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Ya. Chamonix and All That.

Yesterday I was up in Taos Ski Valley with the kids.  We were tubing with my daughter’s school.  It was incredibly fun.  My little history skiing france boy, watching the skiers on the slopes around us asked if he could learn how.

“Oh no,” was my first thought.

I grew up in Colorado and skiing was always part of our lives – and over hundreds and hundreds of runs I never, ever liked it. I don’t know what it is…the cost? The equipment? The cold? The people? Probably all of the above.

But I know I’m in an extreme minority.

Once, I found myself in Chamonix, France.  In my hand were a free, multi-day pass and a coupon for free equipment rentals (don’t ask, long story).  Soft powder was falling as sweetly as you can imagine and all around were hoards of British skiers on holiday.

“Oh no,” I thought. “I have to do this.”  It was Chamonix after all.  Chamonix, the place where skiing became the worldwide obsession it is today.

Skiing wasn’t invented in France.  That credit belongs the ancestors of the modern Scandinavians. At Lake Sindor far northwest of Moscow a 7,000-year-old ski was found. The famous Kalvträskskidan ski of Sweden dates to about the same time period (although what is perhaps an older ski was actually found in China, some claim). A 6,000-year-old rock drawing in Norway shows a man on skis.  Indeed the Norse goddess Skadi parted from her husband Njord in favor of the freedom of skiing in the mountains. Ullr, stepson of Thor and the Norse god of winter wore skis that could become a shield or boat depending on his needs.

So, it was only to be expected that when southern Europeans started visiting The North they would “discover” this interesting practice of strapping two pieces of wood to your feet in order to glide more easily across the snow.

In my book Notes for the Aurora Society, I wrote extensively about Jacques de la Tocnaye’s travels to Finland, Sweden and Norway.  The Frenchman’s 1801 account of his journey noted the following:

“In winter, the mail is transported through the mountain pass by a man on a kind of snow skates moving very quickly without being obstructed by snow drifts that would engulf both people and horses. People in this region move around like this. I’ve seen it repeatedly. It requires no more effort than what is needed to keep warm. The day will surely come when even those of other European nations are learning to take advantage of this convenient and cheap mode of transport.”

And so they did.

history skiing franceWhile the Norwegians set up the first ski school and hosted the very first cross-country ski race in 1867, it was the likes of Henry Duhamel who began experimenting with downhill skiing as recreation in the Alps around 1880.  Soon after he raced off to Finland, acquiring fourteen pairs of skis that he passed out to his friends at the new Ski Club des Alps in Grenoble. Duhamel and his friends took those ancient Finnish designs and began working them in new forms and shapes to better suit the mountain environments of France.

In the 1850’s the Norwegian Sondre Norheim created stiff bindings by actually tying his boots to his skis, thus allowing him far more control over the skis than anyone had known before. In 1870 he came up with shorter skis that were more flexible, thus allowing turning. Duhamel was swift to adopt these designs into his.

About 1900 the French alpine army adopted and adapted the ski for military purposes. The 159th Regiment led by the creative Captain François Clerc quickly became famous for their ability to operate swiftly and effectively in extreme mountain and winter environments.

In 1903 a Swiss company began offering ski package vacations in the Alps. In 1908 the first ski-lift was invented.

Ok.  But Chamonix.  The very first Winter Olympics of 1924 is the moment generally credited with glamorizing downhill skiing and turning it into the obsession it is. The British fell in love with the sport and it wasn’t too long before hoards were crossing the channel to try the slopes at the little French village as well as resorts that popped up at Megève and Val d’Isère .  Sure, until the 1970’s skiing really was a sport of the affluent but the general populace was taken by the romanticsm surrounding the vacation sport.

I did it.  I skied Chamonix.  And I skied pretty damn well too if I do say so myself.  But no, I didn’t enjoy it. I really tried to but I just didn’t.

A few days later however when I was happily strolling a warm, dry Mediterranean beach I was certainly glad that I didn’t let the free pass go to waste and that I could honestly say:

“Ya. Ya.  Chamonix.  Been there. Done that.”





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