They gathered in groups at a site just west of Eau Claire Friday night, clustered around warm orange fires, eating and drinking and talking as upbeat music sounded through speakers nearby.
But whether they were longtime attendees of the Silver Mine Invitational or those at the event for the first time, all eyes invariably looked up at the tiny white lights high in the sky, the starting point for contestants in the 132nd ski jumping competition that attracted competitors from across the U.S., Finland and Slovenia. Gates open at 4 p.m. today, with jumping beginning at 5:30 p.m.
“Wow, that is way up there,” said Eau Claire resident Sara Thielen, attending her initial Silver Mine with her husband, Joe, and their two daughters, Melissa, 4, and Jessica, 22 months.
Others gathered at the foot of Silver Mine Hill who hadn’t previously seen the steep incline up close were similarly awed by the start gate that towered high above them.
“You’ve got to be kidding. They start way up there?” Doreen Schlaffley of Eau Claire said as she looked skyward at the elevated, far-away start. “Holy cow. I would never be able to do that.”
A short time later the first ski jumper made his way down the jump and to the well-lit landing area glowing white against the dark and was met by appreciative applause at the hill’s bottom. As more jumpers came down the hill, the audience’s anticipation seemed to build.
“Wow, do they go fast,” said Eau Claire resident Joe Long, who has attended three previous Silver Mine events. “When you watch this on TV, you don’t appreciate how fast they are going or how far they jump. But when you see it in person, it’s amazing. They really fly.”
After several ski jumpers made successful landings, one tumbled after trying to maintain his balance. The audience let out a long, collective “whoa” as he fell.
As he skidded to a stop near the hill’s base, an event announcer asked if he was OK. The fallen ski jumper raised one arm, and the audience applauded.
“I don’t know how they do it,” Terry Fortune of Eau Claire said. “I would be tumbling down that hill right from the start.”
Before ski jumpers began descending the jump, an audience of hundreds gathered at the bottom of the ski hill and at points higher up to applaud a short opening ceremony. Eau Claire resident Dennis Lee watched proudly, anticipating the jumps later in the night by his two sons, 15-year-old Landon and 13-year-old Carter.
The boys began ski jumping eight years ago, Lee said, and this year marks the third Silver Mine experience for Landon and the second for Carter.
“They started with the Eau Claire Flying Eagles and they really like it, so they just keep jumping,” Lee said.
Sara Thielen said she and her family attended the event in part because Melissa has become a fan of the sport.
“She loves winter sports and says she is interested in ski jumping someday,” Thielen said.
Standing nearby, Laura Miller smiled. “Hopefully she will have the courage to go off a jump like that because I sure don’t,” Miller laughed.
A short ways away, at the base of the hill, people perused dozens of fur hats of all sorts at a tent operated by Don and Brenda Biermann. The couple from Rockton, a small Vernon County community, operate Wildthings Fur and sell fur items of all sorts.
“That’s one of my biggest sellers,” Don Biermann said as he pointed to a skunk hat.
Event attendees praised the relatively warm weather, with temperatures in the mid-30s.
“This is the best weather we’ve had for this event in a while,” Eau Claire resident Bill Larson said. “You have great weather and great ski jumping. A real nice night.”
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