In a few weeks, the NFL is going to make a big deal about the 50th Super Bowl. Sure, the Super Bowl is a big deal – especially if the Packers are in it! – but 50 years isn’t really that long, especially when compared to Eau Claire’s most historic sporting event. On Feb. 12-13, 2016, just days after the Super Bowl, the Silver Mine Invitational will celebrate its 130th straight winter of bringing breathtaking ski jumping action to Eau Claire.

The tradition began way back in 1887, when what’s now known as the Eau Claire Ski Club held its first tournament atop Mt. Tom on the city’s north side. (For the record, this was nearly 40 years before the first Winter Olympic Games.) The club was composed of Norwegian immigrants who apparently saw the snow-covered mountains of their native land reflected in the river-carved hills of the Chippewa Valley. In later years, the club held its tourney at Hendrickson Hill (behind the current Sacred Heart Hospital), and in 1969 the tourney moved to its current home off Silver Mine Drive just south of the city.
Silver Mine Ski Invitational - Photo by: Andrea Paulseth, Volume One
If you’re a height-averse person like me, just gazing up at the towering jump – let along climbing the seemingly endless wooden stairway to get a better look – is enough to give you a non-weather-related shiver. But for competitors from around the world, flying off the end of the ramp into the frigid darkness is a thrill for which they’ve spent years training.
Silver mine Ski invitational - Photo by: Thresa Zvolena, Volume One
“Ski jumping is one of the oldest extreme sports,” explains Tami Jastrow, who is overseeing registration for this year’s tournament. “It’s also very exciting to watch. It’s very different than most of the sports you go and sit and watch inside in an arena in the winter.” In other words, instead of planting yourself on bleachers to watch a hockey or basketball game, you’ll be braving the same elements as the competitors – although you’ll be able to do it nursing a hot beverage and huddling around a cozy bonfire.
Silver Mine Ski Invitational - Photo by: Zach Oliphant, Volume One
During two days of nighttime competition under the lights on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12-13, skiers will climb rickety wooden stairs to the top of the hill, rocket off the steep jump, and soar overhead, silhouetted against the stars, before alighting on the hard-packed snow. Silver Mine is a 95-meter hill, which means the slope begins to flatten out 95 meters from the end of the jump, making it less safe to land beyond that point. For a sense of proportion, 95 meters is the length of nine school buses or longer than a football field. (The hill record is listed at 99.5 meters – that’s 327 feet!)

In addition to competitors from all over the United States – including members of Eau Claire’s own Flying Eagles Ski Club – Jastrow expects competitors from Austria, Germany, Norway, Finland, Slovenia, and possibly from Japan and South Korea as well. In all, between 65 and 80 jumpers are anticipated.

While the tournament has typically been held in mid-January, it was pushed into February this year for a good (and exciting) reason: For the first time ever, the Silver Mine Invitational will be an International Ski Federation event. Specifically, it will be part of the FIS Ski Jumping Cup – the third-highest level of international ski jumping – which means competitors at Silver Mine can accumulate points toward winning an internationally recognized title. The Silver Mine Invitational is also part of the Five Hills Tour and the U.S. Cup Tour, two other competitive series (the latter of which has been won for two consecutive years by Eau Claire’s own Nick Mattoon).
Silver Mine Ski Invitational - Photo by: Thresa Zvolena
The Silver Mine Invitational isn’t just about ski jumping, however. It’s a winter festival as well, featuring a heated tent, live music both nights, a beer tent, and two days of disc golf demonstration followed by a disc golf tourney on Sunday, Feb. 14. This year, the event will also have a few more things to hold the attention of the youngest visitors, Jastrow says, including a kids’ corner in the tent featuring face painting, coloring pages, and a sawdust pile filled with candy.

In short, the Silver Mine Invitational offers Olympic-level competitors and a history that predates the Super Bowl and even the Winter Olympics by decades – plus some good old family fun. When the weather turns cold in the Chippewa Valley, it doesn’t get any cooler than that.

Silver Mine Invitational Ski Jumping Tournament • Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12-13, 2016 • 5pm both days • $10 in advance, $15 at the gate, ages 12 and under free • Silver Mine Ski Hill, 2900 Silvermine Drive, Eau Claire • (715) 831-2345 • www.ec-skiclub.com