The Origins of Skiing
Skiing, in one form or another, has been around for longer than many people might first assume. Debate exists over precisely where the first skis were used, with dispute between Scandinavia and China as points of origin, but evidence exists that indicates skiing has been in practice for around 8,000 years.
Paintings in the Xinjiang province of China, which have been dated to 10,000 years old, imply the use of skis, and possibly the first physical evidence comes from Lake Sindor, which lies northeast of Moscow in Russia. Fragments of wooden: ski-like objects have been found there, dating back to around 6000 BCE.
While the exact origins of the use of skis are difficult to pinpoint, most agree that skiing in its modern form has its most significant roots in Scandinavia. The word 'ski' itself comes from the Norse work 'skíð', which means 'stick of wood'.In fact, the word 'ski' is used far more widely in Norwegian than in English, as a compound in words like 'skigard' (or 'wooden split-rail fencing').
Skiing is deeply embedded in Norse mythology, with the god Ullr and the goddess Skaði depicted as hunting on skis. It's potentially unsurprising, then, that the oldest actual ski to be found was discovered in a peat bog in Hoting, in Jämtland County, in Sweden - and dates back to between 4500 and 2500 BCE.
For many hundreds - if not thousands - of years, skiing was practiced not for recreation, but convenience and necessity. Throughout the middle ages, skis were a common tool for farmers, hunters, and warriors alike. Procopius, the principle Byzantine historian of the 6th Century, went so far as to describe the Sami people (traditionally known in English as Laplanders or Lapps) as 'Skrithiphinoi', or 'ski running Samis'.
By the 12th Century, skis were also commonly being used in warfare. Soldiers riding them were turned, essentially, into cavalry units, and they became popular and widespread in snowy regions. Once the 17th and 18th Centuries arrived, skis were a common feature in many northern armies, and the Danish-Norwegian army even included specific ski battalions from 1747 onwards.
As the world became more connected, word of the use of skis spread quickly. A notably charming diary entry, by traveller Jacques de la Tocnaye, states "In winter, the mail is transported through Filefjell mountain pass by a man on a kind of snow skates moving very quickly…".
By the 19th century, it wasn't just Europe that was making use of these 'snow skates' - immigrants to the U.S. had introduced skiing there, too.
Developments in Skiing Technology
The skis modern travellers might use on a holiday in Morzine are a far cry from the bulky plank-like skis used centuries ago. Changes in the way skis are made, and the materials used, are arguably what gave us the sport as we know it today.
The 19th Century was possibly the most significant period for the development of skis themselves. Prior incarnations had used bulky, thick planks of wood - necessary due to the fact that flexible skis meant the user simply sank. Cambered designs that arch upward towards the centre were developed in Telemark around 1840, and were far easier to use, and more reliable.
From this point on, the focus was on making skiing easier, cheaper, and more convenient. Sidecuts were developed for easier turning, and new carbon-steel tools at the end of the 19th century meant that skis could be made from hickory, instead of ash (which was flexible, but wasn't durable).
These new skis were tougher, harder, and lasted longer, and it wasn't long before huge amounts of hickory were being imported from Louisiana in the States. Immigrants from Nordic countries soon realised it was cheaper and simpler to make the skis in America, and by the end of the century, many Norwegian ski makers had moved production to the USA.
Other techniques including lamination and steel-edge segments started to appear, but many were flawed (laminated panels weren't waterproof, and segments fell apart). The technology continued to develop, however, and by 1930, aluminium and triple-laminated skis were being made. Over the coming years, multiple different styles were tested and refined, involving different materials and lamination.
By the 50s, new materials had taken the lead. Polyethylene had overtaken many wooden skis in popularity, and when the first fibreglass ski was invented in 1959, it quickly became the most popular material for all kinds of racing and recreational skis (and it's still used today!)
How Skiing Became Popular
Today, skiing is mainly a recreational activity. It's hugely popular as a sport worldwide, and the biggest catalyst to this was arguably military and industrial use. The Norwegian army held skiing competitions as early as the 1670s, while the first known civilian race took place inn 1843 at Tromsø, Norway. In the USA, skis were used in the Sierra Nevada Gold Fields, and by 1857, downhill ski races were being held by mining camps.
In the early 1900s, Austrian Hannes Schneider - impressed with the skill of skier Mathias Zdarsky - developed new stopping and turning techniques; he used these to create the first model of ski instruction, on which all modern skiing techniques were based. With a new way to learn, and better materials to use, the popularity of skiing from this point on grew rapidly.
By 1921, the first slalom race was being held in Switzerland, and in 1924, the sport - along with others of Nordic origin - was significant enough that the first ever Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix (which our members can visit, during a stay in Chalet Soleil or Chalet Farniente). New categories including cross country and alpine were added over the course of following events.
Skiing in the Modern World
Skiing today is very different to how it was even 50 years ago. New resorts, ski schools, and more recently things like live weather tracking and computer analysis have made skiing more accessible than ever. It still remains a high end sport, but it's one that more people than ever are able to enjoy.
Skiing in the modern age is generally split into three distinct styles. Alpine (or downhill skiing) is by far the most popular for recreational purposes, and it's the kind that most of us enjoy on our holidays.
Alpine skiing involves fixed-heel bindings (in other words, skis that don't let you move your feet), and usually takes place on the pistes we recognise in the luxury resorts we visit.
Nordic and Telemark skiing make up the other two popular forms, although these are a little more advanced, and rooted in the history of skiing for practical purposes. Using skis that are attached at the tow, but not the heel, Nordic skiing involves longer cross-country distances, and Telemark involves a specific style of turning, which is only possible by the increased movability of the skis used.
In recent years, skiing has even moved off the mountainside, with grass, indoor, and dry-ski slopes now widely available. The sport is firmly rooted in the public psyche, and continues to be one of the most widely practiced and enjoyed in the world.
It's easy to take for granted how this has developed, but during your next trip on the slopes, you'll be able to ski safe with a deeper understanding of the origins of the sport so many enjoy today.