Origins: The Beginning Of Performance Skis

This article has just appeared on Line-S, the Ski Club’s student website. Written by Clem Gray, who’s been writing for the ski club the past two winters, in this piece she goes back in time to see the landing and development of performance skis.

From wooden sticks to highly developed pieces of performing plastic: skis have drastically morphed with the development of the sport. So how did we transition from sliding around on wooden planks to carving up on high-performance skis? Well, it all started with hunting seals.

 

  Hunting Wolf on Skis  

The word ‘ski’ origins from the norse word, “skíð” meaning a stick of wood or plank. These early wooden skis varied, but most were long (up to 3-4 metres) and used for hunting. Picture stalking seals on skis across icy plains, as well as elk, deer, bears and wolves. A delightful array of dinner delicacies.

In the 1850’s, Norwegian woodcutters invented the cambered ski; the ski arches into the air, distributing the weight of the skier more evenly, supported by a point at each end that touches the snow. This new design provided good grip and edge on packed snow (these days, perfect for pistes) providing better agility than the clumpy preceding planks.

Originally, skis were made of one thick slab of wood – typically comprising of costly chunks of ash, birch or hickory. This proved good for speed and shock absorbing. However, by 1893, H.M. Christiansen created the first two-layer laminated ski, a lighter and cheaper model since the tough, expensive hickory/ash base was covered with a cheaper body of spruce. Wooden skis had no metal edge, so down the middle of the ski there was a groove carved in, which acted like fins on a surfboard to keep the ski from sliding all over the place. This was eliminated when metal edges were developed by Rudolph Letter in 1928, to give the ski grip.

The development of the ski catapulted in 1922 when Norwegian Thorbjorn Nordby developed waterproof glue. Previous to this, the glue tended to melt, splitting the skis and rendering them defunct after a few days’ hard use. By 1933, the first prototype of single-shell casing technology was developed, the early version consistedof a hardwood shell covering a inner layer of lighter wood – thus, abolishing the need for glue, and biding a welcome farewell to delaminating problems that had vexed earlier ski developments.

Magne Myrmo

By the 1950’s, rapidly improving skis danced onto the market with a variety of scientifically complex-sounding names – aluminium sandwich skis with honeycomb cores, to polyethylene bases and flexible contact cement – pushing ski development through trial and error. By 1959, Fred Langendorf and Art Molnar invented the first successful plastic fibreglass ski. The idea spread rapidly. By the late 1960’s, aluminium was to a large extent replaced by fibreglass. The end of the 3,000 year long wooden ski epoch was epitomised by Magne Myrmo’s world championship performance in 1974. He was the very last world champion on wooden skis.

In 2002, Shane McConkey’s ski ‘rocker’ design, quite simply rocked the market. It was designed to mimic a water ski by floating and skimming over a surface, with minimal risk of snagging an edge. The rocker design is great for powder (due to the floating factor), park days (to avoid catching edges and also for sliding rails since you’ve got a chunkier midsection) and for greater manoeuvres (less edge, means easier initiation into turns).

Shane McConkey

 

The growing popularity of freestyle skiing created an explosion of other types of skis: for powder, all mountain, and park (with the ability to go switch). Added to this, new variations of rocker and rocker-camber combinations are newly developed every season. To make matters more confusing, rocker has varying names (such as ‘reverse camber’ or ‘early rise’) and rocker can be located in various places in the ski. The latest skis have a switch allowing an easy transition from traditional camber to a tip rocker, allowing for the best of both worlds to be available at the flick of a switch.

 

A wild array of skis are now available for every level and condition

From wooden weapons for stalking seal, to floating across pristine powder for sheer joy: the modern ski would be quite ludicrous to the early users. As the ski has developed from a instrument for survival to a recreational passion, the flux in design reflects this continual drive for development throughout the ages.

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