1800s: A Strenuous Wrestling With the Riddle of Control


Authored by Morten Lund

Skiing as sport was inaugurated in a sustained way during the mid-1800s. It began in Norway, poor in farms and cattle but rich in deep snow and rolling uplands, therefore rich in skiers. The first real ski cartoons soon followed the founding of skisport, as the Norwegians called it. As sport, skiing had a thorny problem. Skis hewn out of long, straight pieces of wood—how could skis be forced to turn around a tree rather than running into it? Skiers could not keep running into trees and hope to attract friends to the sport. In the discovery of how to make skis turn lay the key to the future of the sport. 

The earliest solution was not elegant. Skiers simply dragged their single long pole in the snow to one side to divert their course through braking—like a car swerving when the brakes only take on one side. But leaning on a pole that way pulls a skier off-balance. This drawback precipitated the kind of comic falls also beloved by cartoonists, as in the Norwegian cartoon strip of 1879 shown below. 

Before any kind of elegant solution turned up, tens of thousands of Norwegians emigrated to America. Some found work as miners and prospectors. Immigrant Norwegians inhabiting the Sierra in California and the Rockies in Colorado whiled away long, boring winters when mining slowed down by making skis and getting up speed-skiing contests or going hunting on skis. 

In the speed races, everyone took off at once, and they were a real spectacle (at left, below). According to a cartoon from Colorado (at right below) hunters staged impromptu races enroute to bagging game. But, as the surviving cartoons show, turning was not among the skills of the speed-skiers or skiing hunters, courageous as they must have been. 

Meanwhile, back in Norway, ski jumping had become a major sport. At first, skiers simply threw themselves into the snow to stop at the botton of a jump, another not so elegant solution as the cartoon of a young jumper with snow patches on his clothing shows. But a solution was evolving. By mid-century, some young jumpers from Telemark led by the great Sondre Norheim had solved the riddle, developing a stable technique still used in back-country ski touring and telemarking today, the telemark and christie turns, both ingeniously combining carving and skidding the skis. 

From there, it was one long, triumphant march to the millennium.