Nothing quite compares with the feel of fresh snow beneath your feet, the adrenaline rush of speeding downhill, and the exhilaration of a completed run. The sport has come a long way from its humble beginnings.
Evidence shows that humans have been skiing from before the dawn of history, mostly in the northern parts of Europe and Asia. The oldest known ski - found in a peat bog at Umea, Sweden - goes back some 45 centuries to about 2500 B. C. (when Egypt was building its pyramids). A Stone Age petroglyph showing a skier in Rodoy, Norway, has been dated at 5000 B. C., a sign that someone was on skis more than 7,000 years ago.
The word "ski" has a northern European linguistic root describing a splinter actually cut from a log. It later became the Scandinavian word for "shoe" and was pronounced "shee." A desire to improve the efficiency of land travel, especially in the ice and snow, led to the emergence of skiing, and perfection of the activity didn't take very long. Greek historians wrote about skiing, and the Chinese noted the practice in the seventh century B. C.
Through the ages, skis continued to be a staple for travel in the coldest areas of the world. Norwegian soldiers were on skis as early as 960 A.D., and Sweden had its own ski-borne troops a couple of centuries later. Skiing was-a means of transportation in the Scandinavian nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, four countries with rugged terrain and long, snowy winters. Since villages were far apart, most people used skis for transportation, commerce, and survival. Later, as Scandinavians emigrated to the United States, they brought their ski skills and heritage with them.
Stories are told from generation to generation about Norwegians who wore "planks" to hunt, fish, and trap game. Pine and spruce wood were used, and the devices were strapped on with leather strips made from animal hides. A shorter kicking ski was worn on the right foot, with a longer running ski on the left, which allowed the skier to move faster over snow. Early skiers also used long, sturdy, pointed sticks for poles. Even these experienced hunters and travelers were not immune to losing a ski here and there.
A famous story from Norway's history tells of the rescue of two-year-old Prince Hakon Hakonsson from kidnappers in 1296 at Lillehammer. His rescuers, outfitted with skis, carried him on their backs over a moantain range to Rena in Osterdal. More than 700 years later, their heroic effort is commemorated annually by a 55-km ski race from Lillehammer to Rena. Each skier wears a 3.5-kg backpack as a reminder of the kidnapped Prince Hakon.
By the mid-1800s, Norwegians had attached sturdy bindings to thei- skis, which gave them better control and made jumping and turning possible. The Norwegians skied from Norway across SweJen and Finland into Siberia, all the way to the Pacific Coast. They were the first to make Arctic expeditions on skis, and the first to use skis for delivering the mail between settlements. Eventually, skiing competitions between individuals, groups, and entire villages became popular winter sporting events.
Military competitions that included firing rifles (the forerunner of biathlon) were held in Oslo, Norway, as early as 1767. Soldiers also competed against each other by skiing down a steep slope without leaning on their "poles" and descending a moderately steep slope between bushes without falling over, a possible precursor of the modern slalom.
The first documented ski jump took place at Huseby Hill, near Christiana, in 1879, but the real start of skiing as an actual sport dates from the 1850s, when the first downhill race was held in Oslo, Norway. Ski jumping was later added, and the competition included a trophy from the Norwegian royal family for the winner.
In those early days, skiing primarily referred to the Nordic events (ski jumping and cross-country), as there was limited downhill skiing. This changed after the British, who were the mountain climbers of Europe, reached the summit of Mt. Matterhorn at 14,691 feet in the Swiss Alps in 1865. When mountaineers began skiing down steep slopes in the Alps, alpine skiing was born. By the early 1900s, the British had founded the Public Schools Alpine Sports Club. The first English-language book about skiing, Ski-Running, was published in 1904.
Sondre Norheim, of Telemark County in southern Norway, is the father of modern-day skiing. In the 1870s and 1880s he used stiff bindings to hold his skis to his boots and amazed people with his ability to twist and jump and not lose his skis. Norheim won Norway's first national cross-country ski race in 1867. He also designed the Telemark ski, the model for today's skis. Telemark County skiers perfected the Telemark and Christiana (shortened now to "Christie") turns used to control speed while going downhill.
Across the Atlantic, Norwegian immigrants introduced skis to the United States early in the 19th century, although the idea of moving across and on top of snow was known to Native American peoples (as evidenced by archaeological finds). Skiing moved west to the Rocky Mountains and then to California and the Pacific Northwest as the United States was settled.
At the time of California's Gold Rush in 1849, Scandinavian miners, who brought skis or snowshoes with them from the old country, were skiing down the Sierra Nevada Mountains in what may have been the first organized ski races in America. They used 12-foot-long skis - and a secret formula wax they called "dope" - to ski faster and farther than their competitors, in their attempt to claim the $100 top prize. In a tiny town called Alturas, in the Sierra foothills, the first ski club in the U.S. was founded. This was the Alturas Snowshoe Club, which sponsored annual tournaments and cash prizes. In 1867, residents of LaPorte, Calif., organized a winter sports association with prizes up to $500 for some races.
One immigrant who made good use of skis was Jon Torsteinson Rui (whose name was Americanized to "Snowshoe Thomson") from Telemark County, Norway. Thomson was the first famous American cross-country skier. During the Gold Rush years, he skied the Sierra Nevada Mountains all winter to deliver the mail along a 91-mile route between Placerville, California, and Carson City, Nevada. His skis weighed 25 pounds, his pack weighed almost 100 pounds, and the one-way trip took three days, uphill. The return was shorter, only two days. Thomson made this trek for 20 years, kept to his schedule, and didn't miss a trip during his decades delivering the U.S. mail. For this, he earned $200 a month and became a U.S. Postal Service legend. Today he is remembered with a cross-country race that takes place along his old mail route.
In the 20th century, competitive skiing became the billboard for the sport, followed closely by recreational skiing. The first official national championship was held Feb. 22, 1904, in Ishpeming, Michigan, where the National Ski Association was formed a year later.
Skiing in the northeastern United States got a big boost from the activities of Fred Harris, a bored, restless student at Dartmouth College in the winter of 1909. He wanted to get students out in the fresh air and away from their card games and books, so he organized a ski club: the Dartmouth Outing Club. The club's success, which was overwhelming, led to contests between individuals on campus, annual ice carnivals, and intercollegiate competitions. The club organized what many consider the first real downhill race in the United States, at Mt. MoosiLauke, New Hampshire, in April 1927. Six years later, the first U.S. national downhill championships were held. Dartmouth's skiers dominated alpine skiing through 1936, capturing more than 21 championships or trophies. They were leaders in developing skiing as both a recreational and a competitive sport.
Other factors boosted the popularity of skiing, especially after 1945. With more leisure time, more automobiles, and better highways, regular trips to ski areas became possible for larger numbers of people. The introduction of the simple rope tow, followed by chairlifts and gondolas, allowed skiers to ride up the slopes and increase the number of times they would ski dow in one day.
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