A Brief History of Skiing

The ski may have been invented on the Russian steppes(something that we think were skis were found by archeologists dating back over 5000years), but the Scandinavians certainly perfected it. Almost every stage of development of the ski we owe to the heath stompers of the untrammeled North. Thousands of years ago, the indigenous Sami people of northern Scandinavia used to go about on asymmetrical skis. One ski would be very long (3-4m), and was used for gliding and the other, shorter ski would be for traction and was used to kick along. The shorter ski would have seal skin fastened to the underside. Smooth one direction, and grippy the other. Modern skiers still use ‘skins’ to climb, but theirs are made of mohair. Our forbears used a single long pole with both hands for control and for a break when going down hill. We believe that these skis were originally developed to hunt seals on precarious pack ice on the northern seas.

Although accounts of people using two poles dates back to the early 18th century, the single pole method survived all the way up through the 19th century.

In the mountains of Mongolia, the Altai people still use homemade skis with horsehair on bottom. Their skis are very wide and short and are basically an improved snowshoe. They are very versatile yet unsullied by modern developments. They still use the single pole method.  >>>>>>

Skis originally were a pragmatists tool, they were generally used to cover ground when hunting, and later for martial purposes. Early skiers would ‘run down’ their prey by skiing down hill with spears. The ski huntsmen would deftly descend upon their game while it was hampered by the deep snow.

Bindings with a heel strap have been used for thousands of years. They were likely invented in the Telemark province of Norway, to which this style of skiing owes its name. First, a leather strap stabilized the heel and this eventually converted toa wire. This gave skiers the ability to maneuver in much steeper terrain, since they could turn the skis edge into the slope. Telemark skiing has seen a revival since the 1970s because the bindings and boots have improved by leaps and bounds. A telemarker can now take every bit as steep a slope as an alpine skier. To some though, the telemark skier is still viewed as the Neanderthal on skis.

Most alpine skiers prefer to have the heel of their boots locked down for optimum control. Its true that this may provide a greater stability when skiing down hill all day, but what if you need to climb? Have you ever seen someone try to climb even a meager slope on alpine skis? How about on flat ground? Fish out of water.

I’m personally fond of the finesse of the telemark technique. Skiing for me, as it was for the ancients, is a way cover long distances over varying terrain. Over hill and dale, as they say. Backcountry skiing is the perfect synthesis of these two principals. The backcountry skier needs no chair lift, no expensive resort pass. The back country skier strikes out in whatever direction suits him/her. Free your heel, free your mind.

Backcountry skiing is certainly the oldest form of skiing, but the equipment has changed considerably in the last thousand years. It has become much lighter, and more durable. But three developments in particular have provided major refinements: the textured waist, camber and sidecut.

The textured waist is the fishscale pattern underfoot which provides traction when the skiers weight is applied. Before this, waxes and rosins had to be applied, but these performed poorly when the snow conditions were not optimal.

Camber is the bow-like shape of the ski that raises the footbed a little
higher than the tip(or shovel) and the tail. The smooth tip and tail glide freely as the skier kicks forward with the traction pattern underfoot.

Sidecut is the parabolic shape that makes the tip and tail wider than the waist. They not only float better in deep snow, they also turn better because the whole ski flexes when carving.

Legends and Heroes:

The Birkebeiner party:

Way back in the tenth century there was a populist revolt against the established Bagler party and their king Magnus V. Through a dispute in the succession laws, the Birkebeiner party arose. The Birkebeiners were derided as people so poor that they had to wear birch bark shoes, hence their name ‘the birch shoers’. They wouldn’t be poor for long. The pretender to the throne was a two year old prince named Hakkon Hakkonsson. He was ultimately a target for the Baglers to get rid of. In 1206, two Birkebeiners set off on a dangerous journey through treacherous mountains and forests, carrying the now two-year-old Haakon

Haakonsson to safety from Lillehammer to Trondheim. In winter, on skis. Thats a journey of over 336km! The toddler became Hakkon IV, King of Norway! And he produced many a successor, there’s Hakkon Hakkonssonsson, for example, and Hakkon Hakkonssonssonsson and so on…

In the spirit of the Birkebeiners, a ski contest which bears that name is still well attended in many parts of the world. In Norway, and in Wisconsin and Minnesota, people flock in winter to race each other carrying a small, baby sized bundle, a ‘stand in’ for the infant Hakkon.

Snowshoe Thompson:

That was his nickname. In 1850s California, what were called by local rubes ‘snowshoes’ were actually 12’ long homemade wooden skis.

John Albert Thompson was born in Norway in the early 19th century, and like so many of his poor countrymen, had to emigrate to greener pastures. There were plenty of green pastures in Wisconsin, and Scandinavians flocked there during this challenging period. When he was 23 he drove a herd of milk cows out west and settled in Putah Creek, in the Sacramento valley.

Thompson delivered mail between Placerville, California and Virginia City, Nevada. He used to regularly cover the 150 miles of extreme alpine terrain. He achieved this on his extra long skis and a single sturdy wooden pole generally held in both hands. He knew this version of backcountry skiing from his native Norway, and employed it during the winter as one of the earliest pioneers of the skill in America. He was never lost in blizzards. He is even credited with rescuing a man with frostbite after having been snowed into his cabin. Thompson realized that the mans frostbite would be lethal, so he skied over the mountains and brought back chlorophyl which ultimately saved the mans life.

Despite twenty years of service, and even a trip to Washington DC to appeal, Thompson was never paid for carrying the mail.

Nazi resistance skiers:

Very many troops took to skis in the occupied North after the Nazis took over. Among them saboteurs. In the late part of the war a certain Claus Helberg was on a mission to sabotage a facility in the high mountains where the Germans were making ‘heavy water’, an ingredient which could have helped them develop an atomic bomb.

In the daring ‘Operation Swallow’, several Norwegian resistance fighters made for the facility on skis, under the cover of night, to try to dismantle it and also carry off some intel if they could. One of these was Claus Helberg, who was discovered at the last minute perhaps snipping wires or spray painting ‘Claus was here’ on the fusion silo. He was pursued doggedly on skis by a Nazi officer, exchanging shots all the while. Claus managed to wound the officer and get away. But the chase lasted all day and when night had fallen Claus skied off a cliff and broke his arm. After skiing all busted up the entire next day he finally approached a German encampment and told them he had been working for them: hunting down saboteurs. After giving him medical treatment, they took him to a nearby village and placed him in a hotel room. While he was recuperating it was discovered that he was actually a saboteur, so they arrested him and loaded him on a bus bound for a concentration camp. Sometime during the transport Claus jumped out of the window of the moving vehicle and rebroke his arm, but this time he managed to escape for good.

He was highly decorated for his valor. He died in his home in Rjukan, Norway in 2003.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series: The Polar Explorers


Roald Amundsen at the South Pole