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Sochi Olympics event may stir memories of Leavenworth's historic ski-jump pre-eminence

When the ski jumping competition commences at the Sochi, Russia, Winter Olympics, some in the Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth will recall the role their Cascade-mountains community once played in preparing U.S. participants for competition in that event. And at least one long-involved resident thinks that Leavenworth's historical ski jumping role should come again.

 

The keeper of the ski-jump flame for Leavenworth is, appropriately, Kjell Bakke, 80, whose father, Magnus, and uncle, Hermod, Norwegian immigrants, built the original 90-meter ski jumping hill in 1933, designing the jump and overseeing the volunteers who constructed what has ever since been known as Bakke Hill.

 

With its critical point of 73 meters, Bakke Hill was then one of the largest ski jumps in the country and was enlarged several times thereafter, gaining a reputation as the best ski jump in the western U.S. and hosting its first U.S. championships in 1941.

Kjell Bakke and wife, Georgia Bakke-Tull

Then after an unusually heavy snowfall caused the collapse of Bakke Hill in 1956, its reconstruction by community volunteers opened the door for hosting the U.S. championships in 1959, 1967, 1974 and 1978. But emerging new standards and development of other areas as year-round facilities left Bakke Hill to go into decline and disrepair in the years following.

 

Leavenworth, now a bustling tourist town of 1,900 that hosts thousands of visitors, went through its own long decline before reinventing itself as a Bavarian village, with all buildings in town fitting that theme in the community nestled amid the Alps-like surrounding peaks of the North Cascades range.

 

Rebuilding the nationally known ski hill on the mountainside north of town may prove to be a more elusive dream. But Leavenworth's rich skiing history will be appropriately celebrated February 8, just as the Sochi Winter Olympics get under way, when the Northwest Ski Hall of Fame will be opened in temporary quarters at the lower lobby of the Enzian Inn in Leavenworth.

 

As Bakke's wife, Georgia Bakke-Tull, who is heritage director of the Leavenworth Ski Hill Heritage Foundation and current project director for the Northwest Ski Museum & Northwest Ski Hall of Fame, notes, there will finally be a home for the hall of fame honorees. A total of 70 from around the Northwest, including Oregon and British Columbia in addition to Washington, have been inducted since 1990.

 

Five of the inductees are from Leavenworth, her husband, Kjell, and his father and uncle among them.

 

In fact the Bakke brothers, along with a ski promoter named Earle Little, are in the national Ski Hall of Fame. As Bakke-Tull notes of Little: "Though no one can affirm that Earle was ever on skis, his business management abilities brought enormous impetus to the early days of ski jumping," including working to invite international ski jumpers to Leavenworth and working with coaches across the Northwest to bring ski-jumping exchange students to the U.S.

 

As to the possibility of restoring the ski jump, it was in 1999 that Bakke looked into the feasibility of rebuilding the 90 meter jump and learned that the cost to rebuild it entirely and make it the year-round facility required to compete with other ski-jump facilities in the West was an unrealistic $5 million. So the dream went on the back burner.

 

But still Bakke nurtures the dream as the area's youngsters and others participate in jumping activities that his efforts have made possible.

 

Training hills of 15 and 27 meters that Bakke conceived and oversaw construction of after his retirement and return to Leavenworth in 1993, along with a cable lift for the jumps funded by prominent Leavenworth resident Harriet Bullitt, have provided training for jumpers since 1997.

 

And three years ago the first Bakke Cup was held to foster competition among the Leavenworth children and teens in alpine skiing, cross-country, and importantly, ski jumping. Bakke himself began skiing around Bakke Hill at the age of three, beginning in 1936, the year the year the Leavenworth Ski Hill Lodge was built by the CCC.

 

"Leavenworth has always been an ideal location for ski jumping,"says Bakke, adding "many of us would like to see jumping return to Leavenworth, but there are feasibility concerns."

"Today's standards would require a year-round-use hill, probably snow-making abilities, and the cost of reconstructing the hill to current standards and the annual maintenance and operations costs would be sizable."

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"Certainly not impossible, but it would take sizable effort and funding," he said. I'm hopeful the younger generation will be inspired to regenerate what was here in the past and make it even better."

 

Leavenworth has had strong connections with the Olympics beyond the pre-Olympics jump competition events it has hosted. It has had a number of Olympic team members, most recently, cross-country skier Torin Koos, who qualified for the past three U.S. Olympic teams.

 

And perhaps the most famous ski jumper from Leavenworth is former United States Olympic team member Ron Steele who was the best-placed American jumper in the 1972 Sapporo, Japan Olympics.

 

Meanwhile, Bakke-Tull continues the quest for a permanent museum-quality facility in Leavenworth for the NW Ski Hall of fame.

"We are in conversations with another recreational group inLeavenworth in hopes of working together on the development and building of a facility that would be green built, self-sustaining and serve as a museum and an educational facility to be used for educational endeavors including climbing and rescue/medical assist training," she said.

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