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Skiing: From the Stone Age to Torino

Richard Lovett
for National Geographic News
January 31, 2006
 
Nobody knows who first thought of using wooden boards to glide over
snow rather than floundering through it. But the idea predates the
flashy colors and high-tech equipment of the Winter Olympics by
thousands of years.

This year's Olympics are in Torino (Turin), Italy, and it was Italians who first brought word of skiing to the centers of Western civilization.

When the Roman Empire expanded into northern Europe nearly 2,000 years ago, the Romans were intrigued to encounter a winter-mobile people sometimes called skridfinar—or "sliding Finns"—what we today would call skiers.

But skiing far predates the Romans.

North of the Arctic Circle, in Rødøy, Norway, a 4,000-year-old rock carving depicts a skiing hunter. A similar find allegedly 10,000 years old or more was recently announced in a remote northwestern province of China.

"All around the Arctic rim you can find such drawings," said Morten Lund, founding editor of the quarterly journal Skiing Heritage.

Over the Mountain

Skiing also has a long military history.

One of the most famous early endeavors was in 1206, when two Norse ski soldiers, called birkebeiners, carried the two-year-old son of their king up and over a mountain, safely away from the king's enemies.

Today thousands of skiers commemorate the event in Birkebeiner ski marathons in Norway and the U.S., although the carrying of babies is frowned upon.

A ski marathon in which people do carry parcels is Oregon's John Craig Memorial Mail Carry.

In 1877, Craig received a contract to carry mail across the Cascade Range, east of modern Eugene. He may have used snowshoes, but at the time there was no real distinction between skiing and snowshoeing.

"Skis were called Norwegian snowshoes," Lund said.

Craig spent the summer scouting a route and building a cabin for shelter. On his first winter attempt, he died in the cabin when a blizzard soaked his matches, leaving him unable to light a fire. Today's skiers often carry letters in commemoration of the fallen mail carrier.

Longboards

Most likely, Craig was inspired by Jon Tosterud Rue, better known as Snowshoe Thompson.

A Norwegian immigrant drawn to California by the gold rush, Thompson discovered that there was more gold to be had in the snow than in the mines.

Beginning in 1855, he hauled 100-pound (45-kilogram) packs of mail on 80-mile (130-kilometer), three-day traverses. For this service he charged as much as two U.S. dollars per letter, at the time a staggering fee.

Thompson's fellow miners also staged North America's first organized downhill ski races.

The miners rocketed as much as 1,900 feet (580 meters) down hills on 12-foot (3.6-meter) wooden "longboards" at speeds approaching 90 miles (145 kilometers) an hour.

In the effort to win, they lubricated their skis with concoctions of vegetable oil, animal fat, whale oil, and tree sap. They had invented the art of downhill ski waxing, although they called their concoctions dope.

"The winner was the best at making dope," said Rebecca Schenone-Chase, supervising ranger at California's Plumas-Eureka State Park, the site of the races.

"He was the 'dope king.'"

And men weren't the only ones racing.

"There were a lot of women who did it, too, dressed up in skirts and hats, with big heavy coats flopping everywhere," Schenone-Chase says. "It must have been quite a sight."

Telemark

Until recently there was little distinction between cross-country and downhill skiing.

"When I was a child," said Lund, now 79, "we'd ski out and find a hill, climb up and ski down until we were tired, then ski home."

But the seeds of change had already been sown during the 1880s in Norway's Telemark district.

There, people experimented with new ways to make skis turn on the move. The innovations opened the door for a more controlled form of downhill skiing than the miners' daredevil plunging.

The resulting maneuvers are now called telemark turns and christies. The christie, or sliding turn, is still the basic downhill maneuver.

Ski events were included in the first Winter Olympics in 1924. "But that was all jumping and cross-country," Lund said.

Except for demonstration events in 1928, downhill skiing didn't get into the Olympics until 1936.

Although cross-country skiing (wallpaper photo: cross-country skiers) had virtually been the national pastime of Scandinavian countries, it was a minor sport in the U.S. until the 1970s.

Then fiberglass replaced wood, high-tech waxes began appearing, and warm, lighter-weight fabrics replaced wool clothing, making the sport more accessible.

In 1982 American Bill Koch electrified the sport world by winning in the Cross-Country Skiing World Cup with a technique that looked more like ice skating than traditional cross-country skiing. Now cross-country ski races are divided into two categories: freestyle (skating permitted) and classic (no skating).

Skiing may have started in the Stone Age, but it's been changing ever since.

Who knows what the 2106 Olympics might bring?

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