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A Short History of Alpine Skiing
Telemark to Today
It began in Norway, and
ended up all over the world.
by Morten Lund
Skiing Heritage, Winter 1996 —Volume 8 number 1
Only 75 years ago, alpine skiing was an elite venture practiced
by a few hardy souls in a half dozen mountain resorts in the European
Alps—where, inns and hotels had just begun to stay open in winter.
The rapid radiation of alpine skiing from these small mountain towns out
to every continent and remote corners of the earth was a completely unforeseen
phenomenon, a profound surprise in size and extent.
million alpine skiers today can journey to any of three hundred major
alpine resorts around the major mountain chains of forty countries. They
can choose from among the several thousand lift-served slopes stretching
from Alaska to the Chilean Andes and from the Spanish Mediterranean west
to the Pamirs of central Asia and on to Korea on the Pacific rim. In the
Pacific itself, there is skiing in Australia and New Zealand. Alpine skiing
now exists in places as unlikely as Manchuria, Kazakhstan, South Africa,
India and, on occasion—Antarctica.
Alpine skiing goes far beyond any other winter sport in that it defines
almost completely at least a hundred resort communities around the world
and is a major factor in many more. Alpine skiing is the mainstay of winter
recreation in the northern tier of American states and in the entire Appalachian
chain down to the Carolinas, in the Canadian Laurentians, in the northwest’s
Cascades, in the western Rockies and the far western Sierra Nevada. The
sport gives crucial support to the winter economies of alpine Chile, Argentina,
Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Russia, Japan and Australia.
Destiny or lucky circumstance, or perhaps a lot of both, contrived to
boost alpine skiing from a pastime on a par with slogging about on skis
and with sledding and skating into something deeper, a way of life and
a treasure of recreation practiced so widely today and available somewhere
in most of the snowy mountain ranges on earth.
In short, alpine skiing has reached a popularity and a global penetration
far beyond the wildest dreams of its pioneers.
And actually, there are at least some solid explanations.
Pioneer alpine skiers in the 1920s were drawing on a trial-and-error process
of millenniums, at least five thousand years, of winnowing out mistakes
such as short broad skis and a single long pole while preserving advances
such as long, narrow skis and two shorter poles.
Secondly, nordic skiing, ski mountaineering and alpine skiing share the
same starting point. Just as there is specific historical information
that Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891 using peach-basket
hoops at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, there is specific historical
information that nordic skiing sprang from specific inventions and techniques
developed in Norway’s Telemark County during the last half of the
There was a rather startling, intense and unprecedented moment at the
end of the many preceding centuries of slow-moving evolution as the skiing
of a tiny sector of a tiny nation led to a climactic, unprecedented spurt
of technique and technology in the matter of ski descent.
The first evidence of any skiing at all comes from Stone Age rock carvings
discovered around the Arctic rim, many showing ski-shod hunters in hot
pursuit of game in lands recently uncovered by the retreat of the continental
glaciers. The time-frame is the same as that of Egyptian pyramid-building.
Incised on dozens of rock faces are images of hunters, sometimes disguised
in skin and horns, corroborated by crude ancient skis pulled from Scandinavian
peat bogs and pollen-dated back as long ago as 4500 years, back to the
age of the stone carvings, that is, the era when much of humankind was
experimenting with the tricky feat of cultivation.
Stone-Age skiing, obviously, was not to have a good old time of it sliding
down the hills. The first evidence of skiing other than as utility is
a mere thousand years old.
poetry known as Eddas, composed around 1000 A.D., alluded to fast skiing
as an accomplishment of Viking king Harald Hadrade (1046-1066), rather
than a necessity. In the Eddas, it is clear that skiing is not just for
hunting, but for racing and wagers, as well as an attribute of an aristocrat.
Eight hundred years later, in Geographie, a Baedekker of its time, the
Danish traveler Father Knut Leem reported kids in Norway skiing just for
the fun of it, being able to pick up a hat dropped on the slope while
going at full speed.
There are frequent later records of "ski sport" in Norway. It
developed into a somewhat complex activity that nevertheless hewed to
the crude inefficiency of stiff, straight-sided skis provided with precarious
toe-strap bindings and deployed "stick riding," an ancient and
honorable technique of descending a slope like a witch on a broomstick—or
a hockey player braking and steering with his stick. Stick-riding meant
braking by thrusting the tip of a long staff into the snow to the rear
and leaning on it and turning by digging it to one side or the other.
Stick-riding was neither a quick nor a graceful way of doing things.
Norwegian skiing climaxed mightily thereafter in the appearance of the
Telemark skiers, mountain farmers living on the Telemark plateau fifty
miles northwest of what is now Oslo, the capital. The Telemarkers came
charging out of the blue to set off skiing’s first quantum leap
into controlled speed—discarding stick-riding entirely in favor
of turning the skis themselves.
Of these, the Norwegian farmer Sondre Norheim was the one whose myth has
Norheim’s occupation was growing potatoes on the hardscrabble slopes
of the Telemark, building furniture, skis and whatever the local valley
needed. A bit of a disappointment as a go-getter, he was nevertheless
a gifted athlete, foremost among the Telemark farmers who had all winter
to practice in their own world, a leisure which gave them the chance to
push technique and technology far past any previous point.
Telemark skiing marked the transition to dynamic control, changing the
angle of the ski bottom on the snow and changing the direction of the
ski to the line of descent—the basis of technique even today.
But to do this, first a better binding than the toe strap had to be invented.
The Telemark binding added a heel strap. Now there had been heel straps
before, but the Telemark heel strap, made of tough, woven, elastic birch-root
tendrils, ran around the boot heel and connected to the toe strap, holding
the ski firmly enough to the foot so the skier could maneuver the ski
or take to the air without danger of losing the ski.
The binding was invented by Norheim about 1850 and led to the flowering
of the world’s first "freestyle" contests—climbing,
running, making turns for the heck of it and flying off natural bumps
on unprepared snow.
Norheim was especially good in the air. When jumping became a separate
event from the other rather informal ski competitions, Telemark held a
regional invitational meet in 1866 which was won by Norheim. But Norheim
was accomplished at something more important than jumping. This was first
brought to the world’s attention in 1868 when Norheim was 43. He
and two companions skied over the countryside for three days running to
get from Telemark to the capital city, then called Christiania. There
they took part in the second annual Centralforeningen (Central Ski Association)
open ski competition whose object was to demonstrate skill at descending
a particular slope in the city.
The Telemarkers stunned city skiers by demonstrating quick, precise steering
and braking. No one in the city had ever seen such a dynamic technique
before. The Telemarkers used two separate and distinct turns. One turn
described a sweeping arc (it was later named the Telemark) and the other
turn made it possible to stop short with an abrupt little uphill swing
(it was later named the Christiania). A city newspaper enthused that "Sondre
Norheim could come down like lightning and suddenly stop in a second...
A new era has risen in skiing."
And it was true, skiing was never the same again.
To make turning easier, Norheim reengineered the ski itself, making the
waist narrower than the tip and tail. This "sidecut" pattern
helped the ski flex into the shape of a turn as soon as the skier tipped
it on edge. This new waisted shape came to be called theTelemark ski,
and it became the standard for ski design over the next century.
The turns from Telemark spread quickly throughout Norway and accelerated
even more as Norwegian skiing was taken up by the ongoing Norwegian liberation
movement. It wasn’t just fun to ski, it was patriotic. Skiing became
a defining Norwegian characteristic, implying strongly that Norwegians
were too courageous and independent to be tied down by mere Swedes, the
rulers of Norway at the time in an arrangement not popular at all with
In 1884, Sondre Norheim left his hardscrabble farm in Telemark for the
prairies of North Dakota, along with so many of his countrymen. There
it must have been too flat to be much fun to ski, but Norheim’s
image continued to be burnished by Norwegian poets, statesmen and writers
who held that his courage and tenacity were the very essence of Norwegian
The technical genius of Telemark technique is beyond dispute. Skiing a
la Telemark became the ideal of the turn-of-the-century skier on the Continent
as well as in Norway. The Christiania and the Telemark turns have legitimate
descendants of great use today, 150 years later—that says it all.
The term "christie" even now defines a turn with skis skidded
in parallel through at least part of it and the "tele" remains
the basic turn of back-country and alpine Telemarking, as it is called
But not content with having invented their binding and their dynamic turns,
the Telemarkers of Norway were not done innovating: next, they changed
the shape of the ski, inventing the first side-cut ski—narrowing
at the waist—in 1890. The "Telemark ski" bent more easily
into the turn under pressure of centrifugal force and went around the
corner more handily; it was the forerunner of the sidecuts used on skis
In the late 1800s, came Norway’s first export in the sport, their
skis. The demand for skis rose steadily in Norway from 1880 on, inspiring
new production methods. The first laminated ski appeared, with an ash
sole and pine top, in 1881. Hand-crafted skis were first exported to Sweden
in 1882. The first ski factories opened in Norway in 1886, to make the
The next export was the skiers themselves. Norwegian students, teachers,
engineers and businessmen fanned out over Europe at the turn of the century,
thanks to the fast-spreading railroad network in Europe. They brought
their skis with them and everywhere they skied, they made converts to
At the same time in Norway came the founding of the first Norwegian ski
clubs and, of course, competition in nordic cross country and jumping
between them; then came competition against other Europeans by individual
Norwegians and, finally, teams of Norwegians. The men from Norway inevitably
came out ahead, advancing the claim that, on the character of its citizens
alone, Norway deserved independence.
That claim got another boost from the exploits of the Norwegian hero Fridtjof
Nansen, who rose to world renown leading high-risk expeditions on Telemark
skis. In 1888, Nansen became the first man to cross the mid-Greenland
ice cap, on skis and sledges.
His book, On Skis Over Greenland, came out in 1890 in both English and
Danish editions and was translated into German the next year. It became
a worldwide propaganda vehicle for skiing. Again, in 1895-96, the explorer’s
reputation burgeoned when Nansen and a companion survived an 18-month
journey over the polar ice by ski, sledge and kayak, making their way
back to civilization in a modern saga unparalleled to this day.
As a follow-up, in 1911 Roald Amundsen skied all the way to the South
Pole, the first man to get there, outpacing Britain’s rival Scott
expedition, slogging away on foot, or on skis but using them badly, and
falling so far behind schedule that, ultimately, although Scott reached
the pole, he and his men perished on the return. Amundsen, unscathed,
was left to receive the applause of the world.
Telemark skiing thus had, at the turn-of-the-century, a well-earned reputation
for developing a strong, adventurous and free-spirited character, veritably
a charismatic sport.
The rise of Telemark skiing forms an interesting contrast with contemporary
"longboard" skiing, which was really the first form of alpine
ski competition. Hundreds of thousands of Swedes, Finns and Norwegians
set sail in the last half of the 1800s to better their lot in the New
World. Most of the migrants ended up on Midwestern farms, like Sondre
Norheim. But some became miners in California, Colorado, Utah and even
in the Australian outback. Everywhere they went, they made their own skis,
as usual. And they founded some of the world’s oldest ski clubs.
Enterprising men became mail couriers, the Fed Ex of their time, supplying
the mining camps their only communication with the outside world in winter.
The most famous was John "Snowshoe" Thompson, born in Jon Tostensen
Rue in Telemark. He carried mail on skis from Nevada 80 miles over the
Sierra to Hangtown, California. Other miners invented, in the mid-1800s,
the world’s first downhill speed races. They were run for gold and
glory, one mining camp against the other, in an atmosphere of boasting,
drinking and gambling. Longboard racers took off on skis twelve feet long,
several men at once (depending on the width of the slope) and ran straight
down at speeds that were clocked up to 87 miles an hour. This velocity
was not reached again on skis for a century thereafter.
Longboard competition was spectacular if only for the falls, and proliferated
with the rising fortunes of Western mining. In the end, it shriveled along
with the mines. Longboarding had little later influence on skiing and
was all but forgotten until rediscovered much later by Western journalists.
It had been a sport notoriously lacking in self-discipline, modesty and
beauty of movement, virtues conspicuous in Telemark skiing, virtues which
inspired a whole library of praise for Telemark skiing as it made a conquest
of the Continent.
But it was Continental skiing with a difference.
In Norway, the sport had been practiced mostly by mountain farmers, originally,
and in consequence considered a sport of the people. Norwegians prided
themselves in keeping the sport accessible, affordable and simple. And
while Norwegians may have sold skis to the world, they disdained to profit
from selling the sport itself, deeming skiing a matter of soul. There
was a ski school as early as 1881 in Norway, but ski instruction as a
profession was a very small matter and precious few Norwegians taught
the sport abroad.
This idealistic sport of the Norwegians, stressing endurance on the snow
and fearless flight through the air was wrenched around by British skiers
on the Continent to focus on the experience of ski descent on the snow,
a form much more appealing to many more people. From this came alpine
skiing—mainly because skiing developed on the Continent quite differently
from the way skiing developed in Norway.
In the Alps, skiing took hold within the confines of a number of what
had been mainly summer vacation resorts built on attracting clients who
could afford travel, lodging and dining, most of whom liked to hike among
the peaks. Skiing was merely an extension of the resort seasons of spring,
summer and fall into the fourth season, winter. Not surprisingly, Continental
skiing, like Continental hiking, was patronized by the well-to-do with
a sprinkling of the rich and the royal. Alpine nations competed lustily
for this business by advertising their own particular grand views, ski
guides and pleasures of food and drink.
Enter Mathias Zdarsky of Austria.
This new Continental winter resort business around the turn of the century
was fortified, and its expansion made possible, by the just-in-time appearance
of a technical innovation. It was known as "the stem," a technique
with wide-open commercial possibilities that rapidly gained acceptance
in the Alps while in Norway, naturally, it was ignored.
On the Continent at least, the stem filled a need. Going slow and steady
on steep pitches using Telemark and Christiania turns required considerable
skill. But the stem made skiing in a slow, controlled manner a possibility
for beginners—a fine introduction to skiing for a city-bound clientele
with limited practice time.
The man who invented the stem was Zdarsky, a towering transition figure
with a remarkably tough and healthy body for a retired school teacher.
In his retirement, he had been inspired by the 1890 German translation
of On Skis Across Greenland to import Telemark skis to Lilienfeld, lying
in the hills 60 miles west of Vienna. There, Zdarsky taught himself to
ski on the slopes around the retirement home he had built, Habernreit.
In the course of this self-teaching, Zdarsky came up with his maneuver
by essentially turning the skis into a plow. Once Zdarsky had discovered
his little secret, he assembled history’s first large ski classes
at Lilienfeld on weekends, as many as a hundred at a clip, mostly Viennese,
to be admitted to the charmed circle of stem skiers.
Zdarsky was the first and probably the last Austrian to give lessons free,
just to encourage the sport. On the other hand, Zdarsky did do very well
with his book on the stem, issued originally as Lilienfelder Ski lauf-Technik,
and published in 1896. Thereafter, it appeared in seventeen subsequent
editions under various titles. But the sport as Zdarsky practiced it was
really ski mountaineering. He viewed skiing as mainly the means to a controlled
retreat after the climactic enlightenment that came upon climbing up to,
and drinking in, a superb mountain view.
But control turned out to be only half of alpine skiing.
The other half turned out to be speed.
The change of focus from ski mountaineering to fast ski descent was the
initiative of the British, who had learned to ski in Norway, or from friends
who had, or from European skiers in the Alps, or from how-to books (the
first ski book in English was Ski Running, in 1904). No sooner had they
mastered the Telemark, the Christiania and the stem than the British invented
the Continent’s first alpine races, then as now called "downhill"
and "slalom." This began the transition from ski mountaineering
into alpine skiing.
These amusing competitions invented by the British were a good deal more
popular with the British than the nordic form which involved slogging
cross country or jumping, a form which the British have never got the
hang of even to this day.
The first alpine race invented was the downhill. The bud of this robust
event was a British club race, The Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup,
run in 1911 at Montana, Switzerland. Contestants skied an unmarked course
against the clock down the Plaine Morte Glacier over rough snow and enough
natural hazards to prevent contestants from simply running straight like
the longboarders. "The Kandahar" was thereafter (and still is)
held annually at Mürren, Switzerland. Emphasis on the importance
of the descent prevailed in British racing and in everyday skiing as well.
In effect, the sport of alpine racing was invented by the British, and
alpine skiing along with it.
The second bud of alpine racing was invented by British ski mountaineer
Arnold Lunn in January, 1922, on the grounds of the Palace Hotel in Mürren
where he persuaded some friends to race through a series of paired short
wands stuck in the snow. The race was against the stopwatch and without
regard to form, in contrast to contemporary Swiss controlled course contests
where form counted.
Lunn’s slalom cleverly played speed off against control. The delightful
tension between these opposites made the race so intriguing it spread
quickly. With slalom gaining popularity, it became possible to run alpine
combined races, scoring slalom and downhill together, as jumping and cross
country had been scored jointly for nordic combined titles. In 1924, Lunn
helped found Mürren’s Kandahar Ski Club to promote alpine combined
In the 1920s, the popularity of alpine skiing began to rise, thanks to
the spread of ski guides teaching the stem technique. One by one, alpine
resort hotels and inns arranged to stay open in winter to accommodate
a growing group of alpine skiers in places like Kitzbühel, St. Anton
and St. Moritz.
The rise of this new ski tourism was particularly pleasing to the Austrians.
They seized on skiing to refurbish a national image somewhat dimmed by
Austria’s aggressiveness as the Hapsburg Empire, in launching World
War I. Anything which depicted Austria as a land of peaceful, beautiful
alpine skiing was reflexively encouraged by all sectors. What came next
was a quick historical repeat of the cycle played out earlier during Norway’s
search for a national image. Norway had celebrated Telemark skiing and
raised the Telemark hero, Sondre Norheim, to mythical status. Now Austrians
universally glorified the sunburst innovation of Arlberg skiing and elevated
its hero, Johann Schneider, to the status of most important figure in
alpine skiing history which as a matter of fact Schneider was—in
reality as well as myth.
He was born in 1890 to a mountain farm family in Stuben, just west of
St. Anton, the largest town in Austria’s Arlberg Pass. Schneider
was extremely lucky in finding a boyhood ski guru, Viktor Sohm, a businessman
and serious skier from Bregenz, Austria, somewhat west of Stuben. Sohm
taught the young Schneider both Telemark and stem skiing during the first
decade of the 1900s, while Schneider was still in his early teens.
This was unusually good grounding for the time and enabled Schneider to
become, in 1907, at age 16, St. Anton’s youngest ski guide, attached—as
were all ski guides of the day—to a hotel in town. A bit later,
Schneider became Austria’s national ski champion.
World War I shunted Schneider into the role of ski instructor for Austria’s
alpine troops—hundreds at a clip. Using the army discipline, Schneider
was able to turn novices into passable stem skiers in a few weeks, an
unheard-of rate of progress. In 1918, Sergeant Schneider walked home from
the Tyrol after the Austrian Army had simply melted away in defeat. He
immediately decided to found his own ski school independent of any hotel,
and with a discipline along military lines. To boot, Schneider was well
aware that St. Anton lay astride the Orient Express and had the advantage
of being easy to reach from London, Munich, Vienna and Berlin.
His school did eventually attract a far-flung clientele, but not until
Schneider had laid the foundation for the profession of ski teaching.
He set up a system (based on Zdarsky’s turn): the snowplow stem,
the stem turn and the stem christie, in ascending order of difficulty.
The Schneider system replaced the tradition of ski guides, each teaching
his own grab-bag of turns and operating from scattered hotels throughout
the town. Schneider hired teachers to instruct at a location in the middle
of town and trained them to teach a fixed sequence based on the stem turn,
so that pupils returning after having had lessons could take up at the
exact same level they had left off—no matter which teacher headed
the class. If Henry Ford had come by, he would have nodded approvingly,
for this was an assembly line system.
Schneider set the modern precedent, again, by designing the first logical
sequence for teaching turns, all beginning in the stem position. The underlying
shadow of the Arlberg System can still be seen in ski classes throughout
the world today, three generations later, which says something about its
Schneider, finally, was first to set out a psychology of teaching, counseling
instructors daily on their approach, instituting an almost military esprit
de corps and insisting on adherence to a strict set of professional ethics—in
the early years, even socializing with pupils was banned (later rescinded).
Schneider’s first teachers were born in the Arlberg Pass—to
a man. By the end of the school’s first decade, Schneider’s
school had a half dozen of the best alpine racers in the world on its
teaching staff—like Friedl Pfeifer and Rudi Matt who at one time
or another defeated every racer in Europe. Schneider’s teachers
formed an elite (like the Telemarkers), faster and more spectacular than
any rival group. The films of this early St. Anton crew, preserved from
their time to this, show a remarkably skilled, almost modern skiing even
when viewed today.
That such films still exist is due to yet another telling innovation pioneered
by Schneider. In 1920, he collaborated with Arnold Fanck, pioneer adventure
film maker from Freiberg, Germany, in Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs, (literally,
"The Wonders of Skis"). It was the world’s first ski film
and it was an out-and-out instructional but with an exotic subject. (The
two of them also published a technical book in 1927 with the same title
as the film and using sequence film frames as illustration that became
a best-seller in Europe in 1925 and in the U.S. and England in 1933, adding
to Schneider’s reputation.)
Fanck capitalized on the huge success of this first film by starring Schneider
in a half dozen subsequent ski films—having dramatic plots—
beginning with "Fox Chase in the Engadine" (which set the everlastingly
durable "ski chase" format). The Fanck films gave European film-goers
their first action hero, "Hannes" Schneider—his film name
which he used in real life ever after.
"These two films," Schneider once wrote, "which were run
in cinemas all over the world, showed the masses of skiers that this skiing
was something different from what one was used to seeing until then. Even
those who believed themselves to be first class skiers had to perceive
that the skiing which was shown by me and some of my associates was something
quite different and, in respect of speed, style and control, had not been
Thanks to these films, Schneider projected a public image that promoted
his school, his technique—the Arlberg Technique—and his resort
to great effect, setting another modern precedent. By the time Schneider
starred in his final film, the romantic comedy ski chase, Das Weische
Rausche, "White Ecstasy," released in 1930, Schneider’s
technique and teaching format had become the worldwide standard. Schneider’s
school at St. Anton remained by far the world’s largest as Schneider’s
fame rippled across Europe to America, Japan and Australia.
In the interim, alpine ski racing’s acceptance into official world
competition was delayed by at least ten years past the time when it was
ripe. It was a delay marked by a struggle of alpine racing adherents against
a Scandinavian ski aristocracy entrenched in the Federation Internationale
de Ski or FIS. At the beginning of the 1920s, jumping and cross country
racing were the only games in town in terms of officially recognized international
ski competition. The FIS ran both the world championship competition and
skiing in the Olympics. The FIS in turn, was run by Scandinavians who
held the top positions. These worthies perceived slalom and downhill as
upstart oddities, not worthy of associating with the nordic disciplines.
The FIS firmly banned them from the first international world ski championship
in 1924, at Chamonix, France.
The 1924 event was the high water mark of Telemark skiing in Europe. Retroactively
designated in 1925 as the First Winter Olympic Games, the participating
cross country, jumping and nordic combined winners at Chamonix were awarded
the first winter Olympic ski titles. Norway, having shaken itself free
of Sweden, triumphed by overwhelming the rest of the world.
The Norwegians won eleven of the twelve titles offered, finishing one-two-three
in three of the four ski events. The number one Norwegian, Thorleif Haug,
took three gold medals, a feat unduplicated in male Olympic nordic competition
The final score was: Norway 11, Sweden 0—sweet revenge against their
The FIS thereafter held world championships annually, beginning at Johannisbad,
Czechoslovakia, in 1925 and continued to bar alpine events in the world
championships and in the Olympics—in 1928 at St. Moritz and 1932
at Lake Placid, New York.
A counterattack was nevertheless generating steam by this time. The popularity
of downhill competitions had spread in Europe, particularly after Arnold
Lunn’s slalom became well-known. In 1928, two giants of alpine skiing
got together to concoct the first international alpine combined. Schneider’s
Ski Club Arlberg and Lunn’s Kandahar Ski Club ran the first "Arlberg-Kandahar"
alpine combined, open to all comers.
The "AK" attracted the largest entry of alpine racers on the
Continent and the AK winner was thereafter clearly seen as the alpine
racer of the year and the luster of the event by far outshone the St.
Moritz Olympics of the same year. The AK generated such attention that
rival resorts began to establish alpine combined fixtures. Kitzbühel
ran its first Hahnenkamm combined in 1931, being joined by Switzerland’s
Lauberhorn at Wengen as the oldest permanently sited races. Alpine racing
was on its way to the big time.
And so was alpine skiing. This was the beginning of a real synergy between
racing and recreational skiing in Europe. As the interest in racing rose,
and the competitions multiplied, it drove the popularity of recreational
alpine skiing to new heights along with it, in a way that was not true,
later in America.
In the 1920s, the alpine nations of Europe began building ski lifts. The
popularity of alpine skiing made lifts a way of vying for the winter tourist
trade. And racing became much more sophisticated as it became possible
to practice running tens of thousands of vertical feet a day. The Germans
have the honor of being first, having set up a drag lift earliest in the
first decade of the 1900s, joined by the Austrian drag lift at Dornbirn
in 1908. The French kicked their lift-building off by finishing a cable
car for skiers and hikers at Chamonix in 1927, building a drag lift there
the next year for less than expert skiers.
The Swiss constructed the first cable car built expressly for the ski
trade, at Engelberg in 1928. In 1932, Gerhard Müller of Zurich struck
a blow for economy by patenting an inexpensive rope tow run by a motorcyle
engine, and began building them. In 1933, Davos finished the giant of
its time, the Parsennbahn, a cog railway that rose 3000 vertical feet
to the top of the Parsenn.
The Austrians followed with St. Anton’s Galzig cable car in 1938
as the era of popular walk-up skiing drew to a close, and alpine skiing
parted definitively from ski mountaineering. They were now separate and
distinct sports, alpine skiers using lifts at least several times a day
and ski mountaineers using them not at all, if they could help it.
In the meantime, citing the rising popularity of alpine skiing, Arnold
Lunn, as editor of the influential journals of The Ski Club of Great Britain,
was increasing the pressure on the FIS and the International Olympic Committee
to sanction alpine events in their world meets and the Olympics. Finally,
the FIS caved in to allow the first FIS alpine world championship, at
Mürren in 1931.
Five years later, the International Olympic Committee relented and sanctioned
a single set of alpine combined medals (three for each sex) at Germany’s
1936 Garmisch Olympics. None of the six winners were Scandinavian, though
Birger Ruud and Laila Schou Nielsen of Norway did each win their downhill
section of the alpine combined.
Unmistakably, there was now a form of international ski competition at
which the Norwegians could be beaten, which encouraged Continental alpine
countries no end.
During the rest of the 1930s, new resorts were founded in the Alps and
old ones expanded. Winter ski vacations increasingly became a venue of
international society and passion for skiing was a distinguishing mark
of the upper middle class.
By 1936, alpine skiing had pretty well settled in on the Continent but
North America remained on the periphery. Transatlantic passage was by
passenger steamship only and thus the transoceanic spread of enthusiasm
came along a bit more slowly than in the jet age. In the 1920s, America
had at most two or three sites for learning to ski, one being the Lake
Placid Club in New York’s Adirondaks along with a couple of resorts
in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. All the teachers were Norwegian, devoted
to Telemark skiing.
The first instructor to teach stem skiing in the U.S. was the German instructor
Otto Schniebs, certified in the Black Forest. Schniebs showed up in Waltham,
Massachusetts in 1927, employed by Waltham Watch Company, probably as
a graphic designer for advertising. He began to teach skiing informally
to members of the Appalachian Mountain Club and was soon officially coaching
college teams, first at Harvard and then the powerful Dartmouth College
ski team. At the same time, he was lecturing widely on skiing in a famously
thick accent. His favorite sentiment, echoed around the East, was "Scheeing
iss not a schport, it iss a vay of life."
In the era following World War I, after the Europeans had bled each other,
America became a country of prosperity—celebrated by excesses of
the 1920s. At the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s came a time when
outdoor exercise became a way of distinguishing oneself from the overindulgent.
Outdoor recreation became a conscious and popular movement in the U.S.,
which caused the formation of outing clubs at various colleges, hiking
clubs and ski clubs formed in the cities. The New York Amateur Ski Club
was founded by Roland Palmedo in 1930, as an outstanding example.
As a sign of the times, Katharine Peckett, daughter of New Hampshire innkeepers,
had skied in Engelberg in 1929 and came home to persuade her parents to
start a ski school at their inn. The Pecketts hired a German instructor
named Herman Glatfelder to teach at Peckett’s Inn, Sugar Hill, New
Hampshire, near Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch in 1930.
In 1931, America’s first Arlberg teacher came along, again, by chance.
Sig Buchmayr of Salzburg had begun to work in ski shops in New York City
when he was invited to join the school at Peckett's Inn. So Peckett’s
had the first American resort school offering Arlberg, a fact that led
to the development of Cannon Mountain as the East’s first big resort
By the mid-1930s, Austrian instructors were arriving in the U.S. to teach
skiing and incidentally to get out of Austria, which was being systematically
terrorized by Nazi Germany bent on Anschluss, or annexation. German threats
were a persuasive reason for leaving the Alps altogether, yet only a modest
number of Austrian instructors managed to make the admittedly difficult
decision to leave for America.
Small in number, this exile group wielded an enormous influence, far beyond
their numbers, bringing their deep expertise to bear at a time it was
badly needed to help get American alpine skiing on the road. The Austrians,
coast to coast, had an immense impact. Hundreds of Americans worked with
these Austrian ski maestros during the 1930s and, in turn fanned out across
the country, infiltrating Austrian know-how throughout the entire body
of American alpine skiing.
Americans did their part, too: Charles Proctor Jr. and John Carleton of
the 1928 U.S. Winter Olympic team, laid out ski trails in New Hampshire
with manpower from President Franklin Roosevelt’s novel creation,
the Civilian Conservation Corps. Charlie Lord of Montpelier, Vermont,
an early Mt. Mansfield skier, without benefit of European travel, was
hired by the CCC, to cut trails on Mt. Mansfield above Stowe, including
the epochal Nose Dive. A bit later, in 1938, Sel Hannah began cutting
trails on Cannon Mt. and soon was designing other eastern trail systems.
The larger influence, though, was that of the Austrians.
In 1935, Hannes Schroll from Salzburg, arrived to head the school at Badger
Pass in Yosemite Park, California. Otto Lang, the first instructor to
leave for America from Schneider’s school, came first to Peckett’s,
then founded the Northwest’s first official Arlberg ski schools—at
Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker and Mt. Hood.
The next year, 1936, Hans Hauser left Salzburg to head the ski school
at brand new Sun Valley, the first high-altitude resort in the U.S. Benno
Rybizka became the second Schneider stalwart to leave, arriving at Jackson,
New Hampshire, to start the ski school at the Whitney Farm and then took
the responsibility for a second one at North Conway (for hometown boy
turned millionaire banker, Harvey Gibson). Sepp Ruschp came from Linz,
Austria, to start the ski school at Mt. Mansfield and cut trails there;
he soon was running the entire resort.
In 1938, the long-threatened Anschluss came down on Austria as Nazi troops
marched into Vienna. To the shock of the ski world, the Nazis promptly
imprisoned Hannes Schneider. He told friends he’d been done in through
the influence of Leni Riefenstahl, the co-star who feuded with him during
White Ecstasy and thereafter befriended Germany’s Adolf Hitler who
let her direct several films glorifying the Nazis.
Schneider’s fate prompted several more St. Anton instructors to
get out: the town’s best young racer, Toni Matt, fled to Mt. Cranmore;
Friedl Pfeifer fled to Sun Valley—there he replaced Hans Hauser
as ski school director and designed the trails and lifts on Sun Valley’s
Mt. Baldy, the first large lift system in the U.S. Luggi Foeger, Schneider’s
lieutenant at St. Anton, eventually took over at Badger Pass while Schroll
moved on to Sugar Bowl.
In February 1939, after strong pressure had been applied by Harvey Dow
Gibson, a man with the means to twist arms, Hannes Schneider was freed
by the Nazis and allowed to emigrate to the U.S. where he took over Mt.
Cranmore while Rybizka moved to Mt. Tremblant in the Laurentians.
And with that, the center of gravity of the ski world had shifted to America.
And Dick Durrance, who had gone to grade school in Austria to become America’s
only world class male racer, and financed by New York steel heir and avant
garde publisher James Laughlin, bought out a group of Salt Lake City businessmen
at Alta, Utah, in 1941 to found the second important American high-altitude
Generally, the Austrian émigrés were the gurus of the growing
American sport, as well as key resort founders, mountain managers, ski
school directors, race coaches and trail designers in the growth of alpine
Americans were ripe for this new and exhilarating sport. The U.S. work
week was contracting as "the weekend" made its debut. The CCC
had cut ski trails from Maine to the Rockies and the Sierras. Ski areas
had begun to draw the American young to the slopes where skiing awaited,
healthy, virtuous and economical.
Being a skier required only roundtrip fare (at Pullman rates if it was
an overnight), warm clothes and rental equipment—all affordable
even by a clerical worker. In the 1930s, trains went everywhere in the
By 1934, trains were pulling out of New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco,
Ottawa and Montreal carrying thousands. Most skied at trackside locales—simple
pastures, logging roads and natural hillocks that qualified as the new
playing fields. The lack of sophisticated equipment made these early trips
more nordic than alpine skiing. Passenger cars on a siding served as a
combination ski club, ski shop and dorm where the tired could curl up
for a nap; they were forerunners of much more elaborate inns and lodges
of American alpine ski resorts to come.
The era of the auto was coming on and rail soon became secondary as Americans
flocked to the mountains by car. Another potent force coming on the scene
would also carry American alpine skiing toward mainstream popularity:
ski tows and cable lifts.
The first recorded lift in America was a drag tow at Truckee, California,
in 1910, but it did not inspire imitators elsewhere. In 1933, Alec Foster
built the Northeast’s first rope tow at Shawbridge in the Laurentians
outside Montreal, and lift skiing really took off. The tow idea was copied
quickly the next season, the winter of 1934, by David Dodd, run off the
back wheel of a jacked-up car, in Woodstock, Vermont: rope tows were simple—any
competent mechanic could put one up.
Six ropes went in at Woodstock within two years, along with dozens elsewhere
in the Northeast. There were upward of a hundred ropes on the continent
within five years. North America was outpacing Europe in the number of
tows. By 1940, rope tows were drawing thousands of Americans into skiing
The next step up in technology was the overhead cable lift. The first
overhead cable in the world was the single-passenger J-bar built in 1934
at Davos, Switzerland, by Ernest Constamm. The first in America was the
J-bar built the next year, 1935, at Oak Hill in Hanover, New Hampshire.
In 1936, Constamm converted his Davos lift to a two-passenger T-bar, then
moved to Denver and installed dozens of T-bars around the U.S. to make
it the workhorse lift of the generation.
Finally, what became the most potent uphill transport of all was invented
in the U.S., the chairlift, designed by Union Pacific engineer Jim Curran
for the 1936 opening of Sun Valley. It took a while for the chair to catch
on; however, by the mid-1960s, chairs were being installed at a clip of
fifty to seventy a season.
Fast overhead cable lifts posed a challenge: to take advantage of these
lifts’ ability to provide thousands of vertical feet of skiing in
a day meant the skier had to know something about technique beyond falling
down to stop, commonly the best-honed maneuver in the repertoire of many,
if not most, American skiers in the 1930s.
Fortunately, Arlberg schools stood ready to offer sane skiing to all comers,
having been enthroned at ski areas like Moosilauke, Jackson, Cannon, Gunstock,
Cranmore and Hanover in New Hampshire; Mansfield and Woodstock in Vermont,
North Creek and Bear Mt. in New York; Sun Valley in Idaho and Badger Pass
and Sugar Bowl in California. Business was good: fifty to ninety percent
of the skiers signed up for class (versus ten percent today).
By 1940, Alpine skiing was solidly entrenched coast-to-coast, partly through
hard work and partly through random factors—the Nazis, the CCC,
and the dense railroad network. Then, in December 1941, everything stopped.
World War II came to the U.S. with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
Most U.S. ski areas closed. The one bright spot was that the work of the
National Ski Patrol Director Minot Dole had persuaded the Army to establish
an alpine corps: the First Battalion, 87th Infantry, activated in June
1941, at Fort Lewis, Washington, became the core of the 10th Mountain
The 10th trained at Camp Hale at Tennessee Pass, 9,000 feet above sea
level in Colorado. Here some thousands of Americans were introduced at
no extra cost to the Arlberg technique as part of their training. The
common bond of skiing built the Tenth into a formidable outfit which was
undeterred by one of the war’s heaviest casualty rates among American
divisions: thirty percent of its men were killed or wounded in the 10th
Division-led breakthrough from Italy’s Apennines to the Brenner
Pass in 1945.
After the war, several thousand 10th Mountain survivors, Army-minted Arlbergers,
went into skiing—a vigorous cadre of inventors, developers, teachers
and entrepreneurs. Friedl Pfeifer founded the ski resort at Aspen and
later Peter Seibert founded its closest rival, Vail, the two giant resorts
of the era. In all, some 62 resorts were either founded by, directed by
or had ski schools run by 10th Mountain veterans; two thousand of them
had gone into the ranks of ski instructors.
This infusion paralleled the emergence of an American public with fast-growing
income, swelling the ranks of U.S. skiers and setting off an amazing burst
of American invention.
It was time. A 1940s skier was forced to endure a set of fragile and obdurate
equipment. First came a ski made of wood that warped and splintered. Ski
bottoms were coarse and needed wax every few runs; bamboo poles broke
frequently. Lace-up leather boots stretched frustratingly.
Bindings had to be laboriously fastened on by hand-operated buckles, and
would release only if unlatched or forced. The mis-named "safety
strap" required to tether a breakaway ski to the boot often caused
the ski to windmill in a sliding fall, slashing mercilessly at the skier’s
legs. If the strap broke, a loose ski became a lethal missile, drawing
warning shouts of "Ski! Ski! Ski! across the slope.
And then, to dress for skiing called for bundling in what amounted to
converted hunting and hiking clothes, wool long-johns, sweaters and scarves
topped by a windbreaker or canvas parka over wool hiking pants. Lunching
meant eating in a room permeated by the strong smell of wet wool mixed
with a potent aroma of ski wax.
Finally, in getting up the hill, one to two-hour weekend lift lines were
not uncommon—less than 30 minutes was considered good luck.
It was a great sport with great inconveniences. The 1940s skier had to
love it or leave it, and many left. But more came a-running in response
to the new technology that came out like shiny new Christmas presents
The unprecedented post-World War II surge of technology, in other words,
was crucial to keeping skiing from stalling.
It began with bindings: In 1939, Seattle skier Hjalmar Hvam broke his
second leg in two seasons and invented the Saf-Ski from his bed of pain.
It was the first swiveling toepiece, sold under the advertising motto,
Hvoom with Hvam! Saf-Ski inspired other releasing toe pieces; the first
toepiece with two swivel points was the popular Ski Free.
In the 1950s, Mitch Cubberly and Earl Miller independently came out with
fully integrated heel-and-toe release bindings, using boot plates at the
juncture of boot and binding. But the boot still had to be latched in.
The first Look step-in came out in the late 1950s, ending centuries of
awkward bending-over preliminary to skiing. The double concept of the
full release and the step-in entry was here. But its evolution was anything
but hvoom! It took another generation before binding geniuses mastered
the arcane complexities of step-in bindings which released reliably as
required. But arrive such bindings did, by the mid-1970s.
Skis improved much more rapidly.
The first high-tech U.S. ski, the aluminum Alu-60, came out in 1947 only
to be buried under an avalanche of Heads, wood-core aluminum skis with
plywood cores, also invented in 1947 by Howard Head of Baltimore. Heads
turned so readily by comparison with wood skis that Heads were known universally
as Cheaters (and "banana skins" for being so easy to flex).
Skis became user-friendly. In 1946, Dynamique came out with the first
hard, super-smooth ski sole, the Cellulix plastic bottom put an end to
mandatory coating of ski bottoms with pungent preparations that had to
be re-applied every hour.
The process accelerated after 1954, when the first all-plastic ski arrived,
the Holley: but plastic really did not come of age until the 1960s when
Rossignol and Kneissl began making fiberglass skis universal today because
they give an easier ride than aluminum and do not take permanent bend
after a collision.
Ski clothes made a quantum leap in 1949 when Aspen instructor Claus Obermeyer
brought out his version of the insulated quilted parka, allowing skiers
to shuck layers of wool and yet ski warm! (Obermeyer is still the biggest
supplier in the business.) Quilted parkas meant that billowing "baggies,"
could now be traded in for sleek "stretchies," invented by the
Bogner ski clothing company in 1953, without the skier’s courting
hypothermia—at least in the East. Serious ski chic had been launched.
Then came boots.
After buying the buckle patent from a Swiss inventor, Henke Boots came
out in 1955 with Speedfit, the first buckle boot, ending the hard work
of unlacing/lacing for just the right tightness. But buckles alone were
no solution because the boot stretched as the buckles tightened. In 1957,
Bob Lange created the first Lange Boot out of plastic to solve the stretchy-boot
problem. Buckles in combination with plastic provided the close fit that
gave skiers the precise control over the skis taken for granted today.
The next invention that surfaced was Ed Scott’s tempered aluminum
pole in 1958, the first viable metal ski pole, ousting bamboo as the last
natural primary material used in major ski equipment.
In the first alpine Olympics held in America, at Squaw Valley in 1960,
the Scott pole was a hot item. And it stands as the first Olympics in
which a gold medal was won by any but a wood ski: Jean Vuarnet won the
downhill on a pair of metal Allais skis.
In the 1960s, Mitch Cubberly and Earl Miller independently came out with
ski brakes to replace the inherently risky safety strap—the invention
looked lethal: long unsheathed prongs sprang into position, sticking out
like daggers from the breakaway ski. Brakes were dubbed "stabbers."
But the prongs were sheathed, became shorter, and the reluctant were eventually
convinced. Ski brakes became universal by 1975.
The boom in technology had a huge effect: a huge boom in skiers.
The number of ski areas in America shot from 78 in 1955 to 662 ten years
later—an astounding expansion. By 1970, alpine skiing was supporting
large rural populations in the American hinterland. Remote regions, which
before 1950 could have done without skiing, now in 1970 could no longer
make ends meet without it. Whenever there was a snow drought, sizable
lodging, entertainment and recreation businesses simply dried up, leaving
thousands unemployed. The ski regions were by and large blessed with economic
prosperity because skiers had been blessed with a cornucopia of technological
advances which made the sport attractive.
And there was more to come.
By 1960, counter-rotation, also called wedel, and godille, had taken over,
the first marked change in technique since the original Arlberg and its
challenger, the French parallel method of Emile Allais. The new technique
did away with the need for long, sweeping, slow-starting turns by dividing
the skier in half. In the new technique, the feet turned, the legs turned,
and sometimes the hips but the upper body remained facing roughly in the
original direction as a counterweight. The skier gained the ability to
make short, swift turns and thus became more maneuverable—with wonderful
consequences in terms of safety, and enjoyment.
The next round of revolution came in the snow itself. When nature refused
to make it, man did.
In the bad old days before snowmaking took hold in the Northeast, a bad
snow drought could leave the New England mountains bare while the rural
economy sank to its knees, which led a speaker at an economic summit to
preface his talk with, "Well, so much for the much talked about economic
alternatives to skiing."
The first intentional snowmaking device was put together by Wayne Pierce
in Milford, Connecticut, out of a garden hose and a spray nozzle. It was
first tried in the fall of 1950 at nearby Mohawk Mountain, where it produced
a supersonic whistle that drove dogs all over the entire county berserk.
That problem overcome, the first extensive systems were installed in February
1950 at Grossinger’s in New York and the same year at Split Rock
Lodge (Big Boulder) in Pennsylvania.
By the mid-1970s, snowmaking was a major factor in eastern and midwestern
skiing. For the first time, these resorts were guaranteeing snow from
Christmas to Easter. (Today, even the West’s more plentiful natural
snow is increasingly backed by snowmaking.) The snow drought problem had
been largely solved, with great economic benefit.
As important as the snow making itself, or even more so, was the supporting
cast for snowmaking. Increasingly large and expensive snow-grooming machines
that magically turn random piles of newly-made snow, and old, icy moguls
into fine skiing. The trail-grooming schedule became the skier’s
daily planning guide. Today an eastern resort suffering a typical day-rain
followed by night-freeze can have decent skiing on at least a few trails
the next morning, a result that works wonders for the relationship of
skiers to the resorts in general.
The most recent major advance is the fast, high-capacity chairlift, of
which the detachable four-passenger (quad) chair is the most rewarding.
(The gondola lift had always been detachable; now that same technology
has been applied to the chair.) The detachable has the double effect of
doing away with both waiting line and "fear of loading," being
hit hard from behind by a fast-moving chair on a high-capacity lift.
There were detachable prototypes as far back as 1952 at Snow Summit, California,
in 1955 at Wengen, Switzerland, in 1969 at Utica, New York and in 1972
at Mt. Ste. Anne, Quebec, but the first modern detachable was the Dopplemeyer
quad installed in November 1981 at Breckenridge, Colorado.
The rest of the big resorts followed suit. The speed of detachables and
fixed-grip high-speed chairs is giving most skiers more skiing than they
can handle. Lunches have become longer. Sipping, shopping and napping
begin earlier. Skiing on this side of the Atlantic has acquired some of
the more leisurely pace of European resorts.
This reincarnation of skiing through snowmaking and snow grooming has
had the almost magical effect of tripling the acreage accessible to the
average skier without felling a single tree. Grooming, snowmaking and
high speed chairs have brought the exclusive preserve of the experts—that
third of resort terrain traditionally made up of steep slopes—within
reach of the average skiers who can now enjoy steep slopes to their heart’s
content—or at least until they run out of steam.
Looking back, one can affirm that skiing has continually come up with
new forms—freestyle, telemarking, speed skiing, snowboarding and
extreme skiing—at the same time preserving or reviving older forms
as it goes along. Cross country skiing, the classic Telemark mode of the
1920s, is alive and well, very close to the 1920s sport but with the added
comfort of over a hundred major, groomed layouts at skiers’ disposal
in the U.S., and several times that in Europe.
An even older mode, Telemark skiing in the raw, has been preserved by
a thriving subset calling themselves "back country skiers" who
take their sport much in the fashion of Norheim and his friends back in
Telemark in the 1850s. Even the old miners’ longboard racing has
been revived in the form of speed skiing. And snowboarding has transformed
the idea of resort recreation and looks like it will keep on growing.
Alpine resorts themselves have changed the way they function. Large changes
that used to take a good many years to spread around now envelop the sport
almost instantly as the ski resorts and skiing continually transform themselves
with advances that turn the sport yearly into an altogether more reliable,
safer and more satisfactory experience.
The striking tendency of alpine skiing to reinvent itself every decade
may be invisible to those relatively new to the sport but it is certainly
not lost on longtime skiers who can all remember, very clearly, just how
skiing used to be.
It’s hard at the moment to think of just how alpine skiing can get
much better from here on—but, wait, it will. History says so.