How Skiing Went From the Alps to the Masses

Thanks to ski lifts, snow cannons, and plenty of dynamite, what used to be a ritzy European pursuit is now an accessible middle-class pastime.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Triple gold-medalist Alpine skier Jean-Claude Killy of France, O.J. Simpson, and Chevrolet executive John Z. DeLorean sit at a table, while Hunter S. Thompson takes notes from the side of the stage. This might read as the tortuous setup to a particularly hackneyed joke, but it’s the punchline. Such was the scene at the 1969 Chicago Auto Show, where this trio touted the virtues of the all-American Chevy Camaro.

But one of these things was not like the other. Simpson, fresh off his Heisman Trophy-winning campaign at the University of Southern California, was known for his charm and affability, making him an ideal pitchman. DeLorean, widely regarded as a brilliant engineer, had a non-conformist, counter-cultural public persona that positioned him as the future of Chevrolet. So what was a 25-year-old from the French Alps doing with these two American icons, hawking a special edition “Killy Z-28 Camaro”?

The answer lies in the changing role of downhill skiing in the postwar decades, which transformed Killy from a relative unknown into a celebrity with lucrative global endorsements for Chevy, Schwinn Bicycles, and Head Skis, among others. To Thompson, Killy was emblematic of the changing fortunes of the global middle class. “Skiing,” wrote Thompson, “is no longer an esoteric sport for the idle rich, but a fantastically popular new winter status-game for anyone who can afford $500 for equipment.” Concerted efforts by public officials and private businessmen intersected with broad economic trends in the decades after World War II to transform skiing into a mark of middle-class status and a motor of economic development—first in the European Alps, and then in mountain ranges around the world.

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This transformation proved shocking to those who popularized the sport of skiing at the turn of the century. Archaeological evidence of skiing dates back to 6,000 B.C., and for the vast majority of their history, skis were a utilitarian means of locomotion in snowy environments. Norwegians pioneered leisure skiing in the mid-19th century, and the sport rapidly became a marker of national identity that distinguished them from their Swedish overlords. Socially elite skiers first took to the Alps in the last decades of the 19th century, seeking diversion during prolonged winter stays at Alpine resorts. Skiing was one winter leisure option among many, and early skiers were mocked as “plank-hoppers” by their fellow tourists, who favored activities such as ice skating and tobogganing. Many preferred to ski at night to escape the derision of Alpine inhabitants. And yet, by the dawn of the 20th century, skiing had emerged as a popular leisure option, marked by its unique blend of speed and appreciation of nature.

In the decades before World War II, skiing symbolized luxury; the sport required that one have the means to decamp to remote Alpine locations for weeks or even months, where skiers practiced a sport that they described as a profound return to nature in a mechanical era. Although these skiers were affluent, the profits in the skiing industry were remarkably diffuse. Equipment manufacturers made a fortune, and hotels and restaurants benefited from the growth of winter tourism, but in this era before ski lifts—which first appeared in the late 1920s and would only become de rigueur after World War II—it proved difficult to capitalize on the act of skiing itself.

The first skiing areas were not the carefully managed, delimited spaces so common today. Instead, skiers congregated in Alpine towns such as St. Moritz and Davos that had already developed significant infrastructure to serve tourists. From there, they took to the surrounding hills with guides or by themselves, engaging in ski tours that incorporated sharp climbs, flat traverses, and rapid descents.

As skiing took root in the Alps, however, the practice of the sport changed to accord with the region's steep terrain, which granted skiers the ecstasy of speed. The focus on the downhill increasingly differentiated Alpine skiing from Nordic skiing, which demanded climbs and lengthy, flat treks, along with occasional descents. The contemporary lust for speed quickly allowed Alpine skiing to supplant its Scandinavian progenitor in popular practice. Before ski lifts were commonplace, Alpine skiers started to think of an exhausting uphill climb as an annoyance to be endured before a blissful downhill run.

In the interwar period, the novelty of the sport made it ripe for commodification, and Alpine skiing imagery was used to sell everything from Mercedes-Benz automobiles and Nivea skin-care products to Italian Fascism, as a shirtless Benito Mussolini posed with skis in 1937 to highlight his mastery of natural forces. The rising visibility of the sport spread beyond advertisements to other aspects of the nascent mass culture. Sporting dailies fed ravenous interest in skiing and celebrity racers; spectators by the thousands turned out for Alpine competitions; and skiing films like 1931’s White Ecstasy, which starred Austrian ski celebrity Hannes Schneider and a young Leni Riefenstahl (pre-Triumph of the Will), packed audiences into cinemas around the world.

The symbiotic relationship between skiing and mass culture also made the sport a sensation across the Atlantic. Skis first appeared in North America in the mid-19th century, as residents of mountainous mining communities fashioned practical skis to move about the frosty landscape. Similarly, Scandinavian immigrants brought their skis with them to the upper Midwest. Leisure skiing caught on in the early 20th century among well-to-do skiers in the mountains of New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, but, as in Europe, the true growth of the sport in the United States occurred in the 1920s and 1930s.


As the thrills of Alpine skiing displaced the more gradual rewards of Nordic skiing, developers transformed the American West into a facsimile of the Alps. Resorts like Idaho’s Sun Valley—billed as America’s St. Moritz when it opened in 1936—operated a ski school staffed entirely by Austrians, seeking to capitalize on the sport’s continental allure. Similarly, after fleeing Austria to escape the Nazis in 1939, Hannes Schneider moved to North Conway, New Hampshire, where he partnered with a local businessman and became the public face of Cranmore Mountain Resort.

As consumers flocked to the sport, villages that hosted winter tourists began to fashion the skiing experience to cater to consumer desires. In the Alps, as in the United States, the first lifts and rope pulls appeared in the late 1920s and began to proliferate in the 1930s. Constructing a few lifts became a wise investment to attract visitors in the 1930s, but new models of hospitality made a coherent network of lifts indispensable.

The Italian village of Sestriere launched this new era. Before the 1930s, destinations in Switzerland and Austria dominated the winter tourism business, but their profitability depended upon preexisting village communities that had longer histories hosting visitors in the summer. As Alpine skiing became synonymous with the downhill, however, Italian developers recognized an opportunity to construct a resort solely to serve the needs of Alpine skiers. The head of Fiat Automobiles, Giovanni Agnelli, exploited his connections in the Fascist regime to create Sestriere, the first single-purpose ski resort, in the northwest Italian Alps. The government extended the autostrada from the bustling industrial center of Milan and built a train station to deliver tourists directly to Sestriere.

There, skiers laid eye upon two stunning, modernist hotel towers and a lift network that provided access to 74 downhill runs by 1938. Every aspect of the development at Sestriere was oriented towards skiers, while developers benefited from a new economic model: From arrival to departure, every aspect of the skiers’ experience, from accommodations and entertainment to lift tickets and ski instruction, was under the control of centralized ownership. With state support, private developers had transformed an uninhabited snow desert into a ski paradise.

This integrated model of development proved immensely profitable and became the blueprint for the development of the Alps, particularly after World War II. The Alps, which had long been viewed as wasted space, became an engine of economic development. By emulating the example of Sestriere, purpose-built French and Italian resorts competed with more established options in Switzerland and Austria. The latter group quickly recognized that it could no longer coast on reputation. In the years after World War II, Austria committed significant Marshall Plan funds to the development of infrastructure in the Alps, including 404 million Schillings ($135 million today) for hotel improvements and 93 million Schillings ($31 million today) for new ski lifts.

The supply of skiing options expanded markedly from the 1930s forward, but would be meaningless without a growing market of skiers and their changing demands. As European economies recovered from World War II in the 1950s and 1960s, leisure time came to be recast not as a luxury, but as a fundamental right of citizenship, and most Western European states legislated a minimum number of annual vacation days. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote of Jean-Claude Killy’s rise to stardom, the postwar global boom had “produced a sassy middle class with time on its hands.”


Skiing, as a singular amalgamation of goods and services connecting sport, tourism, and popular culture, proved exceptionally amenable to demonstrations of status. Even as the sport morphed from an elite practice to become a keystone of middle-class identity, it maintained its associations with opulence, making it the quintessence of that defining strain of postwar consumer culture: democratized luxury. As niche options proliferated, tourists consumed places alongside goods and services. The truly elite joined a cosmopolitan global jet set at resorts like Davos, where they were surrounded by their peers and nonpareil luxury options ranging from Michelin-rated restaurants to designer fashion houses; meanwhile, middle-class families packed up their cars for day trips in more humble locales. Each group found its devotion to skiing validated by the sport’s saturation of popular culture, from the rise of televised skiing celebrities like Jean-Claude Killy to depictions of James Bond on skis outwitting villainous pursuers (Bond first skied in 1969’s On Her Majestys Secret Service, just as Jean-Claude Killy was at the height of his global stardom).

Changing business practices affected not only class identities; it reframed perceptions of the mountains themselves. Thickening networks of lifts and trails color-coded by difficulty suggested that the sport was fun (and safe) for the whole family. Back when skiers had to climb uphill for hours to enjoy a few moments of downhill glory, the sport seemed appropriate only for the physically fit, and navigating the dangers of avalanches and sheer drops used to demand caution and skill. Lifts removed at least the perception of physical strain, while also subtly redefining the sport as universally accessible. The postwar model of single-purpose resorts also concentrated skiers within specific spaces that were implicitly suited for the practice of the sport, which permitted—and indeed demanded—increasingly dramatic manipulations of the mountain landscape.

Lifts altered the physiognomy of the mountainside in ways that horrified environmentalists and those who continued to view skiing as an escape from modern society. More involved environmental intervention became commonplace in the postwar decades, as resort operators used dynamite and earthmoving equipment to provide smooth, safe downhill runs.

Those in the industry called snow "white gold," and it had to be managed carefully to ensure the safety of skiers and the profitability of the industry. Resort operators engineered the landscape to prevent avalanches, protecting human life as well as their own capital investments. And yet for all of this environmental meddling, skiing remained dependent on nature.

To justify investments in new resorts, operators had to demonstrate “snow security,” defined as a minimum cover of 12 to 20 inches of snow for at least 100 days in seven out of every 10 winters. Operators recognized that they could engineer some degree of snow security by studying precipitation patterns and by developing resorts at higher elevations, where snow fell earlier in the season and lasted longer. They also deployed the “snow cannon,” a machine first introduced in 1950 that had become ubiquitous at larger Alpine resorts by the 1980s; the snow cannon at Les Menuires, a French resort, was responsible for keeping five miles of downhill runs fresh with powder. This ability to produce snow à la carte did not end the sport’s dependence on natural conditions, but rather recast it, allowing resort operators to weather dry spells without suffering economic catastrophe.

The totality of skiing’s shift from elite diversion to middle-class status symbol brings us back to Jean-Claude Killy. Killy won his celebrity through his domination of the three Alpine skiing events at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. He had reached the apex of his sport, but strict regulations enforced by the International Olympic Committee required Killy to retire from Olympic racing at the age of 24 if he wished to sign lucrative endorsement contracts.

As Hunter S. Thompson saw it, Killy was “a handsome middle-class French boy who trained hard and learned to ski so well that now his name is immensely salable on the marketplace of a crazily-inflated culture-economy that eats its heroes like hotdogs and honors them on about the same level.” The tail of the industry had come to wag the dog of the sport. Killy embodied the connection between the thriving, glamorous resorts of the French Alps and a Midwestern convention hall, where American executives gambled that his cosmopolitan cachet would move a few more Camaros off the lot.