Have you ever gotten on a chairlift, and looked down the skis dangling from your feet only to think;

How weird is this?!

Think about it logically. You have willingly strapped two planks of wood with razor-sharp metal edges to your feet, worn boots made of solid plastic and thrown yourself down a mountain. All with the help of two long metal toothpicks. It’s weird.

So how did we get to this point? Here’s a brief history of skiing, so the next time a non-skiing friend asks you why you do this every winter, you have more to talk about than just vin chaud and black runs!

 

8000 B.C. – The first known use of “skis” – Stone Age hunters strap pieces of wood to their feet so they can travel faster over snow in pursuit of game. There is even evidence of skis preserved in bogs and cave-paintings which show that hunters and trappers used skis at least 5000 years ago. Didn’t expect that did you?!

Ski History Graphic by National Geographic

Credit: National Geographic

1809: Olaf Rye becomes the first known ski jumper, despite it not having been invented yet. This doesn’t stop him, and he launches himself 9.5 metres through the air in front of an audience. Amazingly, he survives.

1850: The first ever camber ski is invented by woodcarvers in the province of Telemark, Norway. They find that the bow-shape of a cambered ski helps distribute the weight of the skier more evenly across the length of the ski, and prevents it from sinking in the middle. Remember that the next time you’re charging through powder and not sinking into a hole of your own (and the fondue you keep eating) making.

Vintage Ski Jumping

1862: First public ski-jumping competition is held in Trysil, Norway. Olaf Rye sadly does not compete, as he is 6ft in the wrong direction.

1893: The Norwegians realise that using skis made entirely of wood makes them a bit heavy, so they pioneer the two-layer laminated ski. However they use a glue which wasn’t exactly waterproof, so you can imagine how that works out after a few days…

1904: The Norwegians get a surprise when it turns out the Italians were skiing this whole time, and are holding the world’s first ski race.

1930’s: Asymmetic skiing dies out. This really existed – the skier wore a long straight non-arching ski on one leg for sliding, and on the other a shorter ski for kicking. Just like that time you saw a punter put on one of his own skis, and one of his child’s. Hilarious.

1930’s: Waterproof glue is invented and skiers get so excited that they decide to go a bit crazy and create the three-layer laminated ski. They end up being much lighter, livelier and stronger, and sales take off.

1934: The French decide to do their own thing and create a solid aluminium ski. Much to their chagrin it doesn’t take off, but is poached by the Norwegians to make “fish-scale” cross-country skis. Norway has a giggle.

1936: The chairlift is invented, huzzah! Now the only people who have to climb up mountains with skis on are the people who actually want to.

1939: Although ski warfare wasn’t new, it is notably used during WWII, and ski troops play a key role in the war effort. The Norwegians use them to ski long distance to sabotage a German nuclear research programme – it’s like James Bond and Indiana Jones all rolled in to one, but cooler.

Norwegian Soliders Skiing to sabotage Heavy Water

1939: The “Sno-surf” is invented. A board made of solid oak, which an adjustable strap for the left foot, a rubber mat to hold the right foot, and a rope used to control speed and steer. Yes, this is the first snowboard. They had REINS. Skiers collectively tut: a sign of things to come.

1945: The Americans join the fight… to create better skis. A sandwich of aluminium and plywood, Metallite, is invented for use in airplane skins. Three engineers use the idea to create a aluminium-laminate ski with a wood core which is more flexible and less prone to breaking than previous skis.

1947: Many other companies start using aluminium in their tests, most of which are developed by aircraft engineers. Spot the theme? Skis are catching the attention of cool people, like pilots.

1948: American Chris Hoerle creates the “Chris Ski” (honestly) which is the first ski with a integral steel edge. This idea is quickly adopted by a ski company founded by Howard Head (another aeronautical engineer), and named the “Head Standard” (…yup) . Head combines this with plastic side walls and sticks it all together with flexible cement.

The original Head Standard Skis

1959: Fibreglass becomes integral to ski construction, so that by 1968 it is more common than wood and aluminium, and made by companies such as K2 and Rossignal. The French have the last laugh though, as aluminium laminates remain important for all high-speed skis (GS and downhill), and aluminium-fibreglass compound skis prove popular for powder skiing.

1966: The “Snurfer” is invented, demonstrating that this snowboard fad isn’t going away anytime soon. Skiers start writing up battle plans, such as the use of flat areas between pistes simply to annoy boarders, and vigorous fist-shaking.

1988: The Super-G race makes it’s debut at the Winter Olympics. The first Jamaican bobsled team competes, and Eddie the Eagle steals the show as the underdog of ski jumping, with barely any experience. Olaf Rye would have been proud.

Eddie the Eagle 1988 Ski Jumping

1997: Ski shapes diversify – “fat” skis are developed for use in powder, and carving skis are developed to make initiating turns easier. Straighter skis end up on clearance racks, along with neon onesies. Not to worry, these onesies will be adopted 10 years later by drunk seasonnaires.

2000s: In an attempt to increase safety, the International Ski Federation (FIS) start implementing limits on ski shapes and lengths. Boo.

2005: Bode Miller adapts to shorter skis, bends the space-time continuum, and wins his first every World Cup title. Yay!

 

So there you have it – the justification of a sport through 8000 years of messing around with the design, throwing ourselves off high things and not taking “no” for an answer when the mountain rebelled.

Though we all know it’s much more than two bits of wood – it’s the most thrilling, rewarding, enjoyable sport on the planet, and we wouldn’t change it for the world.