EAU CLAIRE — Chippewa Valley residents will once again have the opportunity this weekend to watch people soar up to 300 feet through the air.
That means, of course, that it’s time once again for the annual ski jumping tournament at Silver Mine Hill in the town of Union.
The 136th Silver Mine Invitational, scheduled Friday night and Saturday, is expected to attract about 40 of the top jumpers from around the United States to the 90-meter hill just west of Eau Claire.
“It’s a pretty dynamic sport,” said organizer Dan Mattoon, who is heading to China soon to be a ski jumping judge at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. “Seeing athletes flying through the air almost a football field in length is pretty amazing.”
The Silver Mine Hill record is 96 meters, or 315 feet, set by Slovenia’s Mikael Kveder in 2014.
This year’s invitational will be composed of three separate events — a junior world qualifier and national U.S. Cup series competition on Friday night and the Upper Midwestern-based Five Hills series tournament on Saturday. The junior world qualifier also will include a nordic combined event, with the 5-kilometer cross country skiing portion scheduled at 8 a.m. Saturday on the new Silver Mine course.
Volunteers are putting the finishing touches on the hill this week. They plan to cut tracks today in the icy run on the 150-foot-tall scaffold where jumpers begin their descent, said Paul Jastrow, chief of competition.
With a relatively cooperative forecast calling for a high of about 17 degrees on both Friday and Saturday, Jastrow is hopeful the tournament will attract at least the usual 2,000 to 3,000 spectators.
For folks concerned about the cold, the site will offer several bonfires and a large warming tent with windows overlooking the landing area.
Spectators have the option of choosing from among several viewing areas, including a stairway that runs the length of the hill, a flat area to the side of K-point (the spot about 85 meters from the end of the jump where the hill begins to flatten out), a space surrounding the spot where skiers end their runs at the bottom of the hill and the hospitality tent at the base of the hill.
“The best location to watch is up on the shelf, one level up. That gets you closer to the action where you can literally hear the sound of jumpers flying by,” said Mattoon, who recommends spectators take in the action from several vantage points. “It’s pretty exhilerating to watch, that’s for sure.”
The tent contains a DJ, beer garden, concessions and activities for kids.
For the uninitiated, Mattoon compared watching the ski jumping tournament with attending a NASCAR race, meaning people can’t really comprehend the speeds and distances attained by competitors until they see the events in person.
“Being there is amazing,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic will take a toll on the draw, as the usual contingent of world-class jumpers from Europe will be absent because of lengthy quarantine requirements for people returning to many European countries.
“We still feel it will be a great event,” Mattoon said.
Recognizing the competition is taking place in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant, Jastrow noted that outdoor activities have been shown to carry a much lower risk of spreading the virus.
“It’s a great place to go if you want to be outdoors,” Jastrow said, “and there’s a lot of room to spread out for people who want to social distance.”