Shussing A Few Decades

More

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.

There have been, of course, many refinements of the three main systems (Scandinavian, Austrian, and French or parallel) that succeeded each other in American skiing. Some of these refinements: weighting the outer ski; weighting the inner ski; weighting both skis; unweighting both skis; going "down-up-down"; going "up-down-up"; rotating with the shoulders; counter­-rotating with the shoulders; and just whizzing down the trail and the heck with all of it.

A point fervently stressed in all the newer systems is the forward lean. For several years some new maestro would come along every winter claiming his method enabled one to lean a degree or so further forward. When the Austrians started infiltrating the Laurentians, bringing this fetish with them, my friend (whom I'll call Pierre) was annoyed.

Pierre, a superbly graceful skier who all his life had been teaching people to run the gentle Laurentian slopes, saw no reason to lean further forward. But all he heard from morn till night a shouting of "Vorlage! More vorlage!" One day he had an idea. Behind the heelplates of his skis he fastened metal rings; from these he passed stout straps around his ankles. He then went out and took up a prominent position on the Austrian-staffed school slope. Slowly he bent his lithe form forward until his nose actually touched the points of his skis; then he straightened up and skied victoriously down the slope.

Pierre it was who advocated, with no success, a ski event I would dearly love to, see someday. He was sure it would prove more popular than hockey or football. And indeed the idea not only combined some aspects of hockey and football with skiing; boxing and dueling were also thrown in. Two teams were to race six times up and down a rope-tow slope, all at the same time. They would be allowed to shake each other off the rope on the way up, body-check and trip on the way down, generally mixing things up with no holds barred. I'm still hoping some farsighted promoter will get hold of this.

In the twenties most of the winter fraternity who had risen above the barrel-stave and toe­-strap phases could call each other by their first names. Then a Norwegian trader named Hambro ran a cargo of ski equipment into the port of Boston. Oscar Hambro touched off a social revolution in New England equal to the shake-up Admiral Perry gave to old Japan. In no time every New Hampshire hayfield was a potential ski school. The Era of Glamor had dawned. Dodging debutantes was the only serious hazard of the "ski pro." It remains a sociological mystery why so many girls so suddenly wanted to propose marriage, or at least propose, to any male eking out a living on skis. The trouble was, there weren't enough ski teachers to go around—about four, all told, in the East. They had to spread themselves a bit thin until we started importing Swiss and Austrians.

For a while I had a partner who had grown up in North Africa and claimed to be part Arabian. (We, used to introduce him as "the only Arab skier in the world" and send him down the slope wearing a headdress like Ibn Saud's.) He was small, skinny, and the homeliest man I ever saw. Yet so many girls were always fighting for his attentions, he almost had a nervous breakdown trying to decide between the richest and the prettiest. He finally went to Alaska and married an Eskimo.

In these days of resort skiing en masse, one doesn't worry about having to crawl down a trail dragging a broken leg. The nation-wide ski patrol is ever alert. But some of the publicity given these people—and I hasten to offer them my sincere tribute—might imply that in earlier times we often left the dead and wounded on the field.

This was not the case. I remember running a narrow trail with an experienced group, when we came upon an unconscious skier.  He had ventured far above his fellow novices and run into a large maple tree. The damage included concussion, a broken back, and some cracked ribs. With great presence of mind we rushed over to a nearby cottage, ripped off a screen door, and used it for a stretcher. We got him down in fine shape except that near the bottom the screen broke and he dropped right through the door. Anyway, we heard later that he recovered.

In the whole history of skiing the largest class ever to be taught by one instructor was not at Sun Valley, as one might imagine, nor even in the Alps. It was in Connecticut. When the boom began spreading southward, a certain large and select girls' school decided to initiate skiing. A young man who had done some professional teaching was found up in New Hampshire. For what looked to him like a Hollywood salary he agreed to drive down once a week.

The young pro arrived for his first workout expecting to teach a couple of sessions with perhaps ten or fifteen girls. He found two hundred, each issued a brand-new outfit, all out on the slope and eager to begin. Desperately trying to figure a way out of this dilemma, he told them all to line up at the top of the open hillside. To make matters worse, there was a breakable window­-glass crust on two feet of unbroken snow.

When the whole two hundred were spaced out in line, the poor pro could hardly see to the ends. Hardly any, including some six teachers deployed to keep order in the ranks, had ever before seen a pair of skis.

"All right, come ahead!" the pro yelled, intending to add "One at a time," but it was too late. On that icy crust the whole line was bearing down on him. With the same technique used to escape an avalanche, the pro turned downhill and raced for his life. And when the last flying figure had piled up, about half the girls and five of the six teachers were out of action for the rest of that day at least.

Somewhere around that time we were suddenly jerked into an era of rope tows. They sprang up everywhere, and if the country was flat the optimistic proprietors seemed to think the demand would cause hills to sprout.

Occasionally some debonair skier would get caught by the rope and emerge like a heap of laundry spewed out of an electric wringer and be quite as lifeless, but this only added to the fun. Even today you can easily spot a veteran of the early tows. Just look for a man with arms about six inches longer than normal and subject to bursitis.

Those of us who survived were rewarded by entering the Golden Age of Non-Climbers. Comfortably relaxed and swaying gently in our seats, we were wafted aloft by the chair lift. Big business, technology, and sport combined at last. Now all we had to do was stuff our pockets with wads of dollar bills, stand in line for an hour or so, and presently we would arrive at the summit so numbed with cold we wouldn't care how we got down.

One day my wife and I were skiing on a crowded slope when the lift stopped for repairs. We kept right on, making a round trip up and down in little more time than we had been doing via the lift. The idle waiting crowd stared at us as though we were defying the laws not only of gravity but of decent propriety as well. Only then did I realize that a generation of skiers had grown up as ignorant of climbing as we had been when we first saw an uphill ski track. (When we were children a wandering Finn had climbed the hill past our farm; for years we marveled at how he had managed it.)

I remember two trips to Canada. On the first we met thousands of happy, frolicking skiers, all strung out along the Maple Leaf Trail. This trail runs from village to village all across the Laurentians, and we loved it. A couple of years later we found the Maple Leaf deserted. Not a single track marked the perfect powder. But in every village five or six tows were doing a land-­office business.

The period of Frechette had begun. Who was Frechette? Well, we were on a large tow-slope at Ste. Adele, or maybe it was St. Sauveur. About every half hour a great shout would go up, "Make way for Frechette! Make way for Frechette!" Several hundred skiers would scurry toward the edge of the slope. And presently down would come Frechette, scornful of any sissy attempt at turns to right or left. Crouched so low he could just peer over his knees, poles outstretched like the wings of an eagle, straight down he would sail. Somewhere short of the bottom there would be a sudden wild pinwheel of arms and legs and skis and snow. Then Frechette would gather himself up and start back for another exhibition.

I don't know if it was the late Harvey Gibson or the late Joseph Ryan who first found that it was easier to remove a forest than to ski through one. And I've forgotten which one of them spent the most millions of dollars. In any case, Gibson scraped and polished a knoll in the White Hills, as they were known in pre-Chamber of Commerce days. Ryan did his job on a hirsute height in Canada. Thus was started a new and strange trend.

Formerly, the heir to unusual riches, seeking an exclusive setting for social shivarees, bought an ocean-going yacht, or built a castle, or picked up a defunct Scottish earldom. Now, if your family owns a few railroads or a diamond mine, you buy a mountain. Bulldoze it off, run up some lifts, build a chalet village and a couple of hotels, and there you are. (Note for lesser millionaires: Secondhand mountains can now be bought at half price in the spring, and at even less after a light winter.)

Meanwhile, I think I'll just ski over to that old field on the hill half a mile from where we live. I just want to practice my telemarks where the virgin snow is unmarred and there is plenty of room.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

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

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In