The Evolution of Skiing – From Transport to Recreation
Issue 2 / 04 May 2018
The Evolution of Skiing – From Transport to Recreation

With technical kit and the need for speed, skiing today couldn’t look more different from its origins.

Serena Norton

The roots of skiing stretch back over 10,000 years ago with stone age hunters using skis to hunt reindeer and elk herds across Asia’s Altai region. Skis were in regular use by Scandinavian farmers, hunters and warriors through the middle ages, enabling men and women to travel, trade and hunt. For decades, doctors, priests, and postmen relied on skis as a mode of transport to reach remote communities whilst the Great Northern War between the Russians, Swedish and Norwegians in 1716 was fought primarily on skis.

In 1888 the Norwegian explorer and champion skier, Fridtjof Nansen, crossed Greenland on skis, elevating skis from modes of transport into facilitators of discovery. Swiss hotelier Johannes Badrutt was fundamental in developing skiing as a sport. He encouraged British summer visitors to spend winter in St. Moritz, helping to define a whole new experience of the winter holiday. The British left their mark on St. Moritz in the form of curling, ice sports, the Cresta Run and the bobsleigh track. Another pioneer of skiing as a winter sport was Sir Arnold Lunn, a British skier, mountaineer and writer who organised the world’s first slalom race in Mürren in 1922, and was integral in introducing downhill skiing to the Winter Olympics in 1936.

The rise of purpose-built ski resorts

The 1940s and 1950s proved to be a time of exceptional growth for the ski industry with the post-war boom and technological advances propelling skiing into the mass market. New ski lifts and resorts opened, much to the disgust of ski purists who saw lift-accessed skiing as ugly metal infrastructure and the “death of ski tourism.” Mountain resorts became commercially viable when city-dwellers could reach them by train whilst purpose-built ski resorts such as Avoriaz and Flaine in France saw the rise of skiing as a recreational activity.

As the sport of skiing developed so too has the technology. In the early days of skiing skis were treated with animal fat to aid sliding and it wasn’t until 1950 that the first viable metal ski was invented by Howard Head. This was constructed by sandwiching aluminium alloy around a plywood core. By the late 1960s, fibreglass had mostly replaced wood and aluminium, cable binding was introduced, the invention of plastic-shelled ski boots spread and skis started to become wider and fatter, making skiing in deep powder much easier.

Extreme skiing

As skiing became more easily accessible, so did the desire for a more extreme side to the sport. The first commercial heli-ski operation took place in 1965 and in 1968, Switzerland’s Sylvain Saudan skied the world’s steepest descent: the exhilarating 60-degree Gervasutti Couloir. A new Alpine racing discipline, the super-G, debuted as a World Cup event in 1983 and at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Extreme skiing, known increasingly as freeskiing or freeriding has seen the rise of many terrain parks opening up to skiers and snowboarders all over the world.

Technology today has allowed athletes to push the boundaries of skiing. With apps to measure everything from top speeds and distances to jumps, not to mention GoPro cameras filming every move, skiing has transformed beyond belief. However, tradition still plays its part today with unprecedented numbers of skiers returning to Alpinist roots by taking up ski mountaineering, thus still sharing the enthusiasm and passion for discovery as skiing’s founding fathers.

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