Dave Shively: Airborne excursions

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— "It's pretty cool to be in the air so long that you can think about some stuff."

A senior guide I used to work with put the whole of his Gelande jumping experience into this nutshell right before I moved Steamboat. The seed was planted, but the thought of launching myself off a Nordic ski jump in my Alpine gear always seemed out of reach - especially without previous experience in a skin-tight race suit.

Last winter, my neighbor told me about the Tuesday night Gelandesprung jump clinics at Howelsen Hill. Spoiled with powder days, last ski season ended, and I had missed my chance. So I wasted no time this year and jumped on the Winter Sports Club's first Tuesday night session of the season.

I figured I'd be among a salty crew of outfitted competitors going into orbit off the K-114 "big hill," site of Rolf Wilson's 366-foot Gelande world record. I would be alone on the K-68, starting from the lowest rung possible so my skis would make it to the landing slope before my neck.

Pat Arnone, the Tuesday night organizer, justified my preconceived notions. He pulled out his suit, showing me holes from botched landings and his modified boots with special inserts to keep his weight forward. Arnone revels in going big and has numerous top-five finishes in the Pro Gelande National Championships, held every April in the sport's birthplace, Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon.

As the group filled with more and more newbies, I became more assured. After payment ($12 per session, plus the $6 lift ticket) and signed waivers, I jumped off the three smaller training jumps beside the K-68.

I made the rookie mistake of a slight snow plow right before take-off on my first launch off the smallest K-18, a move that left me barely airborne before the steep landing.

The sessions aren't classes or clinics. Each jump, I learned from watching, passing tips from other jumpers up the Pony Poma or from the mid-air thoughts running through my head, each lasting a split-second longer than the last - shoulda kept my weight forward more, shoulda popped more off the lip, quit rolling up the windows, idiot.

By the end of the night, I was perched above the K-38, a full moon glowing over the illuminated jumps. Arnone howled as he flew by off the K-68, and I thought about how Tuesday night gatherings in any other American town would probably be a poker night or league bowling at best. But you can't think for too long at the top of the jump.

You just get the go-ahead from the landing spotter, put on the goggles, hold your tuck, pop and fly, using the mid-flight thought to figure out how to extend it next time.

And there will be a next time. I've got my sights on the K-68 and hope to finish this season with a landed jump that ends a little better than that of a certain adventurous deer that met its maker there this summer.

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