SKIING. Petroglyphs and archaeological evidence suggest that skiing emerged at least 5,000 years ago in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the northern reaches of Russia and China. The first skis were probably ten feet long and had only loose willow or leather toe straps, which made it nearly impossible for the skier to turn or jump while in motion. Early skiers—hunters, midwives, priests, and others who had to travel across deep winter snow—dragged a single long pole to slow themselves down.
The Norwegians developed modern skiing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By adding heel straps to skis, they were able to gain more control on descents and make quicker, tighter turns. These first rough bindings allowed skiers to use shorter skis and two poles instead of one. Around 1820, Norwegians began racing each other and staged the first ski-jumping competitions.
When Norwegians emigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s, they brought skiing with them. Many flocked to lumber and mining camps, where their ability to move quickly through the mountains in mid-winter proved to be an invaluable asset. In 1856, a Norwegian farmer named John "Snowshoe" Thompson responded to a plea from the U.S. postal service for someone to carry mail across California's Sierra Nevada range in mid-winter, a route that lay under as much as twenty feet of snow. Thompson made the ninety-mile trip across 10,000-foot passes in three days. He continued to deliver mail this way until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.
Thompson's legendary treks inspired many miners to take up ski racing as a diversion during long snowbound winters. They experimented with "dope"—early ski wax concocted from cedar oil, tar, beeswax, sperm, and other ingredients—to coax more speed out of their skis. In 1867, the town of La Porte, California, formed the nation's first ski club. Norwegian immigrants also introduced ski jumping to the United States in the 1880s, and in 1888, Ishpeming, Michigan, hosted the first formal skijumping tournament held in America. In 1904, jumpers and cross-country skiers founded the National Ski Association, which now encompasses all aspects of the sport.
The "Nordic" events of ski jumping and cross-country skiing dominated U.S. slopes until the 1920s. In that decade, "Alpine" or downhill skiing began to make inroads, fanned in part by skiing enthusiasm among Ivy League college students. Wealthy Americans often sent their sons to Europe between high school and college, and some returned with an interest in the downhill. Dartmouth College, where the first outings club was founded in 1909, hired a series of Bavarian ski coaches who encouraged this trend. In 1927, Dartmouth racers staged the first modern American downhill race on a carriage road on Mt. Moosilauke, New Hampshire.
Downhill skiing and technological change fed each other. The invention of the steel edge in 1928 made it easier to ski on hard snow, leading to better control and faster speeds. The development of the ski lift helped popularize "downhill-only" skiing, which broadened the sport's appeal. (The rope tow, introduced to the United States in Woodstock, Vermont, in 1934, was simple, quick, and cheap.) Since Alpine skiers no longer had to walk uphill, they could use stiffer boots and bindings that attached firmly to the heel. These, in turn, allowed for unprecedented control and made possible the parallel turn.
By the late 1920s, skiing's commercial possibilities were becoming apparent. The first ski shop opened in Boston in 1926, and an inn in Franconia, New Hampshire, organized the first ski school three years later. Railroads began to sponsor ski trains and used their vast publicity networks to promote the sport. In the 1930s, skiing spread swiftly across New England and upstate New York, and in 1932 Lake Placid, New York, hosted the Third Winter Olympics. In 1936, a new resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, introduced chair lifts, swimming pools, private cottages, and other glamorous touches. The brainchild of W. Averell Harriman, president of the Union Pacific Rail-road, Sun Valley foreshadowed the development of ski resorts across the country.
World War II further accelerated the popularization of Alpine skiing in the United States. The Tenth Mountain Division drafted many of the nation's best skiers and trained others for ski mountaineering in Europe. After the war, veterans of the unit joined the National Ski Patrol and established the nation's first major Alpine ski areas. Meanwhile, the division's surplus equipment was sold to the general public, giving newcomers an affordable way to take up the sport.
The surge in skiers on postwar slopes led inevitably to changes in technique. As large numbers of skiers began turning in the same spots, fields of "moguls" or snow bumps appeared, requiring tighter turns. The new skiers also demanded more amenities, and resort developers responded by installing high-capacity, high-speed lifts and mechanically grooming slopes. Some tried to lure intermediate skiers by cutting wide, gentle swaths through the trees from the top of the mountain to the bottom.
In the 1970s, such practices increasingly brought resort developers into head-on conflict with environmentalists. The environmental movement and the decade's fitness boom also led to the rediscovery of cross-country skiing. New equipment, which combined attributes of Alpine and Nordic gear, opened the new field of "telemark" or cross-country downhill skiing. Some skiers began hiring helicopters to drop them on otherwise inaccessible mountaintops.
In the postwar years, Americans began to challenge Europeans in international competitions. In 1948, Gretchen Fraser became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in skiing, and in 1984, the United States collected an unprecedented three gold medals. When Squaw Valley, California, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1960, ski racing was televised live for the first time in the United States and it soon emerged as a popular spectator sport. Its popularity was propelled by gutsy and likeable stars such as Picabo Street, the freckle-faced racer who recovered from a crash and concussion in 1998 to win a gold medal in the downhill Super G.
Although Alpine and Nordic skiing remained popular in the 1980s and 1990s, they increasingly competed for space on the slopes with new variations like snow-boarding, mogul skiing, tree skiing, aerial freestyle, slope-style (riding over jumps, rails, and picnic tables), and half-pipe (in which skiers or snowboarders perform aerial acrobatics in a carved-out tube of snow and ice). U.S. skiers generally did well in these "extreme" events as they began to be added to the Olympics in the 1990s. In 1998, Jonny Moseley took gold in the freestyle mogul event, while Eric Bergoust flipped and twisted his way to a gold medal in the aerial freestyle. In 2002, the U.S. team captured silver in the men's and women's moguls and in the men's aerial freestyle.
Berry, I. William. The Great North American Ski Book. New York: Scribner's, 1982.
Gullion, Laurie. The Cross-Country Primer. New York: Lyons and Burford, 1990.
Kamm, Herbert, ed. The Junior Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sports. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.