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The Progression of an Obsession: Part II | UNITED STATES, CALIFORNIA | 03/30/2009, by Freedom RiderThis article is Part II of the Skiing the Backcountry History Series. In Part 1, we covered early skiing history from 4000 BC through the 1920's. Please share your own perspective and insight in the comments below!
The 1930's were transformative times in the history of skiing. Even as hundreds of ski clubs, lifts, lodges, and trains were in operation from coast to coast, skiing remained an essentially rugged activity reserved for hardened outdoorsmen, adventurous college kids, and wealthy eccentrics looking for a new novelty to check off their life's to-do list. The 1932 winter Olympics in Lake Placid ignited the flame of excitement for skiing across the nation, which didn't go unnoticed by some of the cutting-edge entrepreneurs of the time, who were keeping a keen eye out for investment prospects amidst the declines in mineral and lumber industries.
This moment is sort of a peak, so to speak, in the history of skiing where one could look back to the past on one side or towards the future on the other. The ancient Norwegian skiing philosophy of Idraet, (skiing as an exercise in character-building), was very much alive in the spirit of those day's skiers; yet the future of skiing was becoming evident.
Over the next decade, skiers would benefit from advances technology (laminate skis, cable bindings), improvements in technique, the organization of a national ski patrol, and more access. Fashionable ski clothing and luxury resort-style ski towns were on the brink of the horizon.
In 1936, an unlikely time right in the heart of the Great Depression, a Union Pacific Rail Barron (Averell Harriman) changed skiing forever by opening America's first destination ski resort, Sun Valley Ski Resort, complete with the world's first chairlift! What was so revolutionary about the design of Sun Valley was Harriman's realization that more money was to be made around the idea of skiing, than simply just selling lift tickets and sending people up the hill.
Advertising unheard of novelties in a ski vacation, such as the world's first chair lift, an Olympic sized swimming pool, bowling alley, tennis courts, golf course, high-end shopping, and five-star dinning - Sun Valley was reaching out to a new market of skiers with particularly discerning taste.
Up until this point, the history of backcountry skiing had been synonymous with the history of skiing as a whole. Sun Valley was the fork in the road where skiing diverged into the modern concepts of "resort" skiing and "backcountry" skiing. Such a perspective is apparent today, but at the time a more likely distinction would have been between 'rich people' and 'normal people' skiing. For a skiing enthusiast in New York City at the end of the 30's, a vacation to Sun Valley was only slightly more realistic than visiting Chamonix.
Since all good men and metal were needed for the war effort in the 40's, the early development of the American ski industry was slowed by the U.S. involvement in World War II. However, high up in the Colorado Rocky Mountains at Camp Hale, about 14,000 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army were honing their skiing skills, training for the 'good fight' against the threat of fascism.
Although the 10th Mountain Division was successful in removing the Nazi forces from the Italian Alps, their greatest achievements were yet to begin with the end of the war. All of a sudden our country had a surplus in unemployed highly trained skiers who were looking for new career opportunities in the rapidly booming economy. Soldiers from the 10th had a hand in every aspect of the post-war ski industry.
They opened ski schools, scouted terrain for new resorts, founded ski magazines, made ski films, and continued to improve equipment. Aspen, Vail, Sugarbush, Crystal Mountain, and Whiteface Mountain are only a few of the resorts built by veterans. Their impact continues to this day, as a network of backcountry skiing huts in Colorado has been built in their honor. A total of 12 huts are now popular destinations for today's touring enthusiasts and extreme freeriders.
Looking back, historians are quick to note that the Second World War delivered us from the depths of the Great Depression by reinvented both our industry and agriculture. In the same way, the 10th mountain division veterans played an important part in making skiing accessible to the masses, an activity once reserved solely for the wealthy or dangerously brave.
Just as the 50's and early 60's were sort of an idyllic time of the golden age of Americana culture, so too was it a shimmering golden age for the ski industry. In part III of this series, we'll take a look at how the ski industry has changed in recent history. Stay tuned!