It doesn’t look the least bit like child’s play, but Heiko Walter says the imposing ramp looming before us was once used to train youths how to ski jump.
Both Walter and his nine-year-old son are avid ski jumpers, and many children in the mountainous parts of Thuringia choose winter sports over more conventional pastimes like football, attending schools that focus on training them for high-level competition.
“This region has the oldest winter sports club in Europe outside of Norway,” the hardy-looking 43-year-old says. “Norwegian engineers who came to build the railroad at the turn of the century brought their skis and since then ski jumping has been part of our tradition.”
Eight years ago, the physical education teacher developed what he says is the world’s first “ski jump for everyone” in the quaint town of Steinach, nestled among the gently rolling slopes of the Thuringian Forest. He calls his contraption, which allows the curious to experience the thrill of the sport without years of training, Skiflyer.
“Everyone should have the chance to know what it feels like,” he says.
As we approach the gear hut, champion senior-level ski jumper and Skiflyer employee Jens Greiner-Hiero pops up to inform us that an unidentified mountain predator has left a disembowelled fawn on the steps.
“It’s pretty fresh,” he says, unperturbed.
While I feel safe in the care of the obviously experienced duo, I can’t help but imagine how my own delicate viscera might fare if I don’t stick the landing.
Not to worry, Walter says. Skiflyer, which insures the jumper’s safety with a steel cable and a harness, skips the landing and focuses on the fun part.
Following detailed instructions and a few practice jumps on safe ground, I find myself helmeted, harnessed and strapped in to a pair of broad skis that I doubt I can control despite growing up skiing Colorado slopes.
“Athletes always do best, particularly those who watch a lot of jumping on television,” Walter says. “About 50 percent manage to hold the correct form.”
With trembling knees I peer at the ground some 45 metres below, repeating Walter’s instructions in my mind: From a crouched position spring forcefully from the ramp’s edge, then lean forward without lifting the heels, arms to the side, and hold on to that pose with every fibre in the body.
Failure to maintain this position could result in the jumper twisting around in their harness, skis flailing in the wind, Walter explains. It’s not dangerous, just not nearly as fun.
The signal to jump turns green, but I’m paralysed by fear, staring nervously at the ramp and the valley below, disastrous thoughts racing. Walter waits patiently, clearly accustomed to witnessing this kind of crisis regularly.
Finally a spasm of pride intervenes and I force myself from the safety of the nest.
After just a few terrifying moments racing down the rollers at high speed, I’m launched from the ramp, having failed to maintain the presence of mind to actually leap. But I’m gritting my teeth, leaning forward and holding my arms down – and sailing through the air with exhilarating speed.
Some eight seconds and 150 metres of euphoria later, I hang awkwardly in my harness and I’m lowered from the cable. My knees are still shaking, but this time from excitement.
A strong jolt of adrenaline is a welcome reminder that I’m still alive, I tell Walter later.
“That feeling is exactly why I do this,” he says.
Partnered with Munich-based adventure company Jochen Schweizer, Skiflyer is just one part of Walter’s larger outfit, the Rennsteig Outdoor Centre, which offers various adventure sport tours along the famous Rennsteig hiking trail and beyond.
Visitors can try Skiflyer year round, and the facility also accommodates large groups, as well as company team-building outings.
Prices start at €36 for a single jump and go up to €146 for three jumps plus a one-day course with a pro ski jumper at a ramp for grown-ups in the neighbouring town of Lauscha.
Single bookings are available on the first Sunday of every month, and group jumps are available with starting with six people. Email inquiries to: [email protected]
The nearest train station is at Saalfeld (Saale), just a two-hour jaunt from Berlin on a high-speed ICE route. There visitors have access to limited bus services, or car rentals at Sixt and Europcar. The drive from Saalfeld takes about 30 minutes.
Adrenaline junkies in Bavaria can also try out a similar ski jump in Neukirchen, which Die Erlebnis Akademie, or “The Experience Academy,” opened in 2007. But be warned, Skiflyer inventor Walter says the jump velocity is slower than his operation.