A Brief History of Skiing

The Curious Skier

19 January 2021

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A Brief History of Skiing

Skiing is one of the oldest modes of transport known to man. Predating the wheel by some 200,000 years, humans are believed to have skied for at least eight millennia. Twenty-two thousand years ago, when man first attached two sticks to his feet, it was not to race down a snowy mountain just for the thrill of it, but was a purely utilitarian way of getting around snow and ice covered ground. Cave drawings discovered in modern-day China, Russia and Scandinavia suggest that man first used skis during the last Ice Age during the Palaeolithic era, though the oldest ski artefacts come from the more recent Mesolithic period, some 10,000 years ago.


The word “ski” comes from the Old Norse word “skiò”, meaning “stick of wood” or “ski”. Skis and snowshoes were first invented to cross wetlands and marshes when they froze over in the winter, enabling early man to hunt reindeer and elk across the frozen tundra. Skis were widely utilised in Central Asia and Europe, while snowshoes were common in the New World.


Skiing’s next era evolved out of military considerations. In the 1760s, the Norwegian Army held skilful competitions involving skiing down slopes, around trees and across level snowfields while shooting, and are generally considered precursors to Olympic sports including winter triathlons. As the first national race was held in Oslo in the 1860s, more and more civilisations – both in Norway and on other parts of Europe – were trying their hand at the sport. The 1880s saw a shift from Nordic (cross-country) skiing, to Alpine (downhill) skiing, due to the adrenaline rush of gliding down a mountainside, which had more mass appeal than skiing across level terrain – and this evolution eventually made the Alps the centre of the skiing world.


In 1924, the first Winter Olympics was held in Chamonix. At first, the Winter Games only featured the more established sport of Nordic skiing, but the growing love of downhill skiing resulted in the inclusion of the Alpine variant in the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. That same year the chair-lift was invented in the USA, revolutionising skiing as a recreational pastime.


Skiing as a winter activity grew rapidly between 1955 and 1965, as the sport became a lot more accessible to more people after the development of the jet-plane and the growth of package holidays to glamorous resorts across Europe and North America. The metal ski, invented in the early 1950s, made it easier for recreational skiers, as did the adoption of plastic boots, as opposed to leather, which had been used traditionally and these advantages resulted in the ease of use and control on the slopes that has helped make skiing one of the most practised sports in the world.


Some of the resorts that help to tell the world of skiing’s origins are still around today and skiers with a mind for history would be remiss not to visit one of these monuments to modern skiing history.


Alta in Utah and Sun Valley in Idaho, USA

Together, these are among America’s first ski resorts, both having opened in the 1930s. The first chairlift was installed in Sun Valley in 1936 after its invention by Union Pacific Railway engineer, James Curran. Next year Sun Valley will celebrate its 85th anniversary.


La Clusaz, France

A French ski resort about an hour from Geneva, Switzerland, La Clusaz has been around since 1907 and is one of the oldest resorts in continual use. Since La Clusaz is still very much a village, it is a nice change of pace from the larger ski resorts. Also in south-eastern France, Chamonix-Mont Blanc had the honour of hosting the very first Winter Olympic Games in 1924 and is still considered one of the best ski resorts today.


Murren, Switzerland

The Murren ski area is one of the oldest in Switzerland. James Bond fans may remember it as the backdrop for scenes in the 1969 movie ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.


Mont-Tremblant, Canada

Quebec is home to one of Canada’s oldest and best known resorts, Mont-Tremblant. Just an hour from Montreal, Mont-Tremblant was the country’s first resort to install a chairlift in 1939.


The Three Valleys, France

The Three Valleys in south-eastern France is the largest interconnected ski-area in the world, with more than 600km of pistes. Founded in the early 20th century, it became France’s first purpose built ski resort. Chalet Floralie itself is situated in the heart of The Three Valleys, in the traditional Savoyard village of Saint Martin de Belleville, and offers the perfect base from which to explore this expansive ski-playground.