Skiing: From the Stone Age to Torino

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"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.


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."


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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