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Alpine Skiing From the Beginning

By: Cassi Clark - Updated: 14 Sep 2010 | comments*Discuss
Norway Centralforeningen Norheim Skis

While the Egyptians were building the pyramids, cave drawings depicted ski-shod hunters in the Arctic rim. Around 1000 A.D., Icelandic poetry, known as Eddas, alluded to aristocrats betting on Viking king Harald Hadrade in ski races. Eight hundred years later, Danish traveler Father Knut Leem reported Norwegian kids playing adeptly on skis. However, it was not until the late 1800’s that alpine skiing as we know got its start.

From Telemark to Downhill

Around 1850 Norwegian farmer Sondre Norheim became the father of modern skiing. A resident of Telemark, Norway, Norheim invented a birch-root free-heel binding that created dynamic control and allowed decent into the fall line, the basis of today’s skiing.

Norheim also reengineered the ski, creating a primitive side-cut pattern. On his new gear, Norheim participated in local contests that more resembled cross-country or biathlon races than alpine skiing, with climbing, running and jumping. However, in 1868, Norheim and two friends entered in the second annual Centralforeningen (Central Ski Association) open ski competition in Christiania, Norway. Demonstrating quick, precise steering and braking down the in-town race-hill, the Telemarkers showed off two new distinct turns: the sweeping arc of the Telemark turn, and the speed controlling J shaped turn of the Christiania.

The Norwegians wanted skiing to be accessible and simple for the common folk. They made the first laminated ski, with an ash base and pine top based on the Telemark pattern, in 1881, and exported it to Sweden in 1882. By 1886, they were mass-producing the easier turning telemark skis and spreading out over Europe with the expanding railroads. While ski schools did exist in Norway as early as 1881, Norwegians disdained profiting from selling the sport and few taught the sport internationally. British skiers on the Continent took over the spread of skiing by focusing on the descent, which gave the sport broader appeal. In the Alps, skiing became popular at a number of summer vacation resorts extending their offerings though all the seasons to the well-to-do, rich and royal.

Mathias Zdarsky of Austria furthered the appeal of skiing by making alpine technique easier, inventing the stem turn. In free lessons, Zdarsky taught skiers to skid their uphill ski into a bit of a snowplow. The speed control of the new turn made skiing attainable to more people, and Zdarsky’s classes filled to as many as a hundred skiers at a time. At the turn of the century, the British intervened in skiing’s course again, sponsoring the Continent’s first alpine races, making speed a popular and important part of skiing and marking the transition from telemark mountaineering to alpine skiing.

The First Ski School Movie

Skiing’s major growth spurt occurred in the 1920’s. Johann Schneider set up the first standardized teaching system creating a logical turn progression allowing students to pick up where they’d left off with any instructor. Schneider’s guides taught the stem technique in places like Kitzbühel, St. Anton and St. Moritz. During that time, Schneider also collaborated with Arnold Fanck, a pioneering adventure filmmaker from Freiberg, Germany, to make the world’s first ski film. Initially more instructional, Fanck capitalized on their huge success and starred Schneider in a half dozen dramatic ski films and created "Hannes" (as Johann became known) Schneider as the first action hero.

A Lift Up

The first half of the twentieth century brought ski lifts, establishing alpine skiing as a winter tourist trade. The Germans and Austrians first invented draglifts in the early 1900's. The French and Swiss built the first cable cars around 1928. Competition to carry skiers to the mountaintops was fierce. Gerhard Müller of Zurich patented a motorcycle engine rope-tow, in 1932, and the next year at Davos, Switzerland finished a cog railway that rose 3000 vertical feet to the top of the Parsenn.

That same year, Alec Foster built the Northeast’s first rope tow at Shawbridge, Quebec. By the 1940’s, nearly a hundred rope tows pulled thousands of skiers up North America’s mountains, more than in Europe, though Europeans still had a hold on lift inventions. The first overhead cable lift, a single-passenger J-bar, was built in 1934 at Davos, Switzerland, by Ernest Constamm. In 1936, he converted his J-bar to a two-passenger T-bar, and then moved to Denver, Colorado taking his designs with him. Jim Curran invented the first chair lift for the 1936 opening of Sun Valley, Idaho. Not until the mid-1960s did the chair become popular. Nevertheless, when the boom hit, nearly fifty to seventy chairs were installed per season.

Wars and economic hard ship forced many European skiers to emigrate all over the world spreading skiing to Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. By the middle 1900’s, with lifts dragging and carrying skiers up various mountain ranges, and engineers playing with ski and binding designs, alpine skiing had become an industry of its own.

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