A 19th century Rennaissance Man—and yes, eccentric—this
Austrian’s extraordinary achievements were
largely responsible for the sport we know today.
By E. John B. Allen, PhD
If modern skiing owes its development to one extraordinary individual, a singular pioneer, it is Austria’s Mathias Zdarsky. Painter, sculptor, teacher, philosopher and health guru, Zdarsky was also an eccentric inventor who developed the steel binding—the first to hold the foot in a stable position, the basis of all ski bindings today. His step-by-step ski instruction method with the introduction of a stem turn, his founding of a mountain Torlauf (gate race), in 1905, and most of all his insistence that skiing could and should be enjoyed in mountains—as opposed to merely foothills—all attest to his right to be called the “Father of Alpine Skiing.”
Zdarsky was born in the German-speaking area of Moravia in 1856 and settled in 1889 near Lilienfeld, a little over two hours by train west of Vienna. He had an extraordinary, inquiring mind, a trained gymnast’s body, a practical facility with his hands, a capacity for determined work, and a dogmatic certainty that he knew best about most things, certainly about skiing.
He was “a crazy cockerel,” according to Wilhelm Paulcke,(1) one of a number of influential skiers with whom he had a running fight lasting over a quarter of a century. To Austria’s army leadership, on the other hand, Zdarsky was a “private scholar in all areas of current human knowledge, [with] exemplary unselfishness, rare openness and integrity, and cool and brave in danger,” as the 3rd Corps Command evaluation put it to the Austrian War Department headquarters in 1907 after he had taught army units how to ski for three years.(2)
Zdarsky was the youngest of 10 children, attended local schools, and then a teachers’ training course in Brno before taking up positions in Vienna, Elsenreith, and in the Stein prison. He broadened his education in Munich (arts) and Zürich (engineering). He traveled to the Balkans and to North Africa. A number of his oil paintings from his travels are held in the Lilienfeld museum, which is almost entirely devoted to Zdarsky and houses his archive.
Zdarsky has been described as a “talented autodidact,”(3) was given an honorary membership in the Ski Club of Great Britain in 1904,(4) and has been featured in poems and doggerel:
Pfützen, Schlamm auf Schritt und Tritt
Doch wir bringen Zdarsky mit! (5)
[Puddles, mud with every stride
We’ll bring Zdarsky as our guide!]
He has been labeled “the Jahn of the skisport”(6) (referring to Turnvater Jahn, the most important 19th century German nationalistic gymnastics leader), “the Newton of Alpine skiing,”(7) “the father of Alpine skiing”(8)—take your pick. And he made of Habernreith—the house he designed and built near Lilienfeld—“a skier’s mecca,”(9) as the newspaper Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung described it. Along the way, he constructed a more efficient wheelbarrow, invented a cement mixer, supplied his swimming pool with a thermo-designed heating system, all the while working in self-designed clothes. In moments of repose, he made his tea on a self-invented quick-to-boil cooker that would be used by the military, as were his light rucksack and 6-man tent.(10) We are talking truly of a Renaissance man. Where he got the money for such things as travel and buying the land for his home remains a mystery.
American ski historians—indeed most others interested in skiing’s history—know him primarily as the founder of the world’s first slalom competition, in 1905. Before looking into that event, Zdarsky’s teaching, his writings, the disagreements, some even leading to challenges (both on skis and calls for real duels), his service to the military—all of them in some ways connected—need analysis to give some idea of the wide and deep range of interests and contributions of this extraordinary man.
Zdarsky saw his first pair of skis—Lapp skis—in a traveling show in 1872. Fifty-six years later he could still remember that they were 120 centimeters long, 6 centimeters wide and 4 centimeters thick with a foot platform near the middle and two straps.(11) It seems stretching belief that this 16-year-old would have noted such details, but he was who he was and so it is possible. This first recognition of skiing produced no impact. Fifteen years later, he read a newspaper report of two Norwegian students ascending the Brocken (Germany’s story-laden mountain in the Harz) on skis and after that, occasional articles on Fridtjof Nansen’s intended Greenland crossing. After the news of Nansen’s successful crossing of Greenland’s icecap in the late summer and early fall of 1888, ski developments in Austria began in Graz and Mürzzuschlag in the 1890s. These local skiers followed Norwegian businessmen, engineers, and students working and studying in Austria and Germany, skiing on skis with primitive bindings and, when they could, copying the Norwegian telemark turn while using one pole as they got out and about on mini-tours, climbed the local mountains and organized races.
Snowed in at home during the winter of 1890-91, and with Nansen’s recently translated book Auf Schneeschuhen durch Grönland (Across Greenland on Skis) in hand, Zdarsky ordered a pair of skis from Norway and over the next six years experimented with shorter skis and—so it is said—200 bindings, resulting in the patenting of the Lilienfeld ski and binding in 1896.(12) Since Norwegian skis were the only known quality skis in the 1890s, Zdarsky listed “nine faults” of Norwegian skis and, punching the point home, added “the Lilienfeld ski has none of these faults:” Snow balling up under the feet; sideways slip of the heel off the ski; inhibited lift of the heel; foot injuries resulting from the poor lift of the heel; frequent breaking of the ski; requirement of specially designed boots (or at least special straps); complicated to put on; impossible to ski on steep terrain; poor qualities that make learning to ski difficult.
By this time, Zdarsky had formulated his stem turn and the skiing principles that remained the same throughout his life: to achieve no-fall skiing, the ability to handle all terrain, and the skill to manage all obstacles.(13) In the same year, 1896, Zdarsky’s book, initially titled Lilienfeld Skilauftechnik (Lilienfeld Ski Technique), was published in November by Richter of Hamburg, the same publisher who had had such great success with Nansen’s account of his Greenland crossing. There were eventually 17 editions of Zdarsky’s book, which had the first title change in 1903 to Alpine (Lilienfelder) Skilauftechnik, obviously capitalizing on Zdarsky’s and others’ desire to enhance the “alpine” skiing they were promoting. In 1908 there was a further change—to Alpine (Lilienfelder) Skifahr-Technik. And here we enter the realm of translators’ difficulties. Zdarsky wanted to change Skilaufen (running on skis, even on the flat) to Skifahren (going along on skis downhill); he was much more interested in promoting safe touring skiing than he was in racing. As we shall see in the 1905 slalom, Zdarsky wanted people to ski according to his three principles. Racing was not one of them.
It has long been assumed that Zdarsky’s book was the first instructional book. This is not true. Instruction had been available from the publication of Max Schneider’s Der Tourist from 1892 on. Although this was a monthly newspaper published in Berlin, it had a far wider impact because parts of it were copied in various places, such as the Österreichische Sport-Zeitung.(14) Freiherr von Wangenheim had also come out that year with a booklet and, in 1893 Georg Blab, Fritz Breuer, Theodor Neumayer, O. A. Vorwerg, and Max Schneider all published small instructional books. The real competition came from Henrik Etbin Schollmayer’s 85-page book Auf Schneeschuhen: Ein Handbuch für Forstleute, Jäger und Touristen (On Skis: Handbook for Forestry Personnel, Hunters, and Tourists).(15) Oberleutnant Raimond Udy also produced a book on skiing for the military in 1894.(16) There were, then, at least a half-dozen instruction manuals before Lilienfeld Skilauftechnik appeared.
But Zdarsky’s book was detailed, logical in its insistence on steps in a progression of turns. From an exact and required stance, to moving forward and, most famously, to the stem turn, Zdarsky detailed how to move through any terrain. One chapter he devoted to hills of 50 to 60 degrees steepness—terrain Norwegians would not even consider for skiing. His emphasis on secure skiing in all terrain was made possible by the continual support of a single pole. No wonder critics, especially those for whom speed was essential for enjoyable skiing, would describe Zdarsky’s method as gymnastics-ossified in its insistence on the step-by-step progression. The Englishman Vivian Caulfeild in How To Ski and How Not To objected to the deliberate use of the pole for turning, braking, and stopping. To become a “zigzagging crawler is a very simple matter,” he added.(17) Part of this critique was based on British notions of “dash”—an imperial ideal which implied speed, courage, and a certain flair when doing things—so important in late Victorian and Edwardian times.
In 1897, Wilhelm Paulcke, mentor to many Schwarzwald (Black Forest, Germany) skiers, took Zdarsky to task for his skis, which were only good for slopes steeper than 30 degrees, his single long bamboo pole, and his questioning the value of goggles. Wrote Paulcke, “I don’t want to be squinting for five days.”(18) Zdarsky fired back by giving the advantages of his ski—that he had used a bamboo pole for six years that was “indestructible if one knows how to use it,” implying that Paulcke didn’t. Zdarsky never answered Paulcke’s criticism of skiing with no goggles—all the more surprising because in his youth Zdarsky had had his left eye put out of commission for a couple of years by an explosion. With the immense number of hours on snow, he must have had trouble with snow blindness. The editor of the Österreichische Sport-Zeitung suggested that Paulcke meet Zdarsky and get to understand the Lilienfeld method.(19) To Dr. Baumgartner, Zdarsky was belligerent and complained that he had never witnessed Lilienfeld skiing, even though he continued to criticize. “How devastating!” wrote Zdarsky, “For me?”(20)
These arguments were part of a simmering uneasiness among Zdarsky and Norwegians and their followers. They developed into increasingly abrasive public accusations in journals and newspapers. News of all this soon reached Norway’s skiing leadership, who knew themselves to be the guardians of all things having to do with skiing, and especially so since skiing by 1900 had become the nation’s birthright and not something to be tampered with. So when Zdarsky and his followers started tinkering with Norwegian skis and with the way that Norwegians skied, it was not something to be taken lightly, and it almost spawned a diplomatic incident. One of Zdarsky’s followers actually traveled to Christiania (as Oslo was then called) to calm matters down. Zdarsky, however, had already issued a challenge in 1899 to anybody using Norwegian bindings and technique for a contest on a 35-50-degree hill with many obstacles.(21)
By 1904, the challenge became seriously organized, with 17 stipulations, and permitted competition only from Norwegian or Swedish nationals. A committee of influential skiers was formed to oversee the contest on a hill with a 1,000-meter vertical drop. A rucksack had to be carried with at least six kilos (13 pounds) in it. Zdarsky was determined to force a confrontation. And when Rickmer Rickmers added a 3,000-Kroner wager to any Norwegian beating Zdarsky,(22) the stakes heightened and the Norwegians decided that they had better find out what the Austrian was doing to “their” skiing.
The Norwegians did not accept the challenge because the course would be downhill only and Norwegians considered uphill work an integral part of skiing, but they delegated Lt. Hassa Horn to investigate. The meeting was set for January 6-8, 1905, and a special train was laid on from Vienna to Lilienfeld.
About 60 skiers came to witness the duel between their Meister and their visitor. First, Zdarsky skied down a 400-meter drop at fast speed. The skiers who followed were slower but no one fell, even though some carried rucksacks—all to show that Zdarsky was not interested in speed but in training for touring. After an extremely social evening in the Schwarze Adler in Puchberg (a neighboring village), the weather turned bad but two days later cleared and, with new snow, Zdarsky and Horn skied down a steep slope. Horn sometimes took it straight, sometimes in curving telemark turns. Zdarsky skied with no falls and with elegant long curves. “It was a gripping picture, to observe two masters as they increased their speed and each doing his own technique,” as the event was described in the Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung.(23) Indeed, by the end of the exhibition, that was the conclusion: when skiing over a 20-degree incline it was evident, wrote a knowledgeable eye witness, that Zdarsky was superior, while under 20 degrees the honors went to Horn. What made the difference were Zdarsky’s shorter skis. On the last day, Zdarsky explained to Horn how he taught skiers, and Horn judged his method for teaching beginners to be excellent. They exchanged skis by way of symbolizing the end of the controversy.(24)
Horn had been impressed. In a public letter to Zdarsky’s club, he rationalized that “since your alpine terrain would be disregarded in Norway, your skiing is bound to have a different character than ours.” He considered Zdarsky “with his unusual personality… a skier like no other in Austria,” and went on to say how excellent Zdarsky was in steep terrain. But Horn had shown that he was more efficient in flatter country. He did find major fault with Zdarsky’s use of one long pole.(25) To his own Norwegian Ski Association, Horn gave a report which ended, “It should be the duty of every Norwegian skier to drop the old ideas and so contribute to friendly and better understanding.” (26)
One of the ways Zdarsky wielded so much influence was by his founding of ski clubs. He had started in 1898 with the ski club in Lilienfeld but broadened its base two years later to become the International Skiverein headquartered in Vienna, publishing its own journal, Der Schnee. This weekly journal provided him with an outlet for his thoughts and arguments on the philosophy and psychology of skiing and skiers. As he refused to join the Austrian Ski Association, two centers of skiing and administrative power emerged in the first years of 20th century Austria. In 1906, the Austrian Ski Association listed 14 clubs with a total of 870 members, whereas Zdarsky’s International Skiverein had 539 members alone. By 1908, the Austrian Ski Association’s membership of 25 clubs stood at 2,438 members, and Zdarsky had 1,005.(27) Though smaller, it was Zdarsky’s association that was successful in arranging for skis to be carried on Vienna’s trams. It also got reduced fares for its members on the railroad to Lilienfeld and had its own training ground in the suburbs of Vienna. It was lighted at night, and the nearby Villa Elsa set aside a room for members to change their clothes.(28) Not only that, but Zdarsky was invited to teach in Vienna, Murau (Austria), Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany) and Brasov (the eastern region of Austria-Hungrary). At Mariazell, Austria, in 1909 he had an international clientele including Austrian, Belgian, Brazilian, German, Polish, and Czech skiers.(29) If we look at his February 1907 visit to Kronstadt, today’s Brasov in Rumania, we get an idea of his teaching program.(30) The evening he arrived, he lectured to an audience of 50, including several military officers. The next day, 40 were on the hill with another 30 watching. The local newspaper was thrilled, proclaiming it is “a new era—the ski era has begun with us.” After Zdarsky had departed, the paper reported that people had not only learned how to ski because the instruction method had been easy to follow, but that ski touring possibilities had opened up.
These courses were given for no payment. This was not unusual. Other well-known skiers who did not ask for payment for instruction were Rickmer Rickmers and Georg Bilgeri.(31) It has been estimated that Zdarsky taught nearly 20,000 people how to ski.(32) “Although he taught a bad style,” wrote Arnold Lunn in his book Ski-ing, “he persuaded thousands to take up skiing.”(33)
Some of those thousands were military men—officers as well as enlisted men. Zdarsky gave his first course to the Austrian army in 1903 and continued until 1911, then again during World War I until 1916, when he was caught in an avalanche, which he survived with 80 dislocations, fractures, and broken bones.(34) His contributions inspired the Emperor Franz Josef to present him with a gold service medal.(35) Many officers took the courses, some of whom became influential themselves, especially Lt. Hermann Czant, Theodor von Lerch, and Hauptmann Rudolf Wahl, with whom Zdarsky wrote a military manual.
Not only did army skiers use Zdarsky’s Lilienfeld skis but also his bindings. The regulations that were issued and printed in 1897 were influenced by Zdarsky’s methods.(36) By 1907 the Lilienfeld binding was standard army issue.
Zdarsky’s courses were more tests of endurance than any particular military maneuvering. And that was basically a problem about which no one ever came to a final conclusion: Just what were troops on skis supposed to do? In the peace before the war, military expertise on skis was equated with marathon marches, particularly by the Austrians, Germans, and French. There was occasional criticism, by far the biggest coming from an officer who built up a ski detachment of the 14th Corps stationed in Innsbruck, Georg Bilgeri.
Bilgeri recognized that Zdarsky’s technique was an innovation for alpine skiing. But he objected to the use of the single pole because it provided a “support technique,” whereas he developed skiers with a “balance technique”(37) made possible by using two poles. Bilgeri “improved” Zdarsky’s binding, then wrote a book, Der Alpine Skilauf, published in 1910. There was no love lost between the two.
Matters came to a head when Zdarsky claimed that Bilgeri had copied his binding, then manufactured it as his own in his military workshop, and called it the “Army Binding.” Bilgeri had already received 3,000 orders, and another 8,000 were ordered two weeks later.(39) Bilgeri wrote in his book that it was the first work on alpine skiing—which was not true. And Zdarsky critiqued Bilgeri’s technique with a feistiness guaranteed to bring on a quarrel. “In an age of Siamese twins (referring to the two bindings) there is an abnormality to be found. There is in the Austro-Hungarian army a four-legged officer which I couldn’t have believed possible (Bilgeri had referred to the hind leg in explaining a turn). So Bilgeri must ski with four skis and, what a surprise, there are only two poles, not more.”(40) Bilgeri was honor-bound to challenge.(41) Both were persuaded to back down, and the military brass posted Bilgeri to Komorn in Hungary, well out of the Lilienfeld orbit.
Still, by 1912 it has been estimated that 75 percent of Austrian ski troops were skiing on Bilgeri bindings (they became official army issue in 1913) and with two poles.(42) Both Zdarsky and his followers taught ski troops during World War I and so did Bilgeri and his protégés, besides others, like Hannes Schneider, who were waiting in the wings.
Not nearly so divisive was the beginning of modern slalom. A post-1945 polemic has developed over the claim as to who started modern slalom. On one side are the supporters of Mathias Zdarsky and his March 19, 1905 Torlauf (gate race); on the other side are Arnold Lunn’s followers, who consider his slaloms from 1922 the real beginnings. An Austrian and an Englishmen were both laying claim to slalom—a Norwegian invention and word. But the key, in fact, is not the word slalom, it is modern slalom, i.e. alpine slalom.
Norwegians had a variety of laam—tracks. There was Kneikelaam (run with bumps), Ufselaam (run off a cliff), Hoplaam (run with a jump), Svinglaam (run with turns), and a daredevil run combining all the obstacles, the Urvyrdslaam or Ville lamir (wild run).(43) The Slalaam was a descent around natural obstacles, to prove that the all-around skier was capable of twisting and turning. This event appeared on a race program in Norway in 1879.(44) The race had not been a success, but was reintroduced in 1906 to counter the emphasis that young skiers had begun to give to jumping. This was, reported the 1906 Ski Club of Great Britain Year Book, “a forest race, down hill all the way, the course winding among trees and rocks, and all curves being taken at top speed.” In spite of the emphasis on speed, the competitors’ style while negotiating the obstacles placed at difficult sections of the course was taken into account by judges.(45)
When Norway’s skiing influence spread to Europe, races were devised specifically to include obstacles. In Germany, slalom was first introduced in the Harz in 1906. Before then, races were often called obstacle races (Hindernislaufen), sometimes skill races (Kunstlaufen), sometimes both, indicating clearly the skill required to avoid natural or man-made obstacles. In other races, it was stipulated that poles were not to be used hobby-horse style for braking.(46) Each of these varied races received some support, but it remained debatable which of these experiments was the true test of a good skier. The British experimented with “Bending” races where competitors skied around the outside of 12 poles. No points were given for style. The Black Forest races run between 1902 and 1906 provide an example of the experimental nature of early turning races. In 1902, a Kunstlauf was run. The next year it was called a Kunst-oder Hindernislauf. In 1904 there was a Stilgemässes Laufen (style-point race), which required a run down a steep slope with turns and swings. In 1906, for the same Stilgemässes Laufen, specific swings were required and speed was not a consideration. Poles were not allowed.(47)
The Norwegians, Zdarsky, and Lunn believed, in different ways, that a slalom would test a skier’s capability to avoid obstacles. For the Norwegians, they were obstacles that might be met on a tour over field and fell. For Zdarsky, a slalom would prove the ability of a skier to avoid obstacles on all types of terrain, with speed being no consideration. For Lunn, slalom came from his mountaineering background. In descending from a peak, the skier would run “downhill”—hence “downmountain races”—until he reached the woods. There the skier would have to thread his way through the trees.
Slalom was introduced as a practice for “tree running.” The Lunn race came to be divided into two parts, the first on hard snow, the winner then getting first run on the second course on soft snow. Ten-second penalties were added to those falling down deliberately at the flags. But, as noted earlier, the British equated “dash” with excellence—and speed was a factor. So into the discussion came questions of suitability of terrain, equipment, style of skiing, rules, professionalism, and honor. All this caused such a rumpus that challenges were thrown down in 1905 and again in 1993.(48)
The facts are these: Zdarsky mounted a Torlauf, an 85-gate run dropping almost 500 meters on the Muckenkogel outside Lilienfeld. He wanted it designated as an alpines Wertungsfahren —a judged alpine run—but his club members were adamantly against that and insisted on its being a race, a Wettlaufen. Zdarsky managed to get the event title changed to Ski-Wettfahren,(49) i.e. to replace the laufen with fahren indicating that the running (laufen) was replaced by skiing along (fahren). Zdarsky designed the course as a test for his club members, who were “tourists,” not racers. Hence it was to be a Prüfungsfahren, a testing run more for technique than for speed. Eight rules governed the event. The first had to do with climbing the Muckenkogel “in the usual tourist tempo.” Most notable was Rule 8: “Each fall will count. A fall is judged when sitting or lying on the snow or when the knee rests on the snow.”(50)
Twenty-four competitors between the ages of 17 and 52, including one woman, climbed the Muckenkogel, and down they came watched by 14 gate keepers.(51) Everyone fell—one competitor 24 times—and the least falls counted was one.
Following the event, there was virtually no publicity. The director of the Zdarsky archive, Franz Klaus (now deceased), told me it was simply because Wallner was not a Zdarsky acolyte. He did not use the master’s bindings and was the only competitor to carry two poles.
In 1987, Friedl Wolfgang wrote that “so difficult was the course that no one ran it without a fall, the winner counted six falls but still came down in 12.34 minutes; the best single-poler was Franz Kauba in 16.35 minutes.”(52) Horst Tiwald in his book Spuren von Mathias Zdarsky (Mathias Zdarsky’s Tracks) hardly mentions the 1905 Torlauf at all.(53) This effort to, so to say, disembrace the winner rests more with those who have a stake in the “firsts” syndrome, than it does with Zdarsky, although he had written in 1900 that a race was “the last proof of the school, how the individual has done” and felt that if he didn’t race then the competition is merely a “bit of circus stuff.”(54) Indeed, a year later, Zdarsky had been both competitor and judge in a race whose course had been changed at the last minute because of bad weather. The course was designated by Zdarsky’s own tracks. There was little that was satisfactory about the race and it led to acrimonious accusations between Zdarsky, who claimed to be the winner, and a young Josef Wallner. But it made no pretense to be a slalom.(55) I have found reports of only two other “slaloms” after the 1905 “first.”
Almost exactly a year later, another Skiwettfahren was announced as a Prüfungsfahren(56) with 35 gates for 51 competitors that included six who had run the 1905 slalom, plus eight women. The rules called for stopping after each of three stem turns. From a standing position on a steep slope, the skier had to ski “in the direction of flowing water”—the fall line—and stop with a “quarter circle turn” (whatever that was), then had to accomplish several snaky swings on the way down. Those who don’t pass, Zdarsky admonished the group severely, “ought to be more attentive during training.” Zdarsky made a pre-run of 5 minutes 50 seconds. During the descent, he purposefully stopped and turned around. Later he stopped and blew his nose. These were the sort of things that anyone on a tour might do, and his time of 5 minutes 50 seconds was defined as the standard. The winner would have to beat that time. Not one of the no-fall participants reached the time requirement, so there was no winner. End of slalom No. 2. But not quite. There were objections, a few complaining that the track was too cut up. So Zdarsky returned to the top and ran down faultlessly in 2 minutes 30 seconds.(57)
The last of the Zdarsky slaloms was held for 44 competitors, including 10 women, in 1909.(58) There were 15 no-falls over the 32-gate, 300-meter-vertical course. The standard time was 16 minutes 6 seconds. Wilhelm Wagner, a 1905 veteran, won with 10.57.
Nobody appears to have paid much attention to this. And that, in itself, is interesting. Skisport—skiing for pleasure, recreation, health, or whatever non-utilitarian reason inspired its devotees—was part of the industrial revolution’s quest for speed. Spiel und Gefahr, speed and danger, these were the desires of the true man, trumpeted Friedrich Nietzsche. Speed, in the words of another pioneer, was der Schrei der Zeit—the cry of the times—and even something as static as a trunk was sold as a Vitesse (speed) model.
But Zdarsky clung to his system. On his 80th birthday in 1936 (he died in 1940), he gave a radio talk in which he described how he had stoutly defended his system for 40 years, one that did not advocate speed for its own sake, but with the use of the single pole insured safety on steep terrain as on undulating meadow. But he had lost the battle.(59) He refused to acknowledge that speed on skis, a two-pole technique accompanied by a fast stem leading to a stem christiania was the future. The trouble was that for all his curiosity and inventiveness, his inexhaustible fitness and proficiency, Zdarsky had become a prisoner of his own system.