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Pictorial History of the Ski, Invented Before the Wheel

1982 skiing

Taken by my father with a small Kodak Ektra 110 film camera, the author skis as a kid in Levi's jeans and second hand equipment at Loveland Basin in February, 1982, Colorado.

As a Colorado native, I have always felt a close kinship to the state's mountains and of course to its winters, filled with wonderfully steep and deep powder filled basins and backcountry. In the late 1960s, my parents enjoyed skiing at the easy-to-drive-to Loveland Basin. I also learned to ski there and was soon visiting many of the front range ski areas like Eldora, Copper Mountain and Mary Jane with family and friends. On groomed slopes, I improved my skiing ability and also picked up snowboarding in the 1990s after it was introduced. Later, I learned to telemark on long, skinny, cross country skis, again at Loveland. Eventually, I took a few backcountry hut trips with work friends and crossed avalanche prone valleys to climb and descend untouched snow filled mountains while staying in warm and comfy cabins overnight.

For many years, I would purchase an annual Loveland pass for the week and tele only after big snows while avoiding the Friday and weekend traffic and crowds. Later still, I would forego any lift tickets and strap on the skins and climb the hills in blizzard conditions and glide down the powdery slopes of places like Berthoud Pass. The more climbing I did with skins, the more I began to question the origins of the sport. The following is some of what I found.

8000 year old Skis
Near the Arctic Circle, parts of ancient skis were Carbon-14 dated to approximately 8000 years old. The artifacts were recovered from a peat bog from the Vis excavations in northwest Russia in the Komi Republic. (Photo from ResearchGate PDF)

8000 year old Skis
Detailed drawings and photos show the moose nosed carving once used as a brake on the rear of the ski. Archaeologist Grigory M. Burov dug in peat bogs along the historical river courses along the Vis and Simva Rivers near the village of Sindor and Lake Sindor. (Photo from ResearchGate PDF)

This is some of the earliest evidence of the use of the ski. Yet, in an international and now political competition to be the first country to develop the ski, China has located a cave in the Altay Mountains with skier pictographs. They used the discovery to promote their hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics and have experts that claim they are 10,000 years old, but have not provided any carbon-dating evidence to support their theory. Yet, some are seeing the possibility of antiquity.

"And while international scholars and historians are slowly coming around to the idea that sliding on snow may have indeed originated here instead of the Scandinavian mountains that were long considered its cradle, a deeper battle over skiing’s origins is already being waged within China’s own borders. It is a struggle marked by fears that ethnic minorities like the Mongols and Kazakhs who have long lived in the these mountains will have their way of life choked off by encroaching modernity — and the country’s ethnic Han Chinese majority, which dominates a government that has had no qualms shaping Chinese culture in its own image."

"The ethnic Han “never used these boards, yet they are claiming an attachment to it,” said a traditional skier who flies the flag of Kazakhstan over his family’s log home in Khom, the village that shares its name with the river that runs through this valley. “Maybe it’s a national pride thing, but in reality it’s our ancestors that were doing it.”
(source NY Times 4/19/17 and reprinted at OSU's MCLC)

Political motivations aside, much of the tangible evidence points to the Scandinavian countries as well as Russia and China independently developing their own early versions of the ski throughout time, more as a necessity and as a method of winter travel and hunting rather than for sport.


4000 year old Russian petros

In a cave located in China's in Xinjiang Province, petroglyph skiers hunt ibex and painted skiers stand above ice age mammals and what looks like extinct aurochs. The petroglyphs and pictogrpahs have not been carbon-dated, but are they at least 10,000 year old? (Photo Credit: Garrett Grove - photo from the Ohio State University's MCLC Rescource Center website)
4000 year old Russian petros

Due west of the Vis excavations, still in northwest Russia near the town of Belomarsk, Archaeologist Nadezhda Lobanova from the Karelian Research Centre in Petrozavodsk points out a 4,000 year old panel of the Zalavruga Petroglyphs where prehistoric hunters with bow and arrows track and shoot reindeer or moose. Her finger is at the start of the hunter's parallel ski tracks which flows off to the lower right.  (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
4000 year old Russian petros

More of the Zalavruga Petroglyphs with prehistoric skiers with poles. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Goldi Russian skier 1895

In 1895, William Henry Jackson photographed a Russian, Siberian resident on the ice. His description was "Goldes hunter on skis on ice floe, with spear and rifle." Much of the early use of skis was for hunting and would have looked much like Jackson's photo, substituting a bow for the rifle. (photo from Library of Congress)
5200 year old Skis

Stone age, 5,200 year old skis were accidentally uncovered from the coastal lowlands of a Swedish bog by a forestry inspector in 1924. Some ancient skis were purposely submerged in bogs during the summer in an attempt to preserve the wood from drying, splitting and warping. Drill holes were an attempt to fix a split in the wood. Larger holes allowed for bindings to be strapped to the feet.

The paddle shaped pole allowed the skier to scoop snow from an area, perhaps a campsite as well as push through the snow. A similar paddle shaped stick was found at the Star Carr archaeological site in Yorkshire, England and dated to an extremely early 8000 B.C. (or is it just a 10,000 year old dugout canoe paddle?) (Photo from Wikipedia)
5200 year old Skis

A 5,000 year old petroglyph of a skier in northern Norway remained carved in stone. Unfortunately in 2016, this artwork was marred by ignorance and no longer appears as it once did in the above photo. (photo from Smithsonian Magazine article)
Ski jumping in Norway

Skiing evolved from hunting and winter travel to more of a sport in Scandinavian countries as it spread throughout Europe and then later to Canada and the US.

In a 1880s stereoview photo, competitors ski jump in Norway as spectators stand on their sleds to watch and keep their feet off the snow and a bit warmer. (Stereoview Photo from Ebay listing)
Ski jumping in Norway

Standing at attention, a formal couple stand on Norway mountainside, each with a single pole and long skis. (Stereoview Photo from Library of Congress)
Ski running in Norway

Ski "runners" out with the dog in Norway. (Stereoview Photo from Library of Congress)

Skiing the Bergen Railway from Hardangerjokelen north of Oslo, Norway. (Parsons Collection)
ski with horses

1932 - Ice ski races with horses, also known as skikjöring, takes place annually to this day on St. Moritz Lake in Switzerland. (Parsons Collection)
Ski priests

Winter at the Grand St. Bernard in the Pennine Alps, Switzerland. The hospice for travelers between Italy and Switzerland was found in 1049 and was also a monastery. (Parsons Collection)
ski and snowshoe

1921 - Snowshoeing and skiing northeast of Innsbruck in the Tyrol region of Rattenberg, Austria. (Parsons Collection)
ski town

1925 - St Moritz lies near 5,900 feet in elevation in the southern Albula Alps of Switzerland. (Parsons Collection)
ski trek

1929 - Skiing over the frozen Lake to the Hospice of the Grand St. Bernard in winter at over 8,100 feet in elevation, Switzerland. (Parsons Collection)
ski jump

23 meter ski jump in Dauphine, France. Abandoned today, it was used in the 1968 Olympics and throughout events in the 1980s and closed in 1990. The hill record is 111 meters. (Parsons Collection)
Ski jumping in Norway

Skiing reaches North America and is used for hunting and winter transportation in Canada and U.S. and later gains popularity as a recreational activity. (Photo from Library of Congress)
1899 Colorado skier

On February 20, 1899, the Rocky Mountain News reported about a Colorado resident, skiing through the mountains and through "the worst winter he ever saw" eventually reaching the city of Denver. In a way, he invented the first "mono-ski" when he "lashed the skis together and sat down on my heels with the guiding pole between and trailing just behind." (see above illustration) (Article from the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection)
Ski jumping in Colorado

Coloradoans are introduced to winter sports and ski jumping in 1912 at Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado. Rocky Mountain News article. (Photo from Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection)
Ski jumping in Genesee Colorado
Ski Jumping spreads to the Front Range at Genesee in 1920 - Denver Municipal Facts. (Photo from Denver Public Library Digital Collections)
Ski jumping in Genesee Colorado
Almost twice their height, a pair of ladies hold their eight foot long skis. Having skied on 205cm boards (6.7 feet), these must have been treacherous to to try and make a turn on. (Photo from Denver Municipal Facts - Denver Public Library Digital Collections)
Ski jumping in Genesee Colorado
Early 'private course' skiing on Genesee Mountian. (Denver Municipal Facts - Photo from Denver Public Library Digital Collections)
1942 Early Loveland Ski Area

1942 - Skiers slide past the parking lot at the Loveland Winter Sports Area in the Arapahoe National Forest. (Photo from the Denver Public Library Digital Collections)
Ski Loveland 1960s

1960s - The parking lot, ticket booth, ski and rental shops and restaurant at Loveland Basin, Colorado. (Parsons Collection)
Ski Loveland - lift

1960s - The twin chairlift at Loveland Basin, Colorado. (Parsons Collection)

Ski jumping in Norway

1958 Colorado vehicle license plate with a skier. (Photo from Ebay listing)


1300 year old ski melts from ice

As climate change warms the planet and melts world wide glaciers, ancient artifacts are emerging from the ice. In 2021, with its leather binding intact, a 1,300 year old ski emerged from Norway's melting ice and joined it's mate, found years earlier in 2014 from the same area. Photos from Smithsonian Magazine.


See more amazing artifacts emerge from the ice!

Skiing at Berthoud Pass

After skinning up to the ridge, the author enjoyed powder telemark turns at a deserted Berthoud Pass in 2014 as snow fell.

One advantage of climate change may be the discovery of amazingly old artifacts, but as glaciers retreat and successive years become the warmest on record, what will happen to Colorado's and the world's wonderful snow? 

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