Origins: Ski Resorts

This article has just appeared on Line-S, the Ski Club’s student website. Written by Clem Gray, who’s been writting for the ski slub the past two winters, below is her first piece for this season, part one of the ‘Origins of Skiing’ series.

Ski resorts are a curious invention. Originally, Alpine villages were predominately summer resorts, built around pre-existing villages such as St. Moritz or Davos. As the notion of a winter ski holiday became more fashionable (around the 1860’s), it was still a luxury, synonymous with opulence, since the sport required one to relate to an Alpine location for weeks, and months on end. Equipment cost a fortune and lodging wasn’t cheap. Skiers congregated in these Alpine towns and then took to the mountains with guides (or, as lone wolves) for long, flat traverses, intense climbs and then short, speedy descents.

Rope tow at Mount Pilchuck in 1960s

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And then ski lifts came along. First designed by James Curren, the lifts transformed ski resorts. Previous to 1936, the conundrum of getting up the mountain had puzzled skiers for years. By the 1900’s, mechanical lifts had opened, powered by horses and waterwheels to haul the skier up the mountain. By the 1930’s, Canadian Alex Foster created a lift system that used a cable wrapped around the wheel rim of an old 4-cylinder Dodge car lifted on blocks. For 25 cents a half day, you could go hog wild skiing down the mountain and take the lift up. However – these systems came at a risk. The ropes were heavy, easily twisted and you could only ride upright on skis or sat on a toboggan. Curren’s invention saved the day. He reconfigured an earlier design he’d made for a conveyor belt that moved bananas onto cargo ships in Honduras, by replacing the continuous flow system of fruit hooks carrying bananas, to chairs carrying skiers. Both cargos could be carried delicately and arrive at their destination, unbruised.

Sun Valley Single Chair Lift Rider Named Susie

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Sun Valley, Idaho installed the world’s first chairlifts in 1936, followed by double chairlifts with two seats (1946), and triple/quad seats in the 1960’s. Sociologically, this postwar era created a cultural flux, noted by Hunter S. Thompson who wrote of this global boom that ‘produced a sassy middle class with time on its hands”. Leisure time was no longer a ‘luxury’ exclusive to the elite, and hence the popularity of skiing skyrocketed.

Early St. Moritz

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As a result, ski resorts were transforming. Whilst traditional Swiss and Austrian snow resorts relied on the village communities that preexisted winter tourism, the modern ‘ski resort’ completely turned things topsy turvy. In the 1930’s, Sestriere in the northwest Italian Alps was opened (by FIAT founder, Giovanni Agnelli) launching a radical new form of hospitality. It was the first single-purpose ski resort, and backed by the government whom extended the autostrada from Milan, and created a new train station in Sestriere to deliver the tourists. Offering 74 downhill runs by 1938, every aspect of the resort was catered towards skiing; accommodation, lift pass and instruction. It was exceedingly profitable and became the blueprint for new ski resorts, copied throughout France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. The new resorts retained the old allure and the glitz and the glamour that was synonymous with pre-war skiing remained. Michelin starred restaurants to high end fashion labels popped up in mountain resorts and it became saturated into popular culture – who hasn’t seen Bond’s downhill ski chase in The Spy Who Loved Me?

The glamour of ski resort, still omnipresent in Courchevel

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Scene from “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977) 

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The emergence of ski resorts is tied closely to technological and sociological developments that created greater accessibility for winter sports to differing social classes. However, as skiing has been adopted by the masses, the popularity of splitboarding/ski touring (allowing one to escape the crowds, venturing off-piste and rejecting lifts in favour of isolation) has grown. Things really have come full circle. By bringing tourism to remote mountains area – ski resorts remove the remoteness; a curious invention indeed.

 

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