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The Progression of an Obsession: Ski History 4,000 B.C. - 1930 | UNITED STATES, CALIFORNIA | 02/20/2009, by Freedom Rider
Sometimes when we stop to grab a cup of hot cocoa in our local ski lodge I stop to ponder those faded black and white photographs hanging in the hallways. There they remain, a moment forever frozen in time, smiling at us with mischievous grins while holding their enormous skis that tower over their heads. Through the lens of our polarized goggles these old faces seem to be a millennia removed from the modern bro/bra fashion show; yet I've learned that these pioneer skiers are closer in attitude and spirit than I ever imagined. Backcountry skiers today seem to embody that same pioneer skiing spirit.
The world's earliest evidence of skiing dates back to Siberian cave drawings believed to be made around 4,000 B.C., or about the same time the pyramids were built in Egypt. These early hunters probably developed skis out of the necessity of having to traverse snow for hunting in the long arctic winters, but I like to imagine that they enjoyed an epic powder day here and there. The Vikings inherited skiing around 200 B.C., and the first evidence of skiing being used for "fun" appears in an Icelandic poem dated around 1,000 A.D. praising the Viking King Harald Hadrade's fast skiing. It's clear that from very early on, skiing was used to entertain Scandinavians throughout the winters, and was presumably even useful for impressing the ladies.
Skiing began to resemble our modern conception of the sport around 1850 when a potato farmer from the mountainous region of Telemark, Norway developed the first heel strap. Greatly increasing ski control, the heel strap enabled steep descents and ski jumping. This young ski pioneer named Sondre Norheim was remembered as a laid-back underachiever in his own time even though he continued on developing the first ski with a sidecut, as well as the Telemark and Christiania turning techniques. Skiing was embraced in Norway as a pastime for both farmers and kings alike.
The sport of skiing caught the world's attention in 1888 when explorer Fridtjof Nansen traversed the continent of Greenland on a pair of skis. Viewing skiing as a proving ground for human achievement, adventurous British aristocrats were eager to borrow their Norwegian neighbor's skis for winter retreats in Switzerland. In the 1920's, British entrepreneur Arnold Lunn organized the Kandahar Ski Club out of his winter home in Murren, Switzerland, and hosted the world's first official international alpine competition complete with the world's first slalom race. This annual event was largely responsible for spreading the joy of skiing across the globe- even as far away as Chile.
While Europeans were busy organizing clubs and races, a totally different, more roughneck style was emerging in North America. One man in particular had come to the Sierra Nevada mountains of California with skiing in his blood. In 1856 the Telemark-born mail carrier known as Snowshoe Thompson began his first trans-Sierra ski traverse carrying 100 pounds of mail. Think you're hard core? Well this guy was so committed to the task that he completed the 5-day, 160 mile mountainous journey without luxuries of a sleeping bag or warm food. Again and again he accomplished this feat!
Thompson inspired hoards of California gold miners to learn to ski. While the Norwegian immigrants in the much flatter North Eastern and Mid-Western U.S. enjoyed ski jumping and cross country skiing, the sincerely machismo Californian miners staged the world's first downhill races in the 1860's. With help from another of their inventions, an early ski wax known at that time as "Ski Dope", it's believed that they reached speeds in excess of 60mph!
Slowly, the rowdy skiing scene in America became more organized and in 1882 more Norwegian immigrants founded the Norske Ski Club in Berlin New Hampshire. In fact, ski clubs all across the mountains of Canada and the U.S. began recruiting new skiers and developing skiing as a sport with a standardized technique. Even today's National Ski Association is the evolved form of the Ishpeming Ski Club that was founded in the North Peninsula of Michigan in 1891. With thousands of new skiers scattered across a country that had few highways and automobiles, entrepreneurs began scrambling to find ways to get those urban ski enthusiasts up to their ski lodges, and sure enough steam engine trains were built the first mechanical devices built to carry skiers uphill.
In 1868 the cog railway on Mt Washington, New Hampshire, and the Union Pacific line crossing Donnor Pass in Northern California were both completed, and skiers were able to easily access the mountains. Shortly after people were taking ski lessons in Manhattan at the Macy's department store then boarding the weekend train to ski the Laurentian Mountains near Montreal. All fired up from a recent ski jumping exhibition in Madison Square Garden, 300,000 New Yorkers boarded ski trains on President's Day Weekend in 1936 to head north in pursuit of their powder dreams. Much like the ski resort employee housing of today, these ski trains gained a reputation for all-night drunken debauchery.
After the first skier rope tow was demonstrated in Truckee, California at the winter carnival in 1910, early ski area owners began converting their automobiles into rope tows, and the novelty of being pulled up the mountain quickly became a hit. Seeking to cash in on the new skiing fad, Milwaukee beer brewer Fred Pabst began buying up several ski areas in an attempt to apply his business expertise to maximize the profits of his ski areas. However, he insightfully discovered that he could make more money selling his beer to the skiers than he would selling lift tickets, a strategy that today's ski corporations such as Vail and Intrawest have taken full advantage of.
From Siberian cave dwellers to Vikings to Norwegian farmers to mail carriers to modern recreationalists, skiing has enriched lives for at least the past 6,000 years! As an obsession for millions of outdoor enthusiasts scattered across nearly every corner of the World, skiing continues to inspire passion and evolve in ways that surprise, concern and invigorate us all. Click here for part II of the ski history series!
"The Story of Modern Skiing" by John Fry
"The Mountain Sea: A History of Lake Tahoe" by Lyndall Landauer