The earliest history of skiing dates back to 7000-5000 B.C.
Ancient cave drawings from Eastern Russia depict hunters on
skis that were used to chase game through deep snow. These
drawings are found all throughout the arctic region; especially in
northern parts of Scandinavia. One famous rock carving is that of
Rodoy, Norway from around 2500 B.C. There is also physical
evidence from around this period: the oldest ski was found in a peat
bog in Sweden and also dates back to about 2500 B.C. Several other
skis have been found all throughout Scandinavia and Lapland. These
ancient skis show regional differences in length and width, indicating a
gradual refinement in technology. As skis became quicker and more
versatile, their application shifted from hunting gear towards military
But as early as 1000 A.D., skiing was no longer utilitarian:
early Icelandic poetry praises Viking king Harald Hadrade's
skills in ski races. Thus skiing was an activity for both entertainment,
as well as a means of transportation for warfare and hunting. The
findings of old skis and its role in literature show that skiing is
deeply engrained in Scandinavian history. In 1521, the Danes invaded
Sweden, killing nearly all nobles. Only one nobleman, Gustav Vasa
managed to escape on skis. Eventually he drove out the Danes and founded
the kingdom as it survives today. By this time, the advantages of skiing
in warfare were clear. Skiing regiments were setup, and skis were used
as stretchers to carry injured off the battlefields.
Ski gear for military purposes was further developed during several
Scandinavian wars in the 16th and 17th century. The Norwegian army first
used leather heel straps to facilitate downhill skiing. However, the skis
were still stiff and straight sided, and did not allow for smooth turns.
The typical downhill technique was stick riding: a rider used a long
staff to push into the snow on either side for turns. The staff was also
used for braking and propulsion on flat surfaces. The gear and the
technique of stick riding remained virtually unchanged until 1850.
The birthplace of modern skiing is without a doubt Telemark,
Norway. One person from this region played a key role in the
development of ski gear and style; a farmer by the name of Sondre
Norheim. During the long, cold winters there was not much farming to
do in the Telemark region which left him with plenty of time to practice
skiing. Nordheim was also skilled at furniture building, and as such
familiar with woodworking and wicker working. He used these skills to
improve his skis. His major contribution to skiing was the development
of a heel strap from entwined birch tree roots (1850); the first design of
the modern ski binding. The heel strap allowed more control over the
ski in turns and it allowed ski-jumping.
In 1866, Nordheim and others from the Telemark region first
demonstrated a ski turn that would later become known as the Telemark
turn, and an alternate turn called the Christiana skidded stop turn.
These techniques were only possible through a continued improvement of
ski gear such as Nordheim's development of the Telemark ski (1870).
The Telemark ski was the first sidecut ski with a narrow waist to
facilitate turns. All modern skis are based on the early designs of
As ski gear improved, the popularity of skiing increased. Norwegian
skis were exported to other parts of Scandinavia, and the rest of
Europe. Norwegian skiers also travelled all over Europe to compete in nordic cross country and ski jumping. Norway's fame as a skiing nation
gained even more popularity after Fridtjof Nansen's crossing of
Greenland on skis (1888).
Starting in the mid-1800s, many Scandinavians also set out for the
New World. Most of them ended up as farmers in the Midwest (in fact
Sondre Nordheim moved to North Dakota in 1884), but some ended up as
miners in California, Utah and Colorado. They brought along their
skis, and raced against each other or neighboring miner settlements. This
resulted in the formation of the first ski clubs in the USA. The
Alturas Snow-shoe Club of Laporte was the oldest, most popular club with
the most prestigious ski tournament. Another common entertainment was
longboarding; several skiers strapped onto one long pair of skis (up
to twelve feet long) would race down a slope with speeds sometimes
exceeding 80 miles per hour.
But skiing was also important for communications in the New World.
During the winter, skiing was the only means of transportation to the
mining settlements. Many men signed up as skiing mail carriers. The most famous mail carrier was John
"Snowshoe" Thompson (born Jon Tostensen Rue in Telemark, Norway).
Thompson carried mail from Placerville, CA to Genoa and
Carson Valley. A trip of some 90 miles with 60-80 pounds of mail, on a
pair of skis weighing 25 pounds. Snowshoe could do the trip in
two to three days.
Back in Europe, skiing was dominated by the Norwegian Telemark and
Christiana styles well into the late 1800s. The focus was on
endurance, technique, and ski jumping. All of these required
tremendous skill and fitness, which did not attract the interest of the
rich upper class Europeans. However, this would soon change with the
invention of alpine skiing. The basis for this ski technique was
founded by Mathias Zdarsky of Austria, a retired school teacher.
Zdarsky taught himself the basics of skiing and while doing this, he
invented a plow maneuver to control his speed and turn. This so called
stem turn was ideal for beginning skiers with little time to practice
the difficult Telemark and Christiana turns.
The stem turn became very popular for ski mountaineering,
especially after the publication of Zdarsky's book on the use of the
stem brake and stem turn (1896). The actual transition to fast descent,
or alpine skiing was engaged by the British. The British were already
prominent in the Alps where they engaged in hiking and climbing during
vacations. The new and easy ski technique allowed for quick descents
after a day of hiking. Soon after that the emphasis shifted away from
hiking towards downhill skiing; and preferably going down as fast as
possible. This development resulted in the first British club race, the
Roberts of Kandahar Cup in Montana, Switzerland (1911).
Skiing as a sport boomed in the years following, especially
through the efforts of an Austrian by the name of Johannes Schneider.
Schneider taught skiing to the mountain troops during World War I.
After his return to Sankt Anton he set up a ski school and taught
accelerated ski courses using a new, modular system based on the Zdarsky
stem turn. This so called Arlberg System was based on his
military training experiences*, and it is the basis for modern ski
classes all over the world.
In 1924, the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) is formed.
The organization was dominated by Scandinavian countries and as a result,
the first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, France only had Nordic
ski events on the roster. The competition was crushed by the
Norwegians taking 11 of the 12 gold medals. However, the attractive
downhill skiing generated increasingly more interest as a spectator
sport. This was fueled by ski races such as the Hahnenkamm in
Kitzbühel, Austria (first one in 1931), and the Lauberhorn race in
Wengen, Switzerland. Downhill skiing also gained popularity as a
winter activity due to the construction of skiing lifts, starting in the
1920s. The first official FIS world championship downhill was held in
1931. The alpine events entered the Olmpics in 1936 (Garmisch
Over in the US, skiing remained a relatively obscure activity until
the 1930s. There were a few Nordic instructors in Lake Placid, NY and
Poconos, PA. The first major development of alpine skiing in the US
started in New England through the Appalachian Mountain Club. In the
years following World War I there was an enormous influx of ski instructors
from Europe, resulting in a huge popularity of the sport.
After World War II, the rapid advance of materials and technology
further popularized the sport all over the world. The swiveling toe piece
was already invented in 1939. Further improvements to the binding
followed in the 1950s (the heel-and-toe release, and the step-in
binding). However, the principle of safe, easy ski bindings was only
perfected in the mid-1970s. Wooden skis were replaced by aluminum
(1947) and wood-core aluminum models (1947). In 1954, the all plastic
ski was invented. The fiberglass skis as they are used today were
invented in the 1960s by Rossignol and Kneissl. Further important
developments were in boots, poles and ski clothing.
The improvements of ski gear resulted in further advances of ski
technique. The counter-rotation technique (wedel) was
developed in the 1960s as an addition to the classical (Arlberg) and
French parallel turns. The counter rotation allowed for short abrupt
turns in deep powder snow.
As skiing became more popular, the demands on ski areas increased.
The first snow making device was tested in the 1950s, but around the
1970s most major ski areas relied on artificial snow making to
maintain snow quality on heavily used slopes. The development of heavy snow
grooming equipment and high capacity lifts also played a vital role in
the development of skiing as a mass consumer activity.
* /me learned skiing in Sankt Anton, and vividly remembers a
very military approach. Apparently Schneider's spirit lives on
in St. Anton.