterzarten, Germany.

“I see these guys every weekend so we have to get along,” says Prislic.

Sunday afternoon’s jumping was delayed by a half hour while crews cleared the 90-meter jump and landing area. The longest jump of the weekend was Sunday afternoon, with Ziga Mandl jumping 100 meters, just two meters away from the hill record set in 2010 by Chris Lamb.

Lamb opted to not compete in the FIS competition on Sunday; rather he competed in the Open class, beating a field of five other American jumpers with distances of 96 and 89 meters for 243.5 points. Spencer Knickerbocker took second, jumping 81 and 88.5 meters for 202 points.

Had Lamb won the top class, he would have been only the sixth skier to retire the cup and the first since Vladimir Glyvka of the Ukraine in 1996.

In FIS competition, Turkish skier Samet Karta jumped 92.5 and 94.5 meters to win with 248.5 points. Slovenian skiers Ziga Mandl and Ernest Prislic took second and third respectively. The win for the Turkish team came at their first appearance in the Harris Hill event.

Speaking through an interpreter, the 22-year-old Karta said they looked forward to returning to Vermont and the Harris Hill jump.

“This hill is one of the best,” he said.

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.