"Dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of skiing with wooden skis"

The Cradle of Skiing

In Norway the sport of skiing was a natural consequence of the country's mountainous topography and heavy winter snows. Modern skiing had its origins in the county of Telemark in the last century, but an ancient rock carving, at Rødøy in Nordland county, shows that Norwegians used skis as far back as 4000 years ago. The epic poems of Norse mythology frequently refer to Ull, the god of skiing and to Skade the goddess of skiing and hunting. The Icelander Snorre Sturlason (1179-1241) confirmed in his sagas of the Norwegian kings that skis were a normal means of locomotion in the winter, long before his time. He also relates that the Samis were skilful skiers.

For several thousand years, skis were in fact the only practical means of locomotion during the winter. They were indispensable when hunting, trapping or fishing and right up to the present have been necessary for maintaining a livelihood and a basis for settlement in remote and sparsely populated districts. Finds of more than 20 prehistoric skis in various parts of Norway bear witness to the country's long skiing traditions. The oldest preserved ski to have been found is from Finnmark in the far north. It is about 2,300 years old.

A well known story in Norway is that of the Birkebeiners (Birchlegs) who in 1296 saved the two-year old prince Håkon Håkonsson from his pursuers -- the so-called baglere. The Birchlegs were warriors, so named because of their footwear, which consisted of animals skins wrapped around the legs and secured with birch roots. At the time, civil war was raging in Norway and carrying the young prince on their backs two of the Birchlegs fled over the mountains from Lillehammer, in the south of the Gudbrandsdal valley to Rena in Østerdal, a parallel valley further east. It should be added that Håkon Håkonsson later succeeded in bringing hostilities to an end and that during his reign Norway enjoyed a period of greatness. But the dramatic flight of the Birchlegs over the mountains was not forgotten and it is now illustrated on the coat-of-arms of this little town in south Norway, which was the host of the Winter Olympics in 1994.

The journey is also commemorated every year through the Birkebeiner ski race from Lillehammer to Rena -- a distance of 55 kilometres. More than 6,000 skiers normally compete, each carrying a 3.5 kilo backpack, as a symbol of the child who was brought to safety by the Birchlegs.

The Father of Skiing

It was the people of Telemark county in south Norway, headed by Sondre Norheim, who in the 1870s and 1880s revived interest in skiing as a sport. Sondre Norheim, born in the valley of Morgedal in 1825, ended 4,000 years of tradition by using stiff ski bindings. These enabled him to swing and jump without the risk of the skis falling off. He also designed a "waisted" ski, the Telemark ski, which is the prototype of all those now produced. Sondre Norheim was regarded by his contemporaries as an unparalleled master of the art of skiing. He combined ordinary skiing with jumping and slalom. During the first national cross-country ski race, held in Christiania (now Oslo), in 1867, his artistry amazed the inhabitants of the Norwegian capital.

Very few people are aware that the now international word slalom is a Norwegian word originating from Morgedal. Its first syllable, sla, means slope, hill or smooth surface and låm is the track down the slope. The normal slalåm was a cross-country run over fields, hills and stone walls, weaving among thickets.

In our own times this old sport from Telemark has gained its renaissance both as a competitor sport and as a popular leisure time activity among an increasing number of enthusiasts both in Europe and the USA.

The first Norwegian skis were brought to the USA by emigrants who crossed the Atlantic as early as 1825. A pioneer who kindled an interest in skiing was Jon Torsteinson Rui (Snowshoe Thompson), from Telemark, who from 1856 to 1876 maintained the only winter post route over the Sierra Nevada. Sondre Norheim emigrated in 1884. He too was among those who promoted the sport of skiing in the USA.

Just before the turn of the century, Norwegians studying engineering and architecture in Germany and Switzerland were good ambassadors for skiing. One of them was Harald Durban Hansen, who tells of the astonishment of the inhabitants of Chamonix when the Norwegian students hurtled down the hillsides, occasionally using the roof of an old barn as an improvised ski jump.

The many hotels of Chamonix, which were used either as health centres or as bases for British mountaineers in the summer, closed their doors at the onset of winter. It was Norwegian skiers who demonstrated the potential for a new type of holiday and a new hotel season. It was also on their initiative that the first ski race in Germany was organized, at Tauenberg, near Munich, in 1895. Not surprisingly it was won by a Norwegian.

Interest in skiing and the sport of skiing mounted rapidly in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France after Fridtjof Nansen's book "The First Crossing of Greenland" in French, English and German translation in 1890. More and more people bought skis, and skiing clubs were established throughout the whole of Central Europe.

Four Firsts in the Fifty Kilometres

Even though the "pupils" have not infrequently surpassed their Norwegian teachers, it was Norway that scored the major triumph when the first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix in 1924. Norwegian skiers, spearheaded by the legendary Thorleif Haug, took the first four places in the fifty-kilometres race and "showed the world the winter way." Their achievement has inspired many talented Norwegian skiers. Statistics covering Olympic medallists in the period up to the Norwegian victories in the Winter Olympics of 1992 and 1994 -- put Norway in second place, trailing only the former Soviet Union.

The Polar Explorers

Norway's polar explorers have made a significant contribution to national self-respect and pride in sport. In "The First Crossing of Greenland", Fridtjof Nansen wrote of his love of skiing, which he regarded as the most typically Norwegian of all sports. If anything deserves the name -- the sport of sports -- then it must indeed be this one, he said after he had skied across Greenland's icecap from east to west in 1888.

Some years later, Nansen set his sights on the North Pole. But he never reached it. Biting cold and difficult conditions on the ice forced him and his companion, Hjalmar Johansen, to turn in their tracks. Together they spent more than one year skiing across a wilderness of ice, totally isolated from the rest of the world.

Another daring journey was Roald Amundsen's South Pole expedition in 1910-1912. Together with four other Norwegians, Amundsen planted the Norwegian flag at the South Pole in 1911, as the first man to reach this point. The five men covered a distance of about 3,000 kilometres on skis.

Much of the equipment that Nansen and Amundsen used on their polar travels has been preserved for posterity and can now be viewed at the museum housing the polar ship "Fram" and the Ski Museum -- both in Oslo.

In more modern times, several Norwegian expeditions have followed in the ski tracks of the pioneers, both to the North and the South Poles. One example is Erling Kagge, the 30 year-old Oslo lawyer who in January 1993 became the first man to go alone, and entirely unaided to the South Pole. Kagge spent 50 days on the 1,310 lonely, back-breaking kilometres from Berkner Island in the Weddell Sea to the pole.

A National Sport

Skiing is now the undisputed favourite among winter sports in Norway, pursued by enthusiasts of every age. Norway has also been a pioneer country with regard to promoting skiing as a sport for the disabled.

Serious interest in skiing was first aroused among the general public around the turn of the century. Growing interest in leisure time pursuits, including skiing, led to the establishment of many ski clubs and the sport was widely practised long before modern ski facilities started to be built. Cross country ski trips still remain the favourite and most typically Norwegian form of skiing. The combination of sport, exercise, and enjoyment of the natural beauty with which Norway is so richly endowed tempts many Norwegians out onto the trails.

For Norwegian children skiing has always been an important leisure time pursuit. At the many ski schools, children learn through play how to develop their skiing ability. Every year thousands of children take part in Children's Day in Holmenkollen, where play is combined with competitive events.

The Norwegian royal family has contributed a great deal towards making skiing a national sport. In his youth the late King Olav V (1903-1991) was a keen winter sports man, winning prizes for his prowess as a ski-jumper in events such as the annual Holmenkollen ski jumping competition.

In 1952 Norway staged the Winter Olympics. Through hosting this event in 1994, in Lillehammer, it consolidated its position as a sports nation with particularly solid traditions in the field of winter sports.


The Telemark Ski was the Model

Skis are an ancient form of locomotion on snow. For thousands of years ski tracks have criss-crossed an immense area from Norway, Sweden and Finland in the west, through Siberia and as far east as the Pacific coast. The central Nordic ski type, which was first made in the Middle Ages, was entirely different to those of today. One ski, of about 3 metres in length, was used together with a shorter ski or andor. The latter was covered with animal skins (with the hairs pointing backwards). This allowed the skier to kick off more efficiently.

This type of ski was abandoned around 1700 in favour of skis of the same length. But it was not until the 1860s that rapid developments in ski eqipment began to take place, largely on account of the growing number of cross-country races. In this connection the Telemark ski was the model.

To begin with, only one ski pole was used, but in 1887 cross-country skiers began using two poles. About 1900 skiers started to wax the base of their skis in order to improve their sliding ability and grip on the snow. New types of bindings also made their appearance.

Produced for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Norway by Nytt fra Norge, who also is responsible for the contents of the article.

Reproduction permitted.

Printed in September 1996.

Back to Home

© Copyright 2011, Greg Fangel, www.woodenskis.com