BRATTLEBORO — Organizers at Vermont's only Olympic-size ski jump could promote this coming weekend's Harris Hill competition as winter's highest-flying event. Instead, they're headlining their publicity with the answer to the most-asked question: Yes, they should have plenty of snow.
Travel the Green Mountain State this usually frosty season and you won't see much white. But the nearly century-old Harris Hill is set to host two dozen up-and-coming athletes from the United States, Austria and Slovenia on Saturday and Sunday thanks to days of funneling and freezing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water through 2,000 feet of snowmaking pipe.
"If we get a foot of natural snow and compact that, it's two inches," says Jason Evans, a Dummerston contractor in charge of hill preparation. "You need a good base layer. We have to make a bunch of snow."
When the late Dartmouth Outing Club founder Fred Harris built the jump in his hometown in 1922, he needed only a few boards for a launchpad and two more to lash to his feet before leaping off a peak 30 stories high at speeds of up to 60 mph.
But to draw this weekend's crowd of jumpers — many on their way to the 2016 Junior Nationals Feb. 24 to 27 in Salisbury, Conn. — a non-profit group of supporters had to raise nearly $600,000 over the past decade to rebuild the hill to world specifications before making snow.
Evans and a crew of colleagues manned five water-freezing guns day and night this past Thursday through Saturday, with grooming machines from West Dover's Mount Snow resort set to smooth the result.
Harris Hill is the only 90-meter ski jump in New England and one of just six of its size in the nation. Being a real slope rather than a ramp atop scaffolding, it's one of the few venues in the country that allows spectators to climb it and eye athletes up close.
But because volunteers manage and maintain everything — they added the snowmaking pipe in 1985, a $20,000 judging stand in 2003, a new launch ramp in 2009 and a new coaching tower in 2012 — they must maximize their efforts by limiting competition to one weekend each February.
Saturday's annual Pepsi Challenge and Sunday's Fred Harris Memorial Tournament are set to welcome several thousand spectators as well as two local jumpers: 23-year-old Brattleboro native Spencer Knickerbocker and 26-year-old Marlboro College student Chris Lamb — the latter who set the hill's long-distance record (102 meters, or 335 feet) and won the Fred Harris title in 2010 and 2013.
With a third victory, Lamb will be the sixth athlete to retire the trophy since the hill's creation in 1922.
Harris Hill will continue its tradition of welcoming female jumpers, who were excluded from the Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924 until the most recent gathering in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
With this week's weather calling for a roller coaster of conditions, organizers have contingency plans to deal with most anything. In 2011 and 2012, facing similar seasons, they made snow and, upon freak thaws just before competition, covered it with a cold-hold of granular nitrogen fertilizer.
"Natural snow melts a lot quicker than manmade snow," Evans says. "No matter how much snow falls, we still make it."
Harris Hill, located off Interstate 91 exit 2 on Cedar Street in Brattleboro, will start trial rounds Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m., opening ceremonies at noon and competition around 12:45 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and younger and can be purchased at the gate (cash or local check only) or online at www.brownpapertickets.com, with more information at www.harrishillskijump.com.