The Call of the Slopes

Atlantic articles from the '30s through the '50s comment on the development and appeal of skiing as a sport

With the just-completed Torino Winter Olympic Games came increased publicity for obscure sports with mysterious names like "curling" and "skeleton." While downhill skiing seems downright mainstream by contrast, it is in fact only relatively recently that the sport has become a popular pastime in the United States or a competitive sport around the world. Over the years a number of Atlantic contributors have commented on these rapid changes in the skiing world—offering a fascinating look at the evolution of the sport.

In "Schussing a Few Decades" (February 1957), Newton F. Tolman offered a humorous account of the swiftness with which a downhill skiing craze swept New England in the late 1920s, bringing with it dramatic changes in the mores and equipment associated with the sport. No-one was exempt from the ski craze, Tolman explained—not even those who had no business venturing out on the slopes.

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.

As for ski instructors, they took on an enviable aura of glamour:

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.

Over time, the era of climbing to the top of a run gave way to new technological developments such as the rope tow. "Even today, you can easily spot a veteran of the early tows," Tolman quipped. "Just look for a man with arms about six inches longer than normal and subject to bursitis."

Arnold Lunn, who invented the slalom race, shared a more serious perspective in a 1949 article titled "Downhill Racing." "It has been my good fortune," he commented, "to see skiing ... evolve, in half a century, from the specialty of a few eccentrics into one of the world's most popular sports." In the early days of skiing, he pointed out, mountaineering and orienteering were as much a part of the sport as the ability to race downhill. "The austere spell of the remote and lonely snows," he recalled, "meant as much to us as the actual run. Skiing was a branch of exploration."

Lunn also recalled his own uphill battle to win acceptance for his invention of the slalom—a race in which, as he described it, the race course is "defined by pairs of flags through which the skier must pass and which are so arranged as to test every variety of turn short and abrupt, long and sweeping." Vociferous objection to the new racing style came from Norway, a skiing powerhouse that was rather set in its ways. One leading Norwegian Skier testily informed Lunn, "It is beneath our dignity even to discuss the slalom."

Lunn's persistence paid off, however, and in 1936, slalom officially became part of the Winter Olympic Games. In May of that year, Olympic athlete Robert Livermore Jr. wrote an article titled "Notes on Olympic Skiing," recalling his experiences at the Games a few months earlier. Livermore, who placed eighteenth in the slalom event, recounted everything from the trip over from the United States to the team's practice runs, to his and his teammates' efforts to flirt with pretty French girls in multiple languages.

Despite the fraught international politics of the day and the fact that the opening ceremonies were presided over by none other than Adolph Hitler, the races themselves proceeded as usual, and Livermore and his fellow Americans competed admirably, though not with great success. Livermore described his experience in one of the races:

It was icy, but much easier than I had expected, and I was exulting when I caught an edge on the soft snow and toppled into a bushy spruce. Took a maddening thirty seconds getting out, went through the controls, and schussed over the bridge, just holding it. From then on everything was grand—I took it faster than I had ever done in practice.

The constant falling, hiking, and passing that Livermore describes is unheard of in modern racing. If a racer falls mid-run, he or she is simply issued a "DNF" to signify that he or she did not finish. Of course, given the inevitability of accidents in such a high-speed sport, the ability to provide emergency care to downed skiers is an art that has evolved along with the sport itself. In "Going Down Fast!" (February 1950) Atlantic contributor Robert Reuben reported on some of the latest developments in slope-side medicine, consulting with Paul Gut, a Swiss doctor whose Saint-Moritz medical practice was largely devoted to treating ski injuries. Dr. Gut described some of the new safety precautions:

Special SOS telephones are located on the highest and most remote ski or climbing trails, connecting directly with rescue services. Rescue teams, who must pass state examinations to qualify for their jobs, are stationed in strategic chalets along the more popular ski runs....

Ski patrols ride up the mountain with every train and follow each batch of skiers down the slopes. When they spot an accident, they ski to the first SOS telephone and call for a stretcher-toboggan. Thirty to forty minutes after an accident, the casualty is in a hospital.

The injuries that Dr. Gut himself most often saw were broken bones, hypothermia, and trauma resulting from avalanches. He suggested that skiers carry cognac with them as a painkiller, and recommended "adequate pre-season training, particularly climbing, since ski lifts [which were then a relatively new development] mean less muscular conditioning and training through the sport than in former years."

Despite all the changes and improvements that have taken place since downhill racing's inception in the early 1900s, some things seem to remain forever constant. In "Mr. Pennyfeather on Skiing" (January 1936), Donald Moffatt captured the essence of what it is that keeps a person returning to the frigid, icy slopes day after day and year after year.

It's the same with every beginner. Once his boot has felt the grip of the binding, once he has glided softly down a little untracked slope and heard the hiss of the dry snow against his skis, he is lost forever. He tries it again, he gets the feel of the thing; his skill increases, his knowledge expands, confidence and passion gather in his breast; he looks for longer, steeper slopes; he learns to complain of the snow, and masters the art of vituperative argument; he spends most of his money and all his time spare, or stolen—in the mountains; he takes a few lessons, learns how to turn and stop voluntarily instead of by accident; he scans the weather reports, eagerly reads textbooks on the art, bores his non-skiing friends half to death, is shunned by them, gives not a single damn.

—Elizabeth Pantazelos