Leaps of Faith
By Buddy Levy
I am genetically predisposed to leaving the ground in ways that are not always advisable.
My first recollection of the pursuit of “getting air,” (as it was called in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a term which has been replaced with other descriptors, including the current “hucking,” “going big,” and “amplitude”) takes me back to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, circa 1968. When I was eight years old, my father took us to visit his Olympic ski coach, Sven Wiik. Sven, a Swede who had coached the 1956 US Nordic Team at Cortina, Italy, had returned to the states to found and operate the Scandinavian Lodge and Mt. Werner Training Center. At the time, Steamboat had one of the few Nordic jumping hills in the United States, and my father wanted me to witness the sport he had participated in during the Olympics, and, if I was daring enough, to give the “development hill” a try myself.
I had been alpine skiing since I could walk but had never been off of a Nordic jump. Before I really knew what I was doing, I had ridden the rope tow to the top of the jump and stood there nervously, watching future Olympic jumpers hurl themselves down the in-run, hold their bent-knee crouch with arms and legs coiled, then spring at the exact moment of take off to launch themselves into the swirling white abyss, and disappear over the knoll. I could see them ski safely to the rope tow at the bottom, but that did not make my first launching any easier.
I hadn’t the proper Nordic jumping equipment, but at my father’s assurances, I loosened the top buckles of my alpine boots to allow some forward lean and waited my turn at the top with a huddle of real jumpers, shifting nervously on my edges in a whirl of light snow. I studied (quickly and gulpingly, for my turn was coming) the technique of the other kids, and to my relief there didn’t seem to be much to it: from a position parallel to the tracks, you simply had to hop sideways into the two ski slots, plunge straight down the mountain’s fall line, bend into a crouch, and ride headlong toward the lip—then, you exploded upward and outward, leaping from the crouch and into the air. From midway down the in-run, as you careened with gaining speed toward the edge of the jump, the knoll and the outrun vanished from view, so that the landing was blind. It was, quite literally, a leap of faith.
It was my turn. I could see my father waving anxiously from the bottom. Other jumpers shuffled their skis beneath their feet. I exhaled, pulled my goggles down over my eyes, squinted down the track and hopped into the slots.
Anyone who remembers the old lead into ABC’s Wild World of Sports will recall the “Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat” narrated by Jim McKay, in which Slovene Nordic ski jumper Vinko Bagataj looses his balance just before the take off of a jump and cartwheels like a rag doll thrown from a speeding train, flaying into oblivion, his catastrophic crash ingloriously cemented into the collective consciousness of the sports-viewing American public. A precursor of that image rattled my confidence in the first few moments of my first ski jump, but I didn’t have much time to think about potential disaster as the icy snow whined underfoot and I pitched toward take-off in an awkward, unsteady squat. Snow slashed my face and frozen air whistled past my head and into my open mouth and then I was in the low swale before the rim. All I could see was a horizon of white and then nothing, a maw of space and then the jump was upon me and I popped into a stand, my hands dropping to my side, my chest and head and chin out in front of my knees and feet in a tilted L-shaped lean.
A whump of air hit me in the chest and buoyed me as I sailed skyward, suspended but moving through space and time as a hollow roar of wind. Time conflated into a cocoon of airspace as I sliced through the sky in a gentle parabola and then felt the tug of gravity reeling me back down toward earth as I cleared the knoll and the outrun sloughed off beneath me and I saw the landing and gently touched down, my skis lighting soundlessly on the snow. Wind created by my outrun speed flapped my ski jacket collar against my cheek until I skidded to a stop at the bottom, my father clapping, smiling. My stomach tingled, my knees wobbled. It had been sickeningly scary and deliciously exhilarating at once. I turned, clutched the rope tow, and rode up the hill for more.
We moved to Idaho, a few years later, a playground of a state where deep winter snows afforded countless opportunities for “air time.” We soon discovered that we needn’t even leave our house to get big air. My younger brother Lance climbed everything climbable, and our three-story house was better than a schoolyard jungle gym for his simian tendencies. He began performing aerials like front and back flips before his tenth birthday, while I opted for maximum time aloft, yearning for those suspended moments of flight and for brief emancipation from the earth.
One winter the snows came early, locking the valley in crystal and ice by Halloween and then pounding us with powder so hard and often that snow days from school were frequent. We would listen prayerfully to K-SKI radio in Hailey for those hallowed words, “Wood River School District Closed Today,” high-fiving and squealing with elation as we wrestled into ski clothes. When we weren’t on Baldy skiing and catching air, we were leaping from things or places, Lance doing “suicides” off the southern gables of our house, standing there as we mock pleaded for him not to jump, then watching in feigned horror as he fell forward head first until he flipped at the last moment and landed on his back in a puff of powder.
Once, seeing Lance leap from the highest point of the roof, I determined to outdo him and scaled even higher, jumped to catch hold of the level purchase of bricks on the chimney, pulled myself up and perched on my knees to get my bearings. When I dislodged ice chunks to make room to stand, they spun and turned and diminished as they tumbled to the white blanket far below. Standing slowly, carefully, my knees knocking ever so slightly, I surveyed the scene from chimney top as cold winds blew spindrift from the eaves and rooflines. I peered down once, locked onto my intended landing pad of snow, counted. At three, I leaped into the air, tucked knees up to my chest, and felt the tickly weightless gift of flight and freedom, the world gone quiet but for the hush of air as the earth hauled me back to her.
Thwump. I speared in feet first, coming to rest neck-deep in snow with such force that Lance had to dig me out with a shovel. Later that evening, after another jump, I landed next to the first entry-hole I’d created, and I saw the wooden shovel handle buried just beneath the snow. I shook my head with the realization that I was only a foot or two from skewering myself. Images of buried lawnmowers, bicycles, and fence posts cured us of subsequent chimney leaps that winter, and scouring the yard for debris became an autumn ritual in preparation for the winter snows and the roof jumps.
One sunny spring day, with a skiff of new snow beckoning, my friends and I decided to drive out to the Ruud Mountain ski jump in Sun Valley. Named for Norwegian jumping champion Sigmund Ruud, who helped design the historic jump, the ski hill boasted the first chair lift in North America back in 1937, when Averill Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad developed Sun Valley. The in-run, knoll, and outrun of the jumping hill remained clearly defined, and with a couple of shovels and our skis we built a “kicker” and took turns hiking up and hitting the jump on our downhill racing skis. We were engaged in “Geländesprung,” which literally means “a jump in skiing from a crouch position” using alpine gear on a Nordic jump. There are still competitions for such air, though the practice is now considered “retro” or “throwback.” My buddies Brooksy and Svethorn and Murph and I spent hours on Ruud, hiking higher and higher, running a tape measure from lip to landing zone and measuring our efforts. With the town of Sun Valley at 6000 feet——our lungs and legs ached with the climbs, but the bigness of the jump called us back time and again.
At last, I hiked higher than I had ever gone, leaving my friends far below at the kicker, out of shouting distance. It was just me and the coarse wheeze of my breathing, the pulsing of blood in my temples. The boys waved me on with ski poles, and I hopped into the track and raced downward in a tuck, plummeting in what felt like a free fall with the screaming noise of wind careening by me as I hurdled the nose of the kicker and flew. Time distended as I roared out into the sky, the flecks of my friends ticking past in my periphery. I knew by my height and clearance over the knoll that I’d hit a big one. Terra firma dropped away from me sharply as I shrieked past the knoll and then I was blown back because my ski tips caught too much wind. The skis flicked toward my face as I leaned outward for more distance, more air. Spontaneously I gyrated my arms in panicked backward windmills to steady myself and finally my ski tails touched down. I side-skidded to a halt at the bottom and could hear the boys whopping it up, yelling down to me: ONE HUNDRED FIFTY SEVEN feet.
Later that season, Will Svethorn hit Ruud on telemark skis and is rumored to have outdistanced my 157, but he broke more than my record, catching an edge on impact and auguring in hard, suffering a compound fracture of his femur. Once he healed, I joked that since he hadn’t landed cleanly, my record still held. Style points counted.
In 1974, Evel Knievel came to Idaho to attempt a jump across the Snake River at Twin Falls in his specially built “Sky Cycle,” which was really a one-man rocket with wheels. I was fourteen at the time, and read all about the stunt in the papers, even visited the jump site once, marveling at the mound of dirt used to buttress the inclined metal launch pad. Evel hissed into the late summer sky dangling a smoky contrail, looking like an elementary school rocket project. Moments after launch his parachute deployed prematurely, and hot winds blew both daredevil and contraption into the jaws of the ravine, spanking him against the canyon wall and depositing him a few feet from the river’s edge. Those few feet kept him from a probable drowning, tangled in the cords and nylon of his chute. He was rescued by a helicopter suspending a six-hundred foot cable, and his jump was termed technically unsuccessful, as he failed to clear the canyon. I was fired, however, by the combination of the insanity and courage that Evel must have possessed to strap himself to a rocket and try to span a 1580 foot canyon, and to my mind the jump was successful in that he lived to jump another day.
I practiced my own brand of Knievel style jumping in Sun Valley village on my Schwinn Stingray, a green one-speed with high-rise handlebars and a short, chrome wheelie bar. I’d whip around the village at great speeds, screeching to a skid and terrorizing the tourists at the Sun Valley Ice Rink, then jump creeks and ponds by hitting landscape flagstones and warped plywood ramps borrowed from nearby construction sites. Bored with these antics, I discovered some banquet tables and set them up on the short grass of the lawn bowling grounds and croquet area, engaging one set of legs on each table so that I had an inclining launch ramp and a declining landing pad. At first, I had the two 8-foot tables nearly pressed together, but with each successful jump, my friends moved them farther and farther apart until there was about a twenty-foot gap between the tables. Starting at the Sun Valley Opera House a few hundred yards away, I pedaled furiously, cranking the Sting Ray up to top speed and lining up the approach. The ice rink bleachers were filled with spectators watching former Olympians like Peggy Fleming practice for the summer ice shows, but I imagined their necks craned in my direction, their eyes riveted by my daredevil jumps. The crowed blurred as I thumped onto the ramp, pulled hard on the handlebars at takeoff, and left the earth. I flew high and far with the front wheel of my Sting Ray zinging as it spun over the green grass between the table ramps.
I almost made it. The front wheel did, but my back tire hit just at the table edge, kicking me forward, throwing my chest between the handlebars, and rocking me into a nose wheelie. I could see the entire outcome of my folly in slow motion: my right hand slipping from the handlebar on impact, the violent jerking of the bars to the side and the rear end flipping over the top of me, my hand catching in the spokes, and my head smashing into the cranks and pedals as I rolled and spun and finally dug into the grass and dirt. I stood awkwardly over my bent-framed Schwinn, my right hand broken and dripping blood which spattered onto the bright green chain guard. When the security guards from the Sun Valley Lodge spotted my unconventional use of their banquet tables and chased after me, I ran off giddy with excitement and terror, wheeling my broken Sting Ray away with my one working arm.
Not long afterwards, healed from the Knievel bike crash, I went with my brother Lance and Zack Sewell to jump into the river from the big metal culvert, which drained Sun Valley Lake into Trail Creek. A nice deep pool had formed where the water coursed through the culvert, and on warm summer days, if Big Hole on the Wood River was too crowded or we couldn’t get a ride down to Star Bridge in Hailey, we would scamper up to the culvert, a giant corrugated pipe some fifteen feet in diameter. You could get a good run along the culvert’s spine and pop off the end, doing aerials that mimicked freestyle ski jumps of the day, leg-walking “daffys” and mule-kicking “Jamies” and even front and back flips à là Stein Eriksen. I usually opted for big air with tucks, knees up to my chest, as I ripped my entry feet first, and then stood chin deep in the bracing eddy of foam as the coldness of the water tighten my skin.
That afternoon, Zack darted and dove headfirst into the pool. I remember feeling uneasy as he plunged because I had cut my feet on the bottom during low runoff years. But Zack blurped in, his feet splayed awkwardly and disappearing last. Lance and I hurried down to the stream’s edge and waited for him to emerge. He popped up with one hand holding his forehead.
We called out “Did you hit bottom?”
Zack waded over to us and lifted his hand from his head. “You tell me,” he said as blood streamed down his face. He had been scalped from one side of his forehead to the other in a clean incision just at the hairline. You could see the bone-white gleam of his skull beneath the hair and skin. I only looked for an instant, then took off my t-shirt and pressed it onto his head, telling him to hold it there. We walked him to the Mollie Scott Clinic less than a mile away, where my father worked as a doctor, and led Zack into the Emergency Room. Nearly one-hundred stitches later, he was fine, though he opted for feet-first landings from that day on.
A few years and jumps of many kinds later, the Petersen brothers—boyhood friends and comrades-in-adventure—asked me to join them on a hike into the White Cloud Mountains, a hike which was to culminate in what they termed “cornice jumping.” It was summer, but snow remained in isolated cols and dark northern flanks of the mountains. Under a surging canopy of clouds, we trekked from the Fourth of July Lake trailhead up into the thinning air, up brown and broken talus ridges to dirty and pocked knuckles of blown snow, cornices which remained hanging from knife-edged ridges nearly 11,000 feet above sea level. Standing on the firm snow, cooked to a granular “corn” with repeated thawing and freezing, we could see the ragged Sawtooth Mountains across the valley to the west and the muscular Boulders erupting in the south.
After the few hours of climbing we’d perch atop sun-warmed couloirs and eat sardines on crackers spread thickly with Dijon mustard and stacked with brie and camembert cheese, and drink Beaujolais from wineskins, opening our mouths wide and wincing at the sharp squirt from the Bota bags. We found one eyebrow-shaped cornice with a drop of over thirty feet, so the distance we could launch was limited only by our own bravado. By afternoon the sun had warmed the snow on the landing area to soft slush, which cushioned our impact some. So, bolstered by youth and wine, we tempted fate with long leaps into the sharp alpine air. We could mark each jumper’s distance by the exploded landing holes in the snow far below, and I remember eyeballing the farthest one and wanting to set a mark for others to shoot for.
I charged the snow runway like a long jumper pounding toward the sandpit, and I hit the edge of the cornice at full speed, springing and thrusting up with all my legs could muster. Once I was airborne, it was quiet, just the crystalline clink of kicked snow flying like shards of glass around me, the suspended striations of shock-blue sky, and soiled-white snow below me as I sailed and dropped into the ungodly length of the fall, the earth hurtling upwards at me at an alarming speed. I heard the distant peal of friend’s voices in elation or fear or probably both, then the crunch of my boots at impact, followed by the dreadful crush of my knees driving upwards into my chin, the snap-clasp of my mouth shutting, teeth against teeth, and the metallic taste of blood as I bit off the tip of my tongue.
It was an enormous leap and I bounced so hard, buttocks and back slamming into the snow, that for a moment I was upright, on both feet, glissading down the chute making controlled telemark turns until my speed was too great and my feet slipped from beneath me. Then I was plunging headlong and face-first, swimming sideways to keep away from the onrushing band of rock. The corn snow felt cold and prickly against my wrists and forearms as I dug in, anchoring them like fleshy ice-axes to slow my inevitable collision.
I don’t recall any sound at impact, just the weird feeling of simultaneous heat and cold on my palms and arms as I ran out of snow and hit the scree, barely missing a boulder the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and skidding to a stop. I stood quickly and tried to hop and yowl the pain away. My palms were stone-sliced, blood chasing down the little slits like thermometer mercury. I reached down to a hot throb in my knee and felt a knob the size of a golf ball, and I cringed at how painful the hike out would be. But I could hear the hoots and cheers of my friends way back up the mountain, peering out over the top of the cornice like mountain goats. I limped slowly back up the mountainside spitting flecks of blood in the summer snow, and was happy with my sitzmark, which we estimated to be a good forty feet from the cornice lip. I smiled, running my tongue along the inside of my teeth, feeling the cleft where the tip used to be and relishing the taste of peril in my mouth, the ferric flavor of blood and flesh and air commingling.
Sustained years of such abuse have resulted have contributed, I suspect, to the reduced cartilage and advanced osteo-arthritis in my joints, so that I now opt for water-based landings whenever possible. A few years back my wife Camie and I were traveling in Mexico, north of Puerto Vallarta in Sayulita, when our boat operator pointed to some cliffs high on an island we were approaching to observe blue-footed boobies. The captain asked if anyone on board cared to cliff jump. Fueled by numerous shots of 100 proof agave nectar, I and another guest agreed we were game. The hitch was that we had to anchor offshore, then dive from the boat and swim to the island, where surging swells pounded us against the sheer sea walls. Once there, we latched on and shimmied up, our feet and knees and bellies pierced by sea urchin quills.
Our nimble guide Juan led us up a thin cut in the mountainside he referred to as a “trail” but which was really nothing more than a scar on the mountain’s face. Up and up we climbed, gulls and frigatebirds keening and squawking overhead, my tender bare feet and hands perforated by the urchin spears. We arrived at a precipice, a small outcrop no bigger than a baseball diamond’s home plate, with room for only one person at a time to stand while the others waited with their knees and hips and fingers dug into the near-vertical hillside. Sea spray misted up from the water on gusts, and I felt queasy as I looked down the escarpment, the green wall sloughing straight to the sea floor where waves crashed roughly against the cliff. Staring below my feet at the veil of water and rock, I understood that there was no climbing down, no other way back to the boat than to jump.
At Juan’s whispery urging, I edged out onto the rock promontory and surveyed my self-imposed predicament. The rock ledge I stood on was slick with bird leavings and sea wash, and the drop looked more harrowing than it had from the safety of the boat: a good fifty-five to sixty feet, easily the biggest plunge of my leaping career, with the complication of a slight convexity jutting out like a protruding under bite in the lower portion of the rock wall. I would have to get good purchase with my feet to push off and carry outward some distance, and the slippery stone concerned me. A weak leap could result in contact with the rocks right where they met the sea.
The wash of waves and the swooping frigate birds taunted me as I stood looking down, both lower limbs suffering the dreaded “sewing machine leg,” an involuntary muscle convulsing from fear as the body and mind simultaneously scream “mayday” to one another. I slowed the shakes by pressing my bare feet firmly into the rock platform and tried to calm my breathing, but I was alone and exposed out there, with nothing to hang on to but Juan’s soft voice as he began his countdown. I could see our boat nodding on the water far below, looking like a child’s tugboat in a bathtub. At “dos,” I closed my eyes for a moment and conjured all the jumps in my life, summoning the strength and control to coil in place and explode into a leap. I didn’t wait for “tres” before I powered myself from the wall into the chasm of air, all thoughts and words and language arrested in the knotted, contained world of my body lofted on the Pacific thermals.
It was languid and peaceful out there, a series of freeze frames, just the slightest whoosh of salt-wind in my face as I dropped from the sky toward the surf, my mind and body numinous and free, the air seeming to hold me aloft as on a soft breath, or a sigh. I smiled even as I fell, conjuring my children and spouse like mantras, taking them with me, wondering whether I jumped in an attempt to retain my youth or to fly in the face of its desertion.
The water was harder than I imagined it would be, stinging my feet as I slapped the surface on entry, then ripping my arms violently upwards. My nose burned, filling with seawater as I spun and finned into the depths, sucking brackish water into my mouth. I clawed for the light at the surface and broke through, gasping for air and swimming gimpily for the boat. I was so worked over from the stress and impact of the ordeal that I didn’t have the strength to pull myself into the boat, and it took my wife and a few others to yard me aboard, where I flopped about like a gaffed tuna, laughing hysterically. Camie just shook her head, assuring me she got a picture of the jump and making me promise not to do it again.
People who know me say that I walk with a limp, but I do not believe them. I am not certain whether the need for two new mechanical hips and degenerative disk disease that has resulted in a cervical fusion of my lower spine are in any way related to a lifetime of intentional “hucking” and the requisite hard landings. I’d like to think that these niggling conditions are genetic rather than self-imposed, but either way, all the air has been worth it. I’ve toned it down of late, forgoing hard or flat landings, certainly, and getting most of my air now in the controlled settings of ski terrain parks and from the relatively stable platforms of bridges spanning Idaho’s most dramatic rivers.
One of my favorite new family rituals involves an annual trip to Kamiah, Idaho, in mid-June for a long Father’s Day weekend. We stay in cabins along the Clearwater River across the highway from a conical rock formation which, according to Nez Perce legend, represents a monster’s heart. Downstream, right near downtown Kamiah, the river makes a huge sweeping bend and there an old railroad trestle bridge, still operational, spans the wide river. Once, driving past on the highway, I caught a glimpse of the bridge and saw some local boys leaping from high on the trestle, and I later pulled down to the river’s edge for a closer inspection.
You have to scramble through blackberry tangles and up a steep rock slope to get on the railroad tracks, then walk out onto the bridge, an impressive engineering feat over two-hundred yards wide, traversing an expansive section of the Clearwater. As you walk out you begin to see air through the gaps of the railroad ties at your feet, and the height, coupled with the roiling river below, is dizzying. A rushing train would mean a forced jump resulting in likely disaster, but I have it on local authority that the trains come mostly on Tuesdays, and sometimes Saturdays. Once midway out, you climb down the metal trestles and onto a railroad tie platform about twenty feet over the water and you stand in the sun, wind blowing downriver, getting your feet under you and eyeing the ancient river below.
The locals have done a nice job of hanging a rope swing from the metal span and sledge-hammering a hefty eight-foot cedar plank into the railroad tie pilings with long log spikes to make a sturdy diving board. The board looms out over the deep green water that eddies and pools against the criss-cross of ties tethered to the river bottom below. I coax my teenage daughter Logan and pre-teen son Hunter out onto the bridge once I’ve checked that it’s safe enough, and they walk out to me in the middle, perhaps too willingly. Camie, leery of heights and not entirely supportive of the bridge jumping, stays ashore and throws sticks for our Labradors, stealing nervous glances at her husband and children clambering playfully on the massive steel and wood structure.
I always jump first, to show the kids that it’s okay. The water is so deep here that I have yet to find the bottom, though I must admit that I don’t try very hard, as the water grows spookily dark the deeper I descend. As it’s a wild river and bitingly cold in June, I paw for the surface quickly, then swim across the current back to the rail pilings. I use swim goggles to scan for log snags or rogue gnarls of fence posts, anything the river may have swallowed and offered up again, but I’ve never found any impediments in the deep middle pool, where the water is slow and swirling and inviting, and so far, safe enough to dive into.
I jump again, splashing into the gorgeous emerald wash, then linger, treading water and calling to the kids to leap. One at a time, they walk the gangplank and gaze down at me, their worried smiles edged equally with fear and adrenaline, craving the rush of the jump and those ephemeral moments of freedom and uncertainty, the sweet taste of risk in their mouths. I tread water, pointing to a landing spot near me, and urge them to jump, to fly, yelling a countdown they can just hear through the stir of early summer wind and the sure, steady surge of the river. On the count of three, they bound from the board together, hands held high above them, their trusting and confident bodies and hearts soaring joyously into the electric Idaho air, and I hold my breath, waiting for them to land.