History of Skiing

by Frank V. Persall

When you start becoming interested in something, no matter what the topic, you usually research the history of it. The history of something can tell you valuable information, like why it originated, and how it withstood time. It can also tell you the risks, and things that happened to others, so you can prevent those things from happening to you in the future. One popular outdoor activity that we discuss a lot on this website is skiing. Skiing is popular among people all over the world. We have discussed various types of skiing, the best places to ski, and even how to begin skiing. But, we have never talked about the history of skiing. So, if you are a skiing enthusiast, or you are a history buff, continue below to read about the history of skiing!

History of Skiing - Family Skiing
History of Skiing - Family Skiing

History of Skiing - Family Skiing

History of Skiing (Medieval Russian Soldiers)

To begin, the oldest documented evidence of skiing goes back to modern China and northern Russia. In the Altaic region of modern China, 10,000-year-old paintings showed signs of the natives using skis. Then, in northern Russia bits and pieces of what resembled skis were found in a town near Moscow. Thus, although the Altaic region and northern Russia never documented skiing with words, archeologists believe that the people who lived in those regions participated in an activity similar, if not, skiing.

Although China and Russia had archeological evidence that hinted at the use of skis, the Scandinavians were the first group of people that archeologists established as using skis. The earliest evidence of Scandinavians skiing dates back all the way to 5,000 BCE. In the Nordland region of Norway, carvings depicted a man, attached to skis and holding one pole. Other areas in Norway also depicted a similar picture (a man with skis and a pole). Aside from pictures and carvings of skis, the first pair of skis were found in Scandinavian Jamtland County (located in modern-day Sweden). That said pair of skis dated back to around 4,500 to 2,500 BCE.

History of Skiing -Medieval Russian Soldiers
History of Skiing -Medieval Russian Soldiers

History of Skiing -Medieval Russian Soldiers

History of Skiing Year 1902

Aside from the skis found in Jamtland County, another pair of skis were found in Sweden and were found to be from 3,300 BCE. The Vefsn Nordland Ski was also found in Norway and was found to be from 3,200 B.C. More recently, in 2013, skis with leather bindings were found in the Reinhelmen Mountains. When archeologists inspected the skis, they found the skis to have an elevated middle of 172 centimeters long and 14.5 centimeters wide. They also concluded that the skis were about 1,300 years old.

Steering away from archeological evidence of skis, let's take a look at the history of skiing as a mean of transportation. As most of us know, skiing is often looked at as a sport, but skis can be used as transportation. In fact, some of us use skis as transportation when we ski uphill on a backcountry trail or when traveling from one mountain area to the other (this is typically done on ungroomed skiing areas, where there are no ski lifts).

One of the earliest documentation of using skis as transportation is in Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, there is the god Ullr and the goddess Skaoi. Ullr and Skaoi use skis when they go hunting since the ski8s enable them to swiftly move across the forest. While the Norse mythology stories of the gods and goddesses using skis as transportation prove that the Norse civilizations were aware of skis, it is not hard documentation of civilizations actually using skis of transportation. So, the earliest historical evidence is Procopius' description of Sami people as skrithiphinoi. Skrithiphinoi translates, in English, to "ski running same". Other skiing evidence from the Sami people includes the Sami word, which was used often, Cuong at. Cuoigat translates to skiing.

Also, an ancient book written by Egil Skallagrimsson in 950 CE depicts King Haakon the Good often sending his tax collectors, and other kingdom workers, out on skis. If that is not enough evidence of the Sami people skiing, then the 1274 Gulating Law even stated, "No moose shall be disturbed by skiers on private land." Utilizing Procopius' description, and other historical documents, historians have argued that the Sami people practiced skiing for well over 6,000 years. Thus, making them one of the first civilizations to use skis to their advantage.

History of Skiing - Year 1902
History of Skiing - Year 1902

History of Skiing - Year 1902

History of Skiing Early 19th Century Army Skiing Race

While using skis as a way of transportation to hunting, collect taxes, and run various errands for royalty is effective, in the 13th-century European civilizations found a completely new way to use skis. First documented in the 13th century, civilizations began using ski warfare. Or in other words, armies would put their soldiers on skis during the war. Skis were found to be more effective and efficient than being on foot because the troops were able to travel long distances in a shorter amount of time. Since the 13th century, many armies used ski warfare, such as; the Danish-Norwegian army and the Japanese army. As you may know, ski warfare is not used anymore. In fact, one of the last times ski warfare was used was in 1902 when the Norwegians introduced ski warfare to the Japanese after the Japanese had suffered many casualties after being unprepared during a snow storm.

While the history of skiing as transportation is interesting, we are all familiar with the use of skiing as a sport. To begin, skiing as a sport was first recognized by Norwegian and Swedish infantries. Like we discussed earlier in this article, skis were used in ski warfare by various armies, specifically the Norwegian and Swedish armies. While on duty, or while traveling to and from different areas, the Norwegian and Swedish infantries would perform ski exercises and races. Some of the exercises included racing downhill on rough terrain and skiing downhill while doing target practice. Some of the popular races included cross-country skiing 3 km while carrying full military gear. This all occurred in 1767 and continued for many years after.

About forty years after ski racing originated, Olaf Rye was the first person to ski jump. If you are unfamiliar with ski jumping, it is the activity of descending a specially constructed ramp, jumping off of it, and attempting to land as far into the hill as possible. Ski jumping is a popular activity in the Winter Olympics and is usually practiced in Europe.

History of Skiing Early 19th Century Army Skiing Race
History of Skiing Early 19th Century Army Skiing Race (source)

History of Skiing - Early 19th Century Army Skiing Race

History of Skiing ( Early 19th Century Army Skiing Race)

A while later, in 1843, ski racing finally took off from a small activity armies would do on their free time, to being a public and popular event. On March 19, 1843, in the town of Tromoso, Norway, the first public skiing competition was held (at that time, the competition was dubbed the 'betting race'). Skiing continued to rise as being a popular sport. It became so popular that in 186` the first ski clubs were founded in the Trondelag region of Norway. In the same year that the first ski clubs were founded, Australia jumped on the bandwagon and founded the Kiandra Snow Shoe Club, which specifically featured skiing activities. America also hopped on the bandwagon by establishing ski racing as an organized sport.

Just a year later, Trysil, Norway held their first public ski jumping competition where judges awarded points for style. Then, a year after the first public ski jumping competition, the first recorded female ski jumper participated at the Trysil ski jumping competition. Norway continued to lead the way in the realm of skiing. In January 1864, the Trondheim Weapons Training Club organized regular training along with competition races. Thus, being a precedent to what a ski resort would be like. Finally, after years of waiting, North America was given their first ski club. In 1872 Norwegian immigrants founded the Nansen Ski club in New Hampshire.

Jumping a few years ahead, and over an ocean, the Norwegian pavilion, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, displayed a pair of skis. Many of the exposition's visitors purchase a pair of skis, and Henry Duhamel, whose friends would eventually create the Ski Club des Alpes in 1895, even uses that said pair of skis on the Alps. Thus, the popularity of skiing rocketed.

History of Skiing ( Early 19th Century Army Skiing Race)
History of Skiing ( Early 19th Century Army Skiing Race) (source)

History of Skiing - 1952 Winter Olympics CC-BY-SA3.0 P.A. Røstad

History of Skiing (1952 Winter Olympics CC-BY-SA3.0 P.A. Røstad)

Skipping ahead and past a few historical moments in skiing, we come across the first Winter Olympics in 1952. A few years later, the Winter Paralympics debut and Paralympic cross-country skiing is one of the highlighted events. As skiing became more popular worldwide, it should come as no surprise that new forms of skiing were created, such as mogul skiing and freestyle skiing. If you are unfamiliar with mogul skiing, it is the activity of skiing on moguls, aka small hill-like structures on terrain that is caused by people skiing on the same spots for an extended period of time. While mogul skiing may seem extreme, freestyle skiing turns it up a notch. Freestyle skiing is the activity of skiing on terrain with aerials, moguls, half-pipes, and a ton of other obstacles which will allow you to perform an array of tricks. These two extreme forms of skiing (mogul and freestyle) were added to the 1992 Winter Olympics.

After 1992, new forms of skiing were slowly incorporated into the Olympics and ski clubs. Since then, skiing has become widespread and is especially popular as a recreation. Since we have explored the history of skiing as a transportation, and a sport, let's examine the history of skiing as recreation. After all, most of us ski as recreation.

Our exploration of the history of skiing as recreation leads us back to Trondheim, Norway/ In 1849 Trondheim, Norway was the first place to hold a public ski tour. As a few years went by, skiing became more popular, and people began looking for a way to visit mountains to ski. But in 1868, mountain resorts began to become populated during the winter because people began realizing that they would travel to the mountains by train. But, it would be almost 70 years until chair lifts were created, thus, if you wanted to ski in the early 1900's, and even prior to that, you would have to ski uphill or hike. But, in 1936 skiers were relived-well, at least, skiers in Sun Valley, Idaho. While ski resorts became increasingly popular, the need for snow during the years when snow happened to be scarce was necessary. That is why in 1952 the first major commercial snowmaking machine was installed at the Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel. From then on ski resorts became a hotspot for winter vacations for friends, family, and couples.

That leads us to the history of skiing equipment. Of course, we can't expect that when skis were used in 5,000 BCE they were made with the same materials, and had the same standards of our modern day skis and other equipment. So let's begin with the most crucial piece of equipment for skiing; skis. From the time that skis were created until the late 1800's, asymmetrical skis were used among people in northern Finland and Sweden. Asymmetrical skis were comprised of two skis; one with a long straight, non-arching shape, which was used for sliding, and another ski that was noticeably shorter, this was used for kicking. The bottom of the younger ski was crafted with animal fat, and the bottom of the short ski was crafted with animal skin. One famous civilization that noticeably used asymmetrical skis were the Sami people (we discussed their influence on skiing earlier in this article).

Then, in 1850, the cambered ski was crafted in Telemark, Norway. The cambered ski was designed with an arched middle, which would help evenly distribute the skier's weight. This was also the first ski that enabled the ski to flex and turn more easily, this it became easier to navigate down mountains and attempt to perform tricks.
Flash forward 100 years later when Howard Head created the Head Standard. The Head Standard was designed with steel edges and an exterior surface comprised of phenol formaldehyde resin. The Head Standard was geared towards recreational skiers and became increasingly popular. 12 years after the Head Standard was created, a fiberglass ski was used by Karl Schranz. That year, Karl Schranz won two gold medals at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, thus proving how durable and effective a fiberglass ski is. So, in the few upcoming years, most of the aluminum skis were replaced by fiberglass.

Finally, in 1993 Elan created the Elan SCX. This ski was crafted with a wider tip and tail than waist. Thus, when the ski is on its edges, it bends into a curved shape and can carve a turn faster and more efficient. This ski design became extremely popular and finally in 1995, the twin-tip ski was manufactured.

Now that we have explored the history of skis, let's take a closer look at the ski boots. Ski boots are important because, with inadequate boots, you may not have the most mobility. Ski boots first originated as leather boots, but instead of being crafted for skis, they were solely used as winter boots. When the boots became suitable for skis, they were held to the ski with leather straps. As modern skiing was developed, and cable binding was introduced, new ski boots were created. These boots had soles that extended towards the back, thus it was easy to attach the boot to the back. Finally, ski boots were designed with a sturdier and stiffer design. This is because ski lifts were created, thus skiers no longer needed to ascend mountains by foot in order to ski. Thus, when the ski boot was crafted with a stiffer design, it allowed skiers to have better control over their skis.
Since we have explored the history of skis and boots, let's take a last look at skiing poles. As we have touched on earlier, early depictions of skiers showed them skiing and carrying a long pole or spear. The first historical evidence of a skier with two ski poles was in 1741. Other than that, we do not know much about the history of ski poles. The most important thing we know about skiing poles was that in 1959 Ed Scott created skiing poles with a large-diameter, tapered shaft, and crafted with lightweight aluminum. Or in other words, the type of skiing poles that people use today.

Conclusion on Skiing History

So there you have it: the general history of skiing. To recap, we discussed the first archeological evidence of skiing, skiing as a mean of transportation, skiing as a sport, skiing as a recreation, and the basic evolution of skiing equipment. While we have not discussed every little detail of the history of skiing, we have discussed and explored the basic facts and events of the history of skiing. So, whether you read this article because you are a beginner or avid skier and want to know the roots of your beloved sport, or because you are a history buff that just generally enjoyed this article, hopefully, you have learned something interesting. If you are interested in the history of skiing, research specific topics or events that specifically interest you.

About Frank V. Persall

Originally from the UK, Frank has a passion for skiing and anything snow related. He is currently on a never ending mission to visit the best ski resorts across the USA and the the World. Frank is happiest when he is on ski slopes with his wife and three children.

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