Shussing A Few Decades

Immensely detailed and scholarly books can be found on the history of skiing in Europe. Luckily for the reading public, no such works about American skiing are possible. It took centuries for skiing to spread from Finland to the Alps; over here events began to happen in the late twenties at a clip no chronicler could follow. Looking back over this compressed and scrambled segment of history, many important competitions are but the haziest of memories, while certain unrecorded incidents stand out sharply. Imagine, for example, a downhill race in Newport, New Hampshire, on a very hot day in August. And this was no dream.

The ski madness had but recently infected a lot of people in New England. It had hit them hard; like firewater and the red man. Skiers just couldn't wait for next winter to come, and some misguided fanatic had discovered pine needles were slippery. Being in the ski business, we felt obliged to go along with the idea. As I remember it, a couple of us outstripped the field, having cheated by gluing celluloid to our ski bottoms.

All known technique was useless. The only way to turn was to jump. You had to fend off the pine trees with your poles. We ended up not only bleeding and bruised, but completely black. Dives into pine needles encrusted everything but our eyeballs with dirt, pitch, and sweat. It really combined two sports - skiing and tar-and-feathering.

Fortunately some wandering skiers around that time discovered that winter comes to Chile when summer comes to New England. The thrilling sport of pine-needle skiing was finished.

Out-of-season skiing—on pine slopes, sand dunes, and indoor deathtraps lined with borax was just one of many odd results of the sudden craze. "Dry-skiing" classes-in-city gyms were mobbed by eager novices. (Memories of lining up a hundred women in the Y.W.C.A., all in their skiing gear, and putting them through kick turns and stembogens—what a clatter!) A smart shoe manufacturer made a fortune out of "ladies" ski boots; the things had pointed toes and couldn't be fitted to any kind of binding.

Many optimists, showing up for lessons in downhill running, were outfitted with Finnish langlauf skis about ten feet long and two inches wide. One chap went around trying to sell a binding of his own invention we called "the bear trap." It gripped the whole leg up to the knee in an arrangement of ratchets, levers, toggles, and springs, and must have weighed twenty-five pounds.

Among my own modest contributions were metal edges made out of bronze clock springs, a patented ski with a stepped bottom, and a technique known as "figure skiing." Using eight-foot double-ended skis, it enabled the skier to approximate, somewhat loosely, much of the repertoire of Sonja Henie.

We even had the temerity to try figure skiing in Austria, where it was received with something less than enthusiasm. I went out alone for a limbering-up of spins and outer-edges on a vast Arlberg slope one afternoon. Coming back to the village I met Herr Direktor of the ski school; he was a sort of regional dictator of everything pertaining to the sport. He stopped. I stopped. He peered at the upturned points of the rear ends of my long skis. Then he said, "Shees for dancing, hey?", roared with laughter, and went on his way. "Very funny, you old goat," I muttered at his departing back. Afterward I took a feeble revenge by doing telemarks around his classes and inviting the instructors to try them. It was strictly verboten to be seen skiing in any other style than that ordained by the master. But some of our American innovations were destined to develop the sport considerably and were later adopted in Europe.

In the early days we had to import all our equip­ment. A ski was made of one solid piece of wood and could be broken by a bad spill. As a result, we had hundreds of skis smashed for every leg that was broken. Then we started to mass-­produce laminated skis, and soon after, metal ones. These are so superior that now we have hundreds of legs smashed for every broken ski.

In the early years we were at great pains to sell the public our belief that skiing was a safe sport. We must have overdone it, because we were besieged by many specimens that would have caused veteran European instructors to throw in the sponge. There were retired bankers in their late seventies who had even given up golf. One large Boston matron, insisting on lessons, probably hadn't taken so much as a short walk in years. With such formidable girth and battlements, when she caught an edge it was like a mighty pine toppling. We would have to round up all hands to get her back on her feet again.

In New Hampshire a few of us took up skiing because the most glamorous alternative winter occupation was the cutting of cordwood. We learned the Norwegian system, which emphasized a graceful, upright posture. The technique was well explained in a book by an Englishman published around 1920. There were many photos of the author in action. He wore knickerbockers, white gaiters, tweed jacket, and square-visored cap, and sported a luxuriant mustache. In every maneuver the straight briar pipe in his mouth lent him an air of calm nonchalance. And his posture was always very upright and graceful. This posture came in handy much later. After some fifteen years of sliding about the slopes all, doubled up in a most uncomfortable squat known as the Arlberg crouch, it again became fashionable to stand erect.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In