The history of skiing goes back several thousand years to post-glacial stone-age people who lived in the northern latitudes of Europe and Russia. Skis made it possible for them to survive the harsh winters by hunting game. The Rodoy rock carvings above the arctic circle in Norway are at least 4,500 years old and depict a man on long runners with a hunting implement in hand. Ski artifacts of all sizes have been dug out of peat bogs in the Scandinavian countries indicating wide use of the over-snow runners.
The first written account of skiing appears circa 1,000 A.D. in the Viking Sagas where several kings are described as being superb skiers. In 1206, during the Norwegian civil war, two scouts on skis carried the infant heir to the throne 35 miles to safety in the middle of winter. The historic event is celebrated today by the Birchleg Race over the same route so called because the scouts wrapped their legs in birch bark to keep them warm and dry.
Another traditional ski race takes place every year in Sweden. The Vasaloppet Cross Country race (53 miles) honors Gustav Vasas ski trip in 1523 when he raised an army and beat the Danes who were then in control of the country.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the armies of Norway and Sweden used skis for winter warfare. A pair of skis consisted of one long runner and one shorter one called an andor. The long ski was used to glide the shorter one to brake and climb. Skins could be applied to the latter.
By 1840 local cross-country ski races (with skis of equal length) were beginning to be held in Norway among military personnel. Soon, civilians were allowed to enter and the popularity of the ski contests spread rapidly among the peasants in the rural countryside. The races were Nordic in concept over rolling terrain and down short steeper slopes where jumping was necessary.
In 1868 Sondre Norheim, a young man from the Telemark region, broke all the jumping and cross-country records at a Nordic tournament in Christiana (Oslo). Up to that time a single toe strap had been used to hold the ski on the foot. He revolutionized the ski-sport by adding a willow strap around the heel and contouring his skis so that they were slightly waisted in the middle. The new binding and refinement of the ski shape gave greater control and manueverability which meant faster running and longer jumps. The words, Christiana and Telemark were given to the new ski technique he pioneered. He is considered the Father of Modern Skiing.
Skis were introduced to the U.S. in the late1830s by Scandinavian immigrants who settled in the upper midwest. The California Gold Rush of 1849 lured many to the gold camps in the high Sierra, where the long runners, called Norwegian snowshoes, were quickly adopted for oversnow travel. One of the most famous skiers of that era was Snowshoe Thompson who carried the mail for 20 years from Placerville to Carson Valley, a distance of 90 miles, with a heavy mail sack on his back.
Skis were handmade from pine or spruce trees and ranged from 8-14 feet in length. They were usually 1/2 inch thick and about 4 inches wide. They weighed about 25 lbs. One long pole 8-10 feet long was used to steer and to brake (sometimes by straddling it.) Turning was practically impossible on the long boards and one usually had to slow down and step around the pole to change direction. Norheims refinements in ski equipment did not reach this country until much later.
It wasnt long before California miners were challenging each other to spur-of-the-moment downhill races during their off time. Then the rivalry spread to other camps and a racing circuit was established. Each camp had its aces who rode the 12 foot boards all out for glory and the honor of the camp they represented. Recipes for doping (waxing) were highly guarded secrets and often determined who would win or lose. Prizes of silver belt buckles were common. Betting was intense; spirits were high; and apres ski revelry could last through the night.
In 1874 at La Porte California, Tommy Todd was clocked at over 85 miles an hour down an icy 1804 foot course with a 1,000 foot vertical. His unofficial speed record stood until the middle of the 20th century.
Ten years after the rush to California, gold was discovered in the mountains west of present-day Denver. Skis would find a welcome new home in the high mountain mining camps of Colorado.