Michigan's long history of ski jumping

Wilbert Rasmussen of Negaunee, Mich., practices the ski jump before the 1952 Winter Olympics at Holmenkollen, Norway.

Skiing quite possibly is the oldest sport known to man. (Picture a clever caveman tying some old mastodon ribs to his feet and scooting around the mountains.)

Since the dawn of history, northern Europeans have looked on skiing as more efficient than walking. A museum in Stockholm, Sweden, claims to have a pair of skis that may be 5,000 years old. In the Middle Ages, armies proficient in the art of skiing controlled snow-covered areas of Europe.

 The National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Mich

The National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Mich.

As skiing developed into a leisure-time activity, categories such as alpine and nordic skiing evolved. But the most spectacular forms of skiing clearly are ski jumping and ski flying, thrilling not only to the jumper but to those spectators who brave the cold to marvel at the sight.

During the 1870s and 1880s the first ski-jumping tournaments in the country were held in Ishpeming, a tiny Michigan mining community near Lake Superior. Renegade skiers seeking even greater thrills developed what became known as ski flying.

In ski jumping, the jumper follows the curve of the hill, usually no more than 10 feet off the ground, while fliers aim for much greater heights and distances. The sport is considered so dangerous that ski jumping is a male-only sport in the Olympic games and ski flying is not recognized at all.

In February, 1904, a number of Midwest ski clubs banded together to form the National Ski Association. The organization scheduled the first National Ski Tournament in Ishpeming, which had formed its own ski club in 1887. The national association claimed 17 charter members, all from the Midwest. In that first tournament, Michigan’s Thomas Walters claimed the world record jump of 82 feet.

Other Michiganians would make their mark on the sport, including the Hall brothers, Carl, Clarence and Henry, native Ishpemingers, who learned the sport using barrel staves as skis (no mastadon ribs being available).

Another Ishpeminger, Jumpin’ Joe Perreault, in a 1949 meet, outjumped the world champion, Peter Hugsted of Norway, and Finland’s Matti Pietikinen, who became champion the following year. Perreault was inducted into the Ski Hall of Fame in 1971 at age 46.


Joseph “Jumpin’ Joe” Perreault of Ishpeming outjumped present and future champions at a meet in 1949.

In 1955, the Olympic team ski jump trials and the U.S. Jumping Championship were held at the Pine Mountain Ski-Jump at Iron Mountain.

The Pine Mountain scaffold in 1955 was 328 feet long and 156 feet high, the tallest man-made ski jump in the world. It had a 632-foot landing hill, making a total run of nearly 1,000 feet. There was a vertical drop of 415 feet from the end of the scaffold to the end of the landing hill.

The Bietila family of Ishpeming produced the Flying Bietila Brothers, including three-time U.S. Olympian Walter Bietila and his brothers Roy, Ralph, Paul, Leonard and Jackie. Paul, acknowledged as the best U.S. jumper of his time, was hurt in a 1939 ski accident and died from pneumonia a few weeks later at age 20. Paul was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970.

Walter Bietila coached the U.S. jumping team in 1962.

Gary Rasmussen of Negaunee, son of 1950s-era Olympic skier and Ski Hall of Famer Wilbert Rasmussen, considers ski jumping to be safer than alpine skiing.

Rasmussen promotes the sport for youngsters and says, “Every practice jump is as important as any jump you’ll ever make. You have to get pumped up all the time. I don’t feel there is any difference between competition and practice. If the jumper is not serious every ride, then that’s when you run into problems.”

 Walter Bietila, right, congratulates his brother Ralph after Ralph won the Class C competition with a jump of 261 feet at a meet in Iron Mountain in 1942. The Bietila family is from Ishpeming

Walter Bietila, right, congratulates his brother Ralph after Ralph won the Class C competition with a jump of 261 feet at a meet in Iron Mountain in 1942. The Bietila family is from Ishpeming.

The Olympics effectively banned ski flying by limiting jumping distances to 90 meters. Flying is held on a 120-meter jump by FIS measurement. FIS is the Federation Internationale de Ski, jumping’s governing body.

In 1970 the Upper Peninsula hosted the first ski flying tournament ever in the Western Hemisphere on the newly constructed jump at Suicide Hill on Copper Peak.

While most ski jumps permit leaps of 300 to 350 feet, ski-flying hills like Suicide Hill enable skiers to sail 500 to 600 feet.

Only a handful of skiers share the will and skill to attempt jumps of that distance.

“It takes a very experienced and calculated person. The average weekend skier wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Gene Kotlarek said.

“Something as spectacular as this may help maintain interest among high school boys we’re training as jumpers, establishing a pinnacle for them to reach,” said Kotlarek, a U.S. ski-jumping coach from Minneapolis.

The highly specialized sport of ski flying has no more than 100 skiers in the world capable of participating in the event.

“Your top class of competitor is the only one in this discipline,” Kotlarek said.

At the time Suicide Hill was built, only four other flying hills existed in the world: Planica, Yugoslavia; Oberstdorf, West Germany; Mitterndorf, Austria, and Vikersund, Norway. The Yugoslavian hill was the only one that would enable longer jumps than the new Michigan hill.

The million-dollar jump on Copper Peak near Ironwood was built with funds from the federal government and the Great Lakes Regional Commission. The Gogebic Ski Club had been trying to get financing for the hill for 30 years. The club had formed in 1935 to “encourage and promote” ski jumping in the country.

Suicide Hill on Copper Peak near Ironwood was constructed in 1970. The slide stands 241 feet above the summit of the hill.

The International Ski Federation granted the Ironwood promoters a sanctioned meet even before ground for the huge hill was broken. The tower rises 241 feet above the crest of the peak, which itself rises 364 feet. An elevator takes fliers up 180 feet. They walk the rest of the way. The huge hill has a vertical drop of 590 feet and an overall length of about 1,700 feet.

From a takeoff of about 75 mph, the flier will have to fall some 200 feet downward — about the height of a 20-story building. The forward motion and sloped landing area ease the shock of impact.

The use of wings or stabilizers is forbidden. Snow can be added with machinery, but wind can cancel or delay an event.

The site can handle 50,000 spectators. An elevator that can carry 12 rises to an observation tower that provides a view encompassing much of Lake Superior, the Apostle Islands and Black River Harbor. Copper Peak is 12 miles north of Ironwood in the Ottawa National Forest. It averages more than 130 inches of snow per season.

Conditions favorable for winter sports and the enthusiasm of local residents helped name Northern Michigan University as a Winter Olympics Team training site.

The Ski Hall of Fame located in Ishpeming honors the sport’s rich heritage. It was there in 1904 that the National Ski Association was formed by the Finns, Swedes and Norwegians who had settled in the Upper Peninsula. The NSA later evolved into the United States Ski Association.

The northern European, snow-loving immigrants who came to Upper Michigan found it similar to their old homelands and brought their sports with them. They had come to be miners and lumbermen but became part of Michigan’s skiing history as well.

The breathtaking view down the ramp of Suicide Hill at Copper Peak

The breathtaking view down the ramp of Suicide Hill at Copper Peak.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News