History of Alpine Skiing
Though humans have been skiing since 3000 B.C., it’s
been only about 100 years since skiing changed from a means of
transportation to a means of recreation. And when humans started skiing
for fun, they decided that one way to have a good time was to ski downhill
as fast as they could.
Alpine skiing could not have begun without a very important invention —
the first toe-and-heel binding, developed by Sondre Norheim of Telemark,
Norway, about 1850. Prior to this, skis had been held to the foot with toe
straps and an occasional, flimsy heel strap. But Norheim’s toe-and-heel
strap was so sturdy that skiers could head down steeper hills without
worrying their skis would come off.
The words “alpine” and “nordic” also show how the two forms of skiing
developed. “Nordic” refers to Scandinavia, where skiing began and where
the land is relatively flat. “Alpine” refers to the Alps, that steep and
grand mountain range in the center of Europe. Nordic skiers pushed
themselves across flat land, while alpine skiers raced down steep
The first alpine skiers were wealthy Brits, who enjoyed hiking in the Alps
during summer. Skiing was a way to enjoy those same Alpine villages and
valleys in the winter. Brits loved to go fast, so they started racing on
skis. One race, the downhill, determined who could go the fastest. Another
race, the slalom, determined who could go the fastest around obstacles —
in this case, sticks stuck into the snow. The first downhill ski race was
the Roberts of Kandahar Cup, staged in Switzerland in 1911. This race
continues today on the World Cup circuit as “The Kandahar.”
The 1920s were a decade of big spending and opulence. Thanks to that and
some new turning techniques, alpine skiing grew tremendously in Europe.
Full-fledged luxury resorts were established in France, Italy, Switzerland
and Austria. In 1924, the first Winter Olympic Games were staged in
Chamonix, France — with only nordic events.
By 1932, the Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), the governing body of
ski racing, gave its blessings to alpine skiing. But the Olympics went on
that year in Lake Placid, NY with four nordic events. Alpine ski racing
would not appear at an Olympic Games until 1936 in Garmisch, Germany.
The late 1920s and 1930s gave the sport another big boost with the
invention of uphill transportation. History purists will argue that rope
tows had been around since the beginning of the century, but there is
considerable controversy over which hill had the first one. Europeans
installed the first cable cars, though accounts differ as to where and
when the first one was installed. Some accounts say 1927; others 1928.
Some say it was in Chamonix, France. Others credit Engleberg, Switzerland.
But the most significant lift was the chair lift, first used in 1936 at a
brand-new American ski resort, Sun Valley in Idaho.
Sun Valley’s founder, Averill Harriman, was the chairman of the Union
Pacific railroad. He called on UP engineers to design a ski lift for his
new resort. One man, James Curran, had previously designed a device to
unload bananas from ships. It had a continuous cable with hooks attached.
Why couldn’t a single chair be attached to the end of the hooks? The
chairs would bring the skiers uphill, the skiers would ski off the chair
and the top, and the cable would bring the chair back to the bottom for
another loading. The device worked, and alpine skiing really took off
The 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley, California, were televised for the
first time. Americans were enthralled by the skiers, and wanted to do it,
too. By this time, other inventions helped to keep Americans enthusiastic
about the sport. Aluminum and plastic in skis made them more durable and
easy to use; releasable bindings helped reduce the number of severe leg
injuries; rigid-plastic boots attached by buckles gave skiers far more
control; and insulated clothing helped to keep skiers warmer and on the
slopes longer. Snow grooming machines helped to keep the snow surface
smooth, while snowmaking machines kept the hills covered in white. U.S.
ski areas numbered 78 in 1955; by 1965, there were 662 lift-served places
to ski, from little neighborhood hills to large luxury resorts.
In 1981, the first detachable quad chairlift was installed in
Breckenridge, Colorado. This lift used two cables — slow ones at the top
and bottom that circled the loading and unloading areas, and a fast one
going up the hill. Once loaded at the bottom, the chairs “detached” from
the slow cable and attached to the fast one, then reversed the process at
the top. Coming in for a landing the first time was a scary experience for
many skiers, but they soon grew to love the extra runs that the high-speed
lifts brought. Now, such lifts are commonplace at many resorts.
Alpine skiing has seen many changes in its relatively short history. And
it probably will see many more in the future. This winter create your own