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6 Things You Didn’t Know About Skiing History in the USA

Brush up on your local skiing history.

When we think about skiing history, thoughts of Norway and long skinny planks swirl about. Little did you know, the United States has plenty of our own unique ski history that helped shape the sport into what it is today. So to put our own skier flair on Independence Day, we’re sharing our favorite local ski history fun facts. Now you’ll have an icebreaker for that Fourth of July cookout.

Track! By Charles Addams
An iconic New Yorker cartoon from Charles Addams in 1940: Track! PHOTO: New Yorker

Snowshoe Thompson: “Viking of the Sierra”

One of the first recorded skiers in the United States is none other than Californian legend, John “Snowshoe” Thompson. After moving from the Telemark region of Norway to the United States as a child (where ski-skates were every day gear), Thompson settled in the Sacramento Valley as an adult chasing the Gold Rush.

As you might expect in the 1850s, the postal service was struggling to deliver mail across the Sierra during winter months. This problem hit Snowshoe Thompson hard — he didn’t hear about his mother’s illness and death because of undelivered mail. So, he made some of his classic sticks and signed up to help. For twenty winters, two to four times a month, Thompson would head out from Placerville, California to Genoa, Nevada to deliver mail. Carrying 100 pounds of mail and gear, Thompson would travel three days over the mountains, no matter the weather.

The stories of his adventures range from performing Norwegian folk dances on big rocks until storms passed, to saving prospectors in rural mines caught snow storms. Rumor has it that after homesteading to the mountains, he taught his neighbors how to ski. He built small jumps and demonstrated his rad tricks (which, at the time, was jumping as far as possible). All we know for sure is that old Snowshoe loved to ski, and he very well could have been the father of Californian skiing.

Forget Steamboat Resort, Check Out Howelsen Hill

Nestled right outside of downtown Steamboat Springs, you’ll find a small ski hill with jumps, slalom gates, and just a few lifts. At first glance, you may think, “this can’t be the Steamboat Resort”. And it’s not. It’s way cooler. Howelsen Hill started up all the way back in 1915. It still holds the claim as the oldest operating ski area in the North America.

Carl Howelsen, a.k.a. “The Flying Norseman”, settled down in the Steamboat Springs area after travelling with a circus for years. He decided to start a winter sports club, and eventually began constructing little jumps to practice getting air on skis. Howelsen developed steeper jumps and soon the ski area expanded alongside the sport, with slalom and downhill courses being constructed just a few years later.

Howelsen Hill remains one of the few active ski jumping hills in the States. It helped send close to 100 athletes from Steamboat to the Olympics through its training center. Even though it doesn’t have an extensive downhill ski area, with Ski Free Sundays, its worth a side trip to soak up the skiing history.

skiing history: first chair lift sun valley, id
Retro skiers loading on to the Dollar Lift. PHOTO: Sun Valley Resort

Sun Valley, Idaho: Home of the World’s First Chairlift

The United States is not first in many ski history related topics, but we do claim gold in one: chairlifts. This may be unsurprising to some of you, that we pioneered taking an automatic, luxurious ride to the top of a mountain to ski more comfortably.

The path to chairlifts was actually originally designed to help out the railroad industry. Railroad bosses thought they could boost passenger ridership with ski destination stops along the way. After a long search, Ketchum, Idaho presented itself as an excellent option as a luxurious ski resort destination. To make skiing more accessible (instead of getting to the top via skinning or using rope tows), Union Pacific wanted to build something to make the whole experience more comfortable, and ultimately more fun for everyone.

Enter: railroad engineer James Curran. Curran took inspiration from conveyor belts loading bananas on to ships in Central America. Why not just attach a chair to a conveyor belt and whisk people uphill? The plan worked, and chairlifts rapidly popped up at ski areas around the world once Sun Valley opened. Despite turning skiing into the sport it is today, Curran never became a skier. That’s okay though — we’re certainly not complaining about those sweet, sweet back to back hot laps.

Head Skis, Lightweight from the Start

Once upon a time, aircraft engineer Howard Head went on a ski vacation in Vermont only to find the heavy, hickory-made skis quite cumbersome (and not very fun). These skis challenged beginners, and Head thought skis that were legitimately easier to ski, would open up the sport. Sounds sick, right? Head thought so too, but every prototype he made snapped in half. But over time, testers got to ride them a little longer every time and find the weak points, that Head would go back and tweak.

Knowing that airplanes started with wooden materials and then transitioned to various metals, Head was confident the solution would lie with some kind of metal design. The final design used an aluminum sandwich around a strong, but thin, core that was laminated together. Head also found a way to glue ski edges during the lamination process, as opposed to screwing them in, improving the ride of the ski. Ultimately, these skis wound up being more torsionally rigid than previous wooden models. This helped them track better and stay smooth over rough conditions, while still feeling light on your feet (kind of like some other Head skis we know).

skiing history: first plastic ski boot from Lange
Lange’s first ever vacuum molded, plastic ski boot. Check out those laces. PHOTO: Lange Boots

The US Ski Team Turned Down Lange’s Plastic Ski Boots

Honestly, to me, the thought of skiing in leather boots is a little terrifying. Thank goodness Lange pioneered the first plastic molded ski boot in the mid 1960s. This was a huge pivot in skiing history. Plastic provided a much stiffer platform for significantly improved power transmission, especially on icy terrain (which racers ran into frequently during competition).

Once he had a design he settled on, Bob Lange (of Lange ski boots) reached out to the US Ski Team to test the boots, but they already had some and weren’t interested in testing. So, Lange reached out to the Canadians, who began to test them during races. Once a few of their athletes showed dramatic improvement in the World Cup Circuit, more folks began to take note of these stiffer (and definitely uncomfortable) boots. Then, during the 1968 Winter Olympics, five athletes wearing Lange boots won medals, making them the most medaled boot brand of the competition. Demand exploded, other boot brands developed plastic molded models, and skiing changed forever.

Terrain parks have unlocked a whole new world of skiing. PHOTO: Jake Burchmore

California is home to the world’s first terrain park

We started our skiing history story in California with skiing postal service volunteers, and return with stunts and jumps. Those Californians are always innovating. Once freestyle skiing started to take off in the 80s, another new world opened up in skiing’s story. Bear Valley in California was the first resort to open up a snow terrain park in the world.

Originally built with snowboarders in mind, the park was built with skateparks as inspiration. The park was loaded with jibby features like a halfpipe, rails, and various jumps. Soon after, Vail built their own and many resorts followed. I think it is fair to say, the introduction of terrain parks helped skiers practice their stunts to take them to steeper and wilder mountain terrain, introducing the wonderful world of freeride skiing we have today. I think old Snowshoe would be proud of us.

Feeling patriotic? Check out some of the best skis made right here in the USA.

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