Featured Athlete: The Jack Jumper Returns

Name: Mark Stirewalt  Age: 53

Lives in: Waterbury Center

Family: Wife, Linda; daughters Emily, 23 and Hannah, 19

Occupation: Wastewater plant operator

Primary sports: Jack jumping and disc golf

Mark Stirewalt, perennial winner of the Jack Jumping World Championships (held annually at Mount Snow) has spent years trying to convince ski areas that jack jumping is a safe alternative to skiing and snowboarding. Less safe, perhaps, was the day he took his jumper down the headwall at Tuckerman’s Ravine.

When did you start jack jumping?

In the early 1980s, I took my Flexible Flyer to the top of Lincoln Gap. Those aren’t the most maneuverable sleds and as I was bombing down, I got passed by this hairy dude on a jack jumper who was laughing at me. When we got back to the top, he explained what a jack jumper was and even let me try his. I was hooked and I went home and built one.

How do you make them?

I started with plywood but after ripping a few in half, I discovered that hardwood weighs more and works better. I generally use maple. You want the seat to be a little wider than your hips. You mount the seat on a ski with roughly 14 to 15 inches in front and 12 ½ inches in back. A common mistake is making the seat flat; you actually want them to slope a little bit with the front two to three inches higher than the back. I mount the seat to the ski with metal brackets, using the screws from the binding I’ve removed. Initially, I thought longer skis would be faster but lately I’ve switched to skis between 170 and 200 cm.

Are there others building their own jack jumpers in Vermont?

I don’t know of any local producer although I’ve heard of one person who builds them out of metal in Vergennes or Ferrisburgh and sells them for $100. Some people add snowmobile or motorcycle shocks and those weigh more—but they aren’t necessarily more responsive. At one point, I bought a spring that was made for jack jumpers from a company in Michigan. The company went belly up and I got hold of their spring set-up and it’s upped my game. It still isn’t a smooth ride but it takes out some of the jarring.

What kind of skis do you use?

These days I use modern shaped skis. I get many of them at the Stowe dump which my wife refers to as “Bloomingdale’s.” The affluent people are constantly buying new skis and leaving their old ones there.

Have you used a snowboard?

When I was working at Sugarbush I was given a snowboard and tried that. It was amazing on powder until I broke it. I’m still trying to find another one. Almost everyone uses skis but Andy Yeager, who was a Sugarbush patroller, used a jack jumper with a snowboard for a race in the late 1990s at Mad River Glen and was able to go up the chairlift with it. With a snowboard you can float, arc and do intentional 360s but you have to put in twice as much effort to lean it on edge.

How fast can you go?

I don’t know exactly but it’s fast enough that your eyes get watery. I’ve been toying with entering the citizen’s downhill at Jay Peak but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Skiers can catch air and then land but despite the name, you really don’t want to be jumping.

How do you get down the mountain in one piece?

I’m one of the first jack jumpers to use a seat belt. There are a lot of traditionalists who pick on me about that but if they want tradition, they should have barrel staves instead of skis. You have to stay centered on the seat and a belt locks you in so you can use your arms as outriggers. Most jack jumpers hold onto their seats but I only do that when it’s really fast or bumpy. When it’s too fast, the wind wants to lift your feet over your head so it’s good to have your arms free.

How do you steer?

Steering is entirely with your hips and the core of your body. What a skier does with their knees and ankles to enter a turn, we do with our butts and hips. You don’t have to tip a lot to turn. It’s a bit like cheating now with the new shaped skis. It’s become effortless to turn whereas on the older skis you had to shovel it around. There is a misconception because people see us dragging our feet and they think it’s for steering. It’s really more for balance but also because you can’t keep your feet up the whole time. We stop by putting all our weight onto one edge. We also meet all skier responsibility codes.

Where are the best places to jack jump in Vermont?

There are very few mountains that still allow us to use their trails. Mount Snow has an annual race on the first Sunday in March (March 3). Jay Peak lets us use their tram and two of their quads and Bolton Valley allows jack jumpers off the Vista, Mid Mountain and Timberline lifts as long as they have tethers. There’s a chance that Hard’ack in St. Albans might allow jack jumpers, but they have a rope tow and it’s really hard for us to use that. Many years ago, before I got my seat belt, I went to Cochran’s and had a hard time getting on the rope tow. When Mickey [Cochran] saw me, he screamed at me to get off his mountain but I got four runs in first. Mt. Philo and Lincoln Gap are also good places to jack jump. Route 108 in Smuggler’s Notch is another option but it’s crowded and everyone has their dog off leash so you can’t go fast. I love to do early morning hikes up Mansfield before the ski area opens.

What about the time you jack jumped the headwall at Tuckerman Ravine?

That was in 1994. I was about to become a dad and wanted to jack jump the headwall before I had too many responsibilities. On a jack jumper, if you’re on steep terrain and go to turn, your seat tips and you unweight and you accelerate exponentially. For the top half I was skidding on my seat and praying I wouldn’t get my feet caught underneath it. There was so much snow getting in my goggles, but I couldn’t slow down to wipe them clean. Finally, I got the ski under me and made some turns. At the bottom I looked great but I really hope nobody saw me at the top. If I ever go again, I’ll go down via the Auto Road.

Tell us about the World Championships.

The Mount Snow race has been taking place for almost 40 years. There are folks who come all the way from Michigan and others  who come from Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire. I finished first in 2009 and 2011 and then I had a hat trick finishing first in 2014, 2015 and 2016 followed by a second-place finish in 2017. I couldn’t race last year because I had a hernia and that was really hard. I plan to win the race this year or wipe out trying. The bummer for me is that with the seat belt, if you miss a gate, it’s hard to go back up and get it because you have to do an uphill duck waddle.

Are there other local races?

We’re also having a race at Bolton Valley starting at 6 p.m. on March 16. In the 90s we used to race every third Thursday at Bolton with Magic Hat as a sponsor. Our best turnout was 72 racers. They come out of the woodwork for these events.

Is the sport staying alive?

They say the sport started when roads were rolled by horses. Just as grooming has changed, most people have gone with newer equipment but there is a lot of young blood getting into the sport. There’s a whole subculture out there of people whom I’ve heard about. I’ve got a good-sized email list that I use to keep people informed about events but it’s mostly word of mouth.

Featured Photo Caption: Five-time World Champ Mark Stirewalt had his sights set on making it six on March 3, at Mount Snow.

Phyl Newbeck

Phyl Newbeck lives in Jericho with her partner Bryan and two cats. She is a skier, skater, cyclist, kayaker, and lover of virtually any sport which does not involve motors. She is the author of “Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving.”

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