Jackjumping in Vermont

Jenny Coles Jjumper 1920's

Dan Cole’s antique jackjumper. They are now made with modern skis. Photo: Dan Cole

Take a downhill ski, attach a seat, point it down a snow-covered hill, sit down, grab the seat, take off, and you’re jackjumping

By Lee Wiseman | Contributor

Tight turns, roostertail stops, hair-raising speeds, dramatic spills—like learning to ride a bike, the skill of jackjumping comes quickly and easily. And it’s seriously fun. Face-hurts-from-smiling-so-much kind of fun. Like riding a rocket sled with power steering.

Jackjumping is a Vermont tradition, probably an outgrowth of early French-Canadian loggers who would bring their own jumpers to work and ride down the logging roads back home at day’s end. The sport spread through the state in the early 1900s with lots of enthusiasts building their own or buying manufactured versions of which there have been several through the years. Dan Cole recalls his father and uncle entering jackjumper races down Howard Street in Burlington in the 1930s and still has that jumper.

Charlotte boasts a clustering of avid jackjumper enthusiasts, myself included, stemming in part from a Richmond welder named Jeb Bush, who designed and built a number of jumper frames in the 1970s (you attach your own seat and ski), which many of us adopted and which are still built on request by his son Chelsea. Jeb would organize after-hour forays to Mad River Glen—jumpers walk onto the slope from Route 17, the driver then meeting at the bottom entrance to ferry us back up. Lincoln Gap is also an excellent jackjumping destination. And here in Charlotte we have Mt. Philo. What a gift! It’s really a jackjumper’s dream come true, with steep drops and a narrow winding course, always over too soon. And then it’s trudge, trudge, trudge back up for just one more run. This proves that jackjumping is good for your health.

The connection to Vermont ski areas evolved through lift operators who, like the early loggers, built their own and would jackjump down after work. This led inevitably to organized races that were held even back in the 1950s in Manchester and later spawned the World Jackjumping Championship held every March at Mt. Snow, now in it’s 36th year running. Bolton Valley held sponsored jackjumper races in the ‘80s, Mad River Glen had races as part of its winter carnival, and even Smuggs had jackjumper races in the past. Meanwhile ski areas like Jay Peak, Bolton, Sugarbush, and Smugglers Notch slowly opened up to general use by jackjumpers for the price of a lift ticket. What a deal! These days I’m good for one or maybe two runs on Mt. Philo, but I can go all day at Sugarbush.

Or so I thought. Last spring David Watts and I were jackjumping at Sugarbush when we were abruptly refused further lift use. The lift inspectors, part of the Vermont Passenger Tramway Division of the Vermont Department of Labor, told ski areas that they were not in compliance with a 2012 law requiring prior permission by the lift manufacturers before allowing jackjumpers on their lifts. This is, of course, absurd, since jumpers typically weigh 25 pounds or less and are hand carried. The law actually refers to carrying devices like bicycles or hang gliders on ski lifts—larger items that are hung directly on the lift chair. Nevertheless, the new Division Director J. Stephen Monahan chose to include jackjumpers, an apparent policy shift from previous years, leaving only Jay Peak and the yearly Mt. Snow contest as open for “legal” jackjumping at Vermont ski areas. We were robbed!

The Vermont Passenger Tramway Division also has a five-member Vermont Passenger Tramway Board (bureaucracy abounds) that meets four times a year and has the authority to reverse this misguided policy decision. A small group of us enthusiasts have attended the last two board meetings, proposing just such a variance, so that ski areas that choose to allow jackjumping no longer have to get prior permission from Dopplmeyer and POMA, the lift manufacturers. But we have failed so far, mostly due to resistance on the part of the two ski industry representatives on the board. In fact the director himself, who also sits on this board, supports the variance, but so far we’ve been outflanked twice on technicalities. The next board meeting is in December and we’ll try again.

Steve and Si

Steve Mann of Charlotte and Silas Towler of North Ferrisburgh enjoying a day jackjumping at Sugarbush before the change in policy about carrying jackjumpers on lifts. Photo: Lee Wiseman

It’s not clear why the two ski area reps (managers of Stowe and Killington) are opposed to this minor, and I dare say, quite unreasonable rule change, but one of them has a long history of opposing jackjumping at ski areas. By law, jackjumpers on lifts are considered “foot traffic,” so the operators are obliged to slow the lift way down for loading and unloading. This can cause backups at busy times and unhappy managers. Admittedly, there’s not a lot of money to be made from lift sales to jumpers, who are notorious cheapskates. (Jackjumper enthusiasts tend to wear outfits that make snowboarders look well dressed.) Most jumpers are built with salvaged, orphaned skis and homemade seats—from luxurious tufted cushions to ratty foam with duct tape trailing behind. Maybe we’re just not pretty enough to deserve access. Lift safety issues have been raised, but since jumpers are required to use a tether as well as hold on manually, it’s just a non-issue.

Meanwhile we have Mt. Philo. A downhill skier in Vermont might dream of growing up in Stowe or Stratton. For a jackjumper, Charlotte is where to live. And it has previously spawned a Mt. Snow World Champion, Ethan Bond-Watts, as well as close seconds by Craig Bunten and several other strong Charlotters like Steve Mann, David Richardson, Sean Hirten and Tucker Bond-Watts. I won in the seniors division in 2012—largely because I was the only senior to compete that year. Regular winter visitors to Mt. Philo have, I’m sure, become used to seeing jackjumpers zipping by. It’s a mecca for the sport—and local attempts at organized races are rumored. I encourage everyone to try out this fun sport and take advantage of our hill. It’s easy to do and really fun. To try it: flag down a jumper as we zip past, or contact the editor or me, as many of us own more than one jumper that we’re happy to lend and do a little teaching. Mostly, though, pray for snow this winter, and wish us luck at the next Tramway board meeting (and at the 2016 Mt. Snow World Championship).

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