Catching air | AspenTimes.com

Catching air

Tim WilloughbyAspen Times Weekly

Willoughby CollectionA jumper packs Aspen's 50-meter ski jump in the 1950s.

In my elementary school days we had to make our own terrain parks. Our goal was the same as that of todays boys: air. Snow shovels and any slope steep enough to generate speed were all that was needed for winter fun.I, along with my compatriots in winter levitation, found and constructed multiple means of jumping. Flying through the air was our preoccupation. Landing was the only challenge. Childhoods competitive nature led to ever-increasing flying distances.Winter recess provided practice for the simplest form of flight. Whenever a storm deposited a sufficient landing zone, we bailed out of the swings. Snow banks along the streets became jump chutes for boot skiing. As we were more interested in air distance than grace, two-point landings did not necessarily accumulate peer points. The community skating rink was adjacent to the school, where we built speed skating, then leaped off ice into surrounding snow.On weekends, skis increased our flight distances. If you had a sloping lawn, then you built a jump on it. If not, you skied down snow banks and jumped onto a flat street or alley. Some of us even skied off sloping rooftops for short-lived thrills.We graduated to building ski jumps on longer and steeper slopes. The hill and vacant lots behind the Hotel Jerome were popular, but the bottom of Little Nell was the best. There we shoveled enough snow to give us a good lift. We could walk up the hill, or if we had a ski ticket, use the Little Nell lift. There was an empty lot where the North of Nell Building is now located, so we could make our jump and have plenty of outrun space, no turns required.After mastering small jumps we maintained a real ski jump at the western edge of the bottom of Little Nell. It was at least 15 meters with a wood platform and contoured slopes. Although we spent more time packing the snow and shaping the jump than we did jumping, a dose of courage extended our leaps to 30 feet or more. Adults with more weight and speed could embarrass us, but generally we were contented.The 50-meter jump above the end of Mill Street was beyond our skills and daring. It was packed only for jumping competitions, a rare occurrence. It took great courage to ski straight down even half of that steep, seemingly-endless landing. In the late 1950s, high school competitive skiing was still four-way; skiers had to compete in jumping and cross-country as well as slalom and downhill. As grade-school air aficionados, we were impressed when high school students built the ultimate practice jump. Mine dumps provide natural slopes for ski jumps. The high school coach, Roy Reed, enlisted team members Melvin Hauglund, Keith Marolt and John Thorpe to construct a jump on the lowest one (still visible today) on Shadow Mountain at the end of Fifth Street. They built a wood jump at least six feet high on the top of the dump, cut trees to make an in-run stretch above the top of the dump, and cleared the brush at the bottom of the hill out to the street. M.J. Elisha remembers training on that jump. Although it was used for only a couple of seasons, he recalls, it was a scary thing. The challenges included a very steep in-run that meant sometimes you gained so much speed that you would out-jump the intended landing. There was also a very quick transition at the bottom that easily flattened you, and you finished the journey in the street. Fortunately, cars passed infrequently. Later, the Aspen Ski Club constructed a competition jumping hill with jumps up to 40 meters above its club headquarters at the end of Galena Street. Ski resorts build terrain parks for todays youth. If my knees could take it, then Id spend my days in the air again, especially since I wouldnt have to bring a shovel.

Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.Yore Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.

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