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A Brief History of Alpine Skiing

It really is not known when mankind wrapped woven tree branches on their feet or when this basic snowshoe evolved into two long, flat boards that could glide over snow and downhill but still manage moderate ascents. Prehistoric cave drawings in China and a pair of 8000 year old skis found in a Russian bog tell us this revolution in winter transportation happened at least that long ago. The longest continuing documentation of the evolution of skiing can be found in Scandinavian culture dating back to the 5000 BCE cave drawings found in Norland region of Norway. The rock carving was recently defaced by two teens whose intent were to make more legible the faded etchings. Skiing culture flourished in the region during the Middle Age. Ski troops rescuing Prince Haakon in 1206 in the Norwegian Civil War are depicted in a painting. The first book about skiing was written in Sweden in 1555. 



Above: Original     Below: Defaced by vandals     From Norland County                                                                         Painting by Knud Berglisen        


By the beginning of the 19th century the epicenter of skiing culture was the Telemark region of Norway. Here the fundamentals of modern ski technique and equipment were perfected. Evolved from the utilitarian transportation, skiing flourished as sport and shaped the identity of a nation. By the end of the century Norway’s Sondre Norheim’s technique and equipment innovations defined the sport well into the twentieth century.


Skiing technique began to change in the Austrian Alps before World War One. The tourist trade made possible by mass rail travel delivered a growing middle class to the high Alpine valleys of Europe. Hotels and guesthouses first popular as summer getaways soon began to offer winter lodging and organized ski touring to maintain a year round clientele. Local ski guides were provided to the tourists.  The groups would go off, each set about their guide’s own version of how to stride, glide, slow, turn, and stop. They also learned to sidestep and herringbone to climb up hill. There were no ski lifts, only the strength of legs and lungs and the power of one’s own will to carry you up the mountain. Some tourists were content on the tradition method of skiing suited to travel and distance. Some would schuss down the steeper faces they had just sidestepped then began again their uphill trek for another down mountain dash.  At the day’s end all would gather before a roaring fire, a hearty meal, and the camaraderie of the day’s adventure.  Alpine skiing was just being invented as a winter pursuit and pastime.


One of these mountain guides was the young Johannes “Hannes” Schneider born   in Austria in 1890. Hannes began his life’s work as a ski guide at St. Anton’s Hotel Post in 1907. Called to service during the First World War, his experience landed him an assignment training ski troops in the Austrian army. By war’s end Hannes was working on technique that enable ski equipped soldiers controlled downhill deployment but also broke these movements down to repeatable drills thus creating skilled skiers and a  standard method for teaching the new skill set. The method evolved and became known as the Arlberg Technique, after the mountain range where it was perfected. It was the basis of modern alpine ski teaching and marked a split between Nordic and Alpine skiing. The Arlberg Technique turned out skiers by the thousands in the 1920s and 1930s. Schneider trained instructors fanned out across Europe and North America and ushered in the era of Alpine skiing that became the resort based sport we know today.  It was not just ski technique and instruction that made alpine skiing a growing participatory sport and propelled Hannes into public acclaim. In 1920 Schneider starred in the first professionally produced ski movie, “The Wonders of the Ski”, a documentary featuring his method. The movie was made by German Filmmaker Dr. Arnold Fanck who created the mountain film genre with Hannes as the skiing lead male. Fanck and Schneider then published the first sequential photo ski manual from stills from that film.


Schneider co-founded the modern Alpine ski race format with British ski pioneer Sir Arnold Lund who invented the time slalom race in 1922. The first Arlberg/Kandahar (A/K) race in 1928 drew more public attention then the Second Winter Olympics of that year. Despite the sport’s growing popularity the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics featured only Nordic ski racing and jumping, no downhill events. The A/K format was finally made a medal sport for the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.


On this side of the Atlantic the first Arlberg ski instructor, Otto Schniebs, arrived in Boston in 1927.  Otto’s   enthusiasm was infectious proclaiming, “Skiing is not just a sport, it is a way of life” he popularized skiing   by lecturing, coaching (Harvard, Dartmouth), club instructor (Dartmouth Outing, Appalachian Mountain, Lake Placid clubs) and as a consultant. He has been called the Father of American Skiing. In the following   years an Arlberg Ski School is established in New Hampshire at Peckett’s on Sugar  Hill Inn hosting students Averell Harriman, Nelson Rockefeller, Lowell Thomas, Minot Dole, and Roger Peabody.


The winter before the Lake Placid Olympics the North America’s first lift, a rope tow, went into service in Shawbridge, Canada. In 1934 the first rope tow in the U.S. is built at Woodstock, Vermont. Soon mountain inns and hotels across the country began running rope tows on the snow covered meadows and ridges above their farms and businesses. In Western Pennsylvania, Seven Springs Farm put a rope tow in operation in 1935. In 1933 the Great Depression jobs program, the Civilian Conservation Corp. (CCC), began cutting “down mountain” ski trails on public land throughout the country with the first trails cut on Stowe, Vermont’s Mt. Mansfield. Ninety-nine trails were cut in Northern New England alone laying the foundation of Alpine skiing in the U.S. In 1936 the continent's first winter destination ski resort opened in Idaho. Modeled after those in Europe, Averell Harriman’s Sun Valley featured the world's first chairlift. In the Northeast by 1938 an aerial tram was built by the state of New Hampshire to take tourists to the top of Cannon Mountain. During the winter, skiers could access the CCC built ski trail, Richard Taft Trail. Before World War 2 about 50 ski resorts are built nationwide. The modern ski resort industry was just beginning in North America....


     Rope Tow at Shawbridge circa 1933


by Rob Davis

Comments (2)

Fun stuff Rob. Imagine how many of us have probably skied right over terrain that was used back in the earliest days of skiing and we didn't even realize it? This could and does happen at places like Suicide Six, Seven Springs, Cannon, Stowe, Sun Valley, etc, etc. Fantasy retirement project: get some sponsors and lead a cross-country trip visiting/skiing/appreciating some of the cradle spots of American skiing, then report back with photo-essays for us to enjoy!
Great article, Rob--thanks!
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