Outdoor Adventures: Gilford ski jumps hoping to get a facelift
The non-profit Gunstock Mountain Historic Preservation Society is working to resurrect the four ski jumps at Gunstock that once held several meets, including skier Bill Trudgeon jumping through a hoop of fire in the 1950s. Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
About 10 years before she won two Olympic silver medals for the women’s downhill and giant slalom in 1960, a young teenage Penny Pitou practiced ski jumping at Gunstock on dark, cold nights.
Turning the lights on meant depositing a quarter in a meter.
“The light went on for a period of time and you hoped you landed before the light went out,” she said. “Sometimes that happened when you were in mid-air and that made for an interesting landing. I loved ski jumping. It helped me become a better downhill skier.”
Now the non-profit Gunstock Mountain Historic Preservation Society is spearheading a $1.4 million restoration project to rebuild and preserve the four ski jumps at the Gunstock Jump Complex in Gilford off the 75-year-old ski area’s old access road.
Formerly called the Belknap County Ski Jump Complex, the first three of the four jumps – 10, 20 and 60 meters – were built during the Great Depression as a Works Progress Administration project in 1937-38 with parking for 2,500 cars. A 40 meter jump was constructed in 1949.
The complex hosted Olympic trials and national championships. During the heydays before television, thousands came to watch international stars like Norwegian Torger Tokle, called the “Babe Ruth of Skiing,” who held the 60-meter hill record for 35 years. After he was killed in World War II, the jump was named after him.
“Remember that during the late ’30s and early ’40s, ski jumping was the X Games of that generation,” said Bow’s Bob Arnold, a co-founder and GMHPS treasurer whose grandfather Fritz Baer helped promote ski jumping as Gunstock general manager from 1950-1959 . “Thousands of people came. There were outdoor barbecues. It was exciting.”
There were events with skiers jumping through a hoop of fire and even summer ski jumping with skiers schussing down on 60 tons of shaved ice and stopping with the help of hay barricades.
Among the noted events, the complex held the first Eastern States Invitational Ski Jump Meet in 1952, the U.S. Nationals for Nordic combined in 1975 and the 1992 Junior Olympics.
Lisa Kling’s son Jonathan, a former U.S. Development Ski Team jumper, holds the hill’s 40-meter record, set in 2002. Now the Loudon mom is helping fund raise for the project that includes a Nov. 10 Ski Ball at Gunstock (firstname.lastname@example.org, 737-4310). She’s GMHPS vice president and on the board of the Gunstock Nordic Association.
That’s another hook to the project; having adjacent Nordic trails.
“Our hope is to make the complex a major training facility in New England,” Kling said. “There are close cross-country ski trails and Alpine so everything is compact and convenient for training and competitions.”
Ski jumping is experiencing a resurgence. The U.S. Collegiate Nordic Ski Jumping National Championships were held in 2011, the first time since the NCAA ditched it in 1980. Johnny Spillane’s 2010 Olympic Nordic combined (X-C and ski jumping) silver medal was a U.S. first, as was the team silver that followed. Women’s ski jumping is planned for the 2014 Olympics.
New Hampshire has high school jumping, but the close-knit New England jumping community must also travel to jumps in Brattleboro, Vt., and Salisbury, Conn., for competitions. Lake Placid, N.Y., is also a stop.
“Ski jumping is a safe and healthy sport,” Kling said. “Jumping makes a kid feel good. They jump, they ski, they fly through the air.”
The wooden jumps are worn and need new boards. The big jump is also metal and was lengthened over time. It needs the most work, including modification to reflect changes in style, equipment and International Ski Federation requirements.
The plan is to at least have the 10-meter jump open this winter, one on which skiers can use Alpine equipment before donning the super-long jumping skis for bigger jumps.
Pitou hopes to see her grandchildren use them. She first saw ski jumping at age 7 and was transfixed. Eventually, she competed on the 10- and 20-meter jumps. Pitou was on the Laconia High School ski team as a freshman in 1953 before being kicked off three months later after a ski race crash revealed her hidden long hair (teammates called her Tommy).
“The first jump is scary, but after that thrill you can’t wait to go back up,” she said. “There is nothing like being in the air, going down that in-run and lifting off like a bird.”
(Marty Basch can be reached through onetankaway.com.)