The Evolution of Skiing

Join us as we delve into the colourful history of skiing, learning just how much it's changed since Stone Age hunters first strapped planks to their feet...

When we think of ski holidays, we might imagine long, sweeping ski runs, top-of-the-range ski equipment and exciting après ski. We think of the Olympians: the Lindsey Vonns, Hermann Maiers and Jean-Claude Killys who made the sport so popular.

In fact, the origins of skiing can be traced all the way back to more than 4,000 years ago, to the Stone Age, when hunters in Europe and Asia would tie pieces of wood to their feet in order to travel faster over snow. This was primarily to improve their likelihood of catching the game they relied on for food. The oldest pairs of skis, unearthed from a peat bog in Hoting, Sweden, have been dated to 3,200BC. Incredibly well-preserved, they are made with wood cut from pine trees, and have four holes for binding cord.

There is even evidence to suggest skiing is older still. In a remote north-western province of China, a rock carving has recently been found depicting a skiing hunter, which is thought to be more than 10,000 years old!

Of course, hunting wasn’t the only use for these nifty wooden paddles, as our ski-savvy ancestors were quick to find out.

In 1206, an important rescue mission was carried out on skis: during the Norwegian civil wars, two Birkebeins (members of the rebellious party, Birkebeinar) rescued the two-year-old Prince Haakon Hakonson, heir to the throne, carrying him across the Dovre Mountains to safety. The young prince grew up to become King Haakon IV and his reign marked the end of this turbulent period in Norway’s history.

A painting by Knud Bergslien, depicting the skiing Birchlegs (Birkebeins) Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child.

A painting by Knud Bergslien, depicting the skiing Birchlegs (Birkebeins) Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child.

In 1716, skis played a role in warfare once again. This time, they were used as transportation during the Great Northern War, a conflict sparked by the Swedish empire’s European supremacy, and fought between Russia and Sweden.

Battling across the rugged, snow-smothered terrain of Norway, Finland and Sweden, skis allowed troops on all sides to triumph over the elements. So much so, in fact, that Captain Jens Henrik Emahusen, a high-ranking Norwegian, drew up the first military skiing regulations in 1733.

In the 20th century, ski battalions were raised during both World Wars. Italy raised 88 Alpini battalions during World War I, nine of which remain in service today. During World War II, ski battalions were deployed by countries including Finland, the Soviet Union, Norway and Australia.

It was during the Victorian era, however, when skiing became a popular recreational sport. The first heel strap was created by Sondre Norheim in 1850, which helped skiers maintain control while racing.

Changing Slope-side Fashions

Skiing wasn’t as popular with women as it was with men in the mid to late 1800s, and it is little wonder. With heavy, cumbersome dresses being the only acceptable clothing, skiing was an impractical sport. As with sport as a whole, it was even considered unladylike. After all, women were meant to be delicate and genteel: sweating was the domain of men!

For these men, being fashionable in the snow came a little easier. Up until the 20th Century, men wore ski pants and jumpers,in the muted tones that were so popular for the era.

By the 1910s, women’s slope-side fashion was much the same as men’s, aside from their knee-length skirts, which would be worn over knickerbockers. The influence of World War I became apparent during the 1920s,and trousers became a more common sight on female skiers, despite being considered wholly inappropriate off-piste. Nevertheless, trousers and the advancements in zip fastenings made for more practical outfits.

It wasn’t long before designer skiwear began to appear. In one 1930s edition of Vogue, three female skiers were pictured wearing ski suits from three of the decade’s leading designers: Schiaparelli, Jane Regny and Lucien Lelong. As demand amongst fashionistas grew, other designers followed suit, with Hermès and Madeleine Vionnet creating stylish ski outfits.

Ski suits were predominantly made of heavy wool with flannel linings during the 1930s and 1940s, but waterproof fabrics were emerging. Enter Lastex: a yarn made from a mix of nylon, rayon, cotton and, sometimes, silk. This stretchy material proved revolutionary, and was attached to the bottoms of trouser legs and to sleeve cuffs to keep skiers’ wrists and ankles dry on the slopes.

The introduction of polyester in the 1950s gave ski outfits a sleeker, more aerodynamic appearance. More colourful garments came into vogue, with the drab, grey colours of wartime falling out of fashion.

Skiwear reached new heights in the 1960s. Skiing became synonymous with glamour, and the mod looks seen on the catwalk were echoed on the slopes. Even Christian Dior began offering a line of ski pants, parkas, apres-ski outfits and gloves, while Emilio Pucci’s designs were phenomenally popular. His colourful range of skiwear featured in Vogue Italia in 1965.

In the 1970s, synthetic skiwear remained the order of the day - alongside moon boots, capes and fake fur. There were exceptions, of course. In 1971, Pierre Cardin created the knit-suit: a fitted ski onesie that went all the way from neck to ankle.

Luckily, things have come a long way since this 1970s TV advert.

From large parkas to onesies, the 1980s held many similarities to the clothes adopted today (albeit off the slopes). Animal print and fluorescent colours reigned supreme. The 1990s were marked by neon onesies, bumbags and bandanas.

Today’s skiwear is stylish, safe and highly practical. Lycra has given way to high-performance materials; layering keeps the warmth in without compromising on style. In short, it is the perfect marriage of fashion and function.

Advances in Technology and Equipment

Of course, it isn’t just fashion that has changed dramatically over the centuries. The technology and, more specifically, the equipment used have changed too. It wasn’t until 1741, for example, that people were recorded to have used two ski poles instead of one. Before this time, people used their one ski pole to balance and turn, but it also doubled up as a spear for huntsmen in the Nordic regions.

Traditional ski boots were also far removed from their modern-day equivalents. Made predominantly from leather, with laces and a leather binding strap, these shoes were purported to be a footwear solution both on and off the slopes. It wasn’t until 1956 that buckle boots were introduced, although getting the earlier designs on and off proved to be problematic. It was only in the 1980s that the ski boots we use today, which incorporate leg cuffs that open at the back, rapidly gained popularity.

Unfortunately, early skiing involved a lot of broken legs, thanks to the ‘safety bindings’ that kept the boots and skis firmly together. It wasn’t until 1952 that a reliable ski release was rolled out – a mechanism attached to the ski which, when twisted or placed under enough pressure, releases the boot to minimise injury. In 1955, the world’s first step-in heel - a mechanism that clips the heel of a ski boot firmly into place - was released, and sales boomed.

Believe it or not, it only became popular to wear goggles in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the fog-free double lens was invented by Robert Earl Smith. Before that time, skiers would have to put up with icy particles, glare, or steamy lenses.

An early example of army troops being advised to wear goggles for ski safety.

Although helmets were widely used by cyclists and rock climbers, it wasn’t until the 1990s that people started taking protective headwear seriously on the slopes. Between 1995 and 2010, helmet use soared from 5% to 76%, and the results spoke for themselves: serious head injuries dropped by around 65% over the same period.

The equipment available on today’s market is better than ever. With helmets boasting built-in Beats by Dre headphones, automatically-adjusting heated gloves and even goggles with built-in camera and speedometers, tech has transformed the skiing experience as we know it.

Skis have transformed. The first skis were carved from hardwoods, but in 1893, the first two-layer laminated ski was created in Norway. Although a hard base remained, a lighter, springier wood was used atop the skis, and these two layers were glued together with hide glues. Unfortunately, the glues weren’t waterproof, meaning the skis would delaminate after only a few days’ use.

In 1928 came the arrival of the segmented ski edge, which gave skiers a better grip on the snow and allowed the wood to flex naturally. Inconveniently, however, the segments had to be screwed into the skis and would often come loose, meaning many skiers were forced to carry spare edge segments, a screwdriver, screws and glue, to make repairs on the go.

Solid aluminium started being used after 1934, and fibreglass skis were invented in 1959. The concept was quick to take off and, by the end of the 1960s, most wood and aluminium skis had been phased out.

In 1965 an engineer called Sherman Poppen, from Michigan, fastened two skis together and attached some rope to make a toy for his daughters. The toy proved so popular among their friends that he licensed the concept to a manufacturer. The toy was called the ‘snurfer’, and over the next decade, around a million were sold. It was off the back of this idea that Tom Sims, a snurfing and skateboard enthusiast from New Jersey, invented the snowboard. By gluing carpet to the top of a piece of wood and attaching an aluminium sheet to the bottom, he found he could merge the two sports together and ‘skateboard’ on the snow. His creation led to the commercial production of snowboards from the 1970s onwards.

The shape of skis has also changed over the years. The ‘sidecut’ (the subtle hourglass shape of the ski) helps skiers to make short, clean turns in the snow. Norwegian artisans have been experimenting with varying levels of sidecut since 1808. Generally, straight skis with parallel edges are only used for cross country skiing, or specifically for jumps.

The ‘camber,’ which refers to a slight arch in the centre of a ski, was first developed in 1850. Holding the waist of the ski above the snow, it distributed a skier’s weight more evenly across a greater surface area.

A more recent development in skis came between 1997 and 2010, when the ‘rocker’ shape of ski spiked in popularity. The rocker refers to the way in which the tip and tail of the ski curves skywards, making it easier to glide over deep snow.

Pioneers of the Piste

One of the most significant characters in the history of skiing is Sir Arnold Lunn, who invented slalom skiing in 1922. The sport involved high-speed skiing between poles or gates which competitors had to negotiate in as fast a time as possible. To succeed, competitors had to demonstrate a variety of turns and skills, so it’s little surprise that Lunn’s invention took pride of place in the 1922 British National Ski Championships.

Lunn also founded the Alpine Ski Club in 1908, the Kandahar Ski Club in 1924 and, back in 1910, initiated the first ever ski race. Taking place in the Swiss Valais Mountains, it was a challenging race, not least because ski lifts hadn’t yet been invented! Before the race had even begun, competitors had to climb their way to the top of the mountain a day in advance.

At around the same time, in Germany’s Black Forest, Robert Winterhalder came up with an exciting new concept: a cable with handles to drag skiers up the slope.

Dick Durrance was one of the first ski champions in history. He was only 17 when he won the German Junior Alpine Championship in 1932. He won the national championship no less than 17 times and was three-time winner of the Harriman Cup in Sun Valley.

One of the most recognised names in skiing history is Warren Miller. He started off as a ski instructor in 1946, after he moved to Idaho’s Sun Valley. He and his friend would film one another in order to critique their techniques. His witty commentary soon became popular with his peers, and in 1949 he founded Warren Miller Entertainment. He soon became famous for producing annual, feature-length ski films.

A compilation of Warren Miller footage that exemplifies his comical quips.

Having appeared in Warren’s films and being the first-ever professional extreme skier, Scot Schmidt has earned his stripes in the skiing world. He starred in a total of 39 films, including Blizzard of Aahhhs and License to Thrill and, during his career, tackled leaps of around 130 feet alongside vertical jumps of 80 feet. Today, he helps to develop top-of-the-range ski tech for the likes of North Face and Stöckli Ski.

Susy ‘Chapstick’ Chaffee is known for much more than being the star of the Chapstick commercials. As well as being the top ranked US skier at the Winter Olympics of 1968, she was named work freestyle skiing champion for three consecutive years. In 1988 she was welcomed into the United States National Ski Hall of Fame.

Alberto Tomba, or ‘Tomba la Bomba’ as he was nicknamed, is as well-known for his Italian good looks as he is for his wins on the slopes. The self-proclaimed ‘new Messiah of skiing’ dominated the scene in the 1980s and early 1990s, winning three Olympic gold medals, two silver medals, a slalom World Championship, and 50 victories in the World Cup.

One of the newer big names in skiing, Lindsey Vonn, has made big waves in the sport. She has won four World Cup championships and an astounding 67 World Cup races in her career, making her the most successful American skier in history.

Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Ski Holiday Destinations Over the Decades

Ski tourism first became popular with the British aristocracy in 1864, when the concept of winter tourism was first introduced. Switzerland was the most popular destination, with holidays to St Moritz the preserve of the wealthy and titled.

In 1903 the first ski package holiday, to Adelboden in Switzerland, was launched. This year also marked the beginning of the Ski Club of Great Britain – a club started by 12 men who wanted to encourage more people to try skiing, help people improve their skills and provide a platform for people with common interest to meet.

The first Winter Olympics was held in Charmonix, France, in 1924. The event increased the sport’s popularity and raised Chamonix's profile as an international tourist destination. By 1933, winter tourism accounted for 44 percent of the annual total holiday share.

In 1956, the first Club Med ski resort was built in Leysin, Switzerland, by Jean-Pierre Bécret. His Snow Village incorporated packages that included transport, equipment, accommodation and ski lift tickets, offering visitors a true taste of life on the pistes. On account of its success, three more snow resorts were opened by Club Med the following year.

Ski resorts opened across Austria, France and Switzerland in the autumn of 1961. Skiing continued to be seen as a luxury holiday, with showbiz personalities and members of the Royal Family taking to the slopes.

A 1987 TV commercial for a ski resort in Blackcomb.

Prince Charles has been a keen skier since 1963, regularly frequenting the Swiss area of Klosters with his friends and two sons. Two Klosters cable cars even have ‘Prince of Wales’ emblazoned on their bright red paintwork.

Understandably, such high profile guests have seen ski resorts across the world become paparazzi hotspots. It wasn’t long before photographers arrived in their droves to capture famous faces like Pippa Middleton (who is devoted to Courchevel, in the French Alps), and Marilyn Monroe (who regularly visited Sun Valley in Idaho), on-piste.

Whether you’re world-famous or not, however, skiing is an amazing experience. There’s no other feeling like gliding down a glittering slope with stunning scenery in the background, especially after such crucial innovations in skiing equipment, fashions and resorts.

The Changing Face of the Ski Holiday

Skiing remains popular across the UK and, while European locations such as Switzerland and France remain the top spots for British skiers, many are travelling further to explore new slopes and destinations. One in 10 Brits now heads to America and Canada for a snow fix. Resorts in Asia, an evolving ski destination, are also being considered for ski holidays in 2016.

In 2015, Club Med’s annual ski report uncovered some key emerging trends. It appears that more people are heading on ski holidays not just to ski, but to enjoy a range of winter sports including Nordic walking, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing.

“More and more of our new and returning customers now base their decision on where to go skiing on the array of extra activities available to them in resort. At Club Med, guests can enjoy everything from Snow Shoes to Cross Country Skiing, something that was only introduced recently due to popular customer demand.”

Estelle Giraudeau, Managing Director United Kingdom, Ireland and Scandinavia

When booking a ski holiday, families regard the leisure facilities available within the resort or complex as one of the most important aspects of their holiday. The availability of some of the other activities outside of the immediate snow and snowboard facilities is seen as the biggest change over the past few decades. 81% of Brits agree there is more to do on a ski holiday than just ski and 61% agree that with the extra activities, ski and snowboarding holidays are now a better experience for children than they used to be.

Where will you go to get your taste of the high life?