Tracing the evolution of snow skis

Hiking to more than 13,000 feet at the top of Breckenridge Ski Resort. Photo copyright Nathan A. Ferguson.

Skiing began as a simple and effective form of locomotion across snow-covered landscapes. It would take thousands of years for it to morph into a multibillion-dollar industry. To understand modern equipment, it’s important to take a look back to see how the snow ski evolved into a fine carving instrument.

Early attempts date back more than 5,000 years in Russia and Scandinavia, according to archaeological research. The skis were wooden and used for hunting, trapping and crossing frozen waterways.

Things didn’t change dramatically until 1850, when Norwegian skier Sondre Norheim, widely considered the father of modern skiing, incorporated camber — or a middle upward curve — into his skis. By allowing the skis to bow slightly upward underfoot, more of the skier’s weight could be distributed to the tips and tails, which made turning easier and improved grip. This became the design standard well into the next century.

Norheim didn’t stop there. Nearly 20 years later, he demonstrated the telemark turn on skis made out of single pieces of hardwood with sidecuts that made them narrower underfoot. In addition to camber, sidecut improved turning by allowing the skis to flex. Norheim used bindings that allowed his heels to rise while his toes remained fixed, allowing the skier to lunge and maneuver through fluid turns. Even today, this technique is difficult to master.

The Golden Age

The next century saw tremendous progress in ski design and the making of sporting-world luminaries.

One of them was Abel Rossignol, a carpenter and diehard skier who in 1907 made his first set of skis out of hardwood. His company would go on to experiment with all-metal and fiberglass skis, as well as vibration damping. By the 1970s, Rossignol would become the largest ski manufacturer in the world.

But ski design had two big problems, both related to turning on hard snow. Throughout the 1920s, Austrian Rudolph Lettner experimented with segmented steel edges that flexed with the ski. They dug into ice and improved durability. While this was a huge improvement, there was a drawback: The edges had to be screwed onto the skis and often came off after hard use.

In 1950, aeronautical engineer Howard Head set out to make skis lighter and easier to turn. He founded the Head Ski Company, and his innovations with laminated skis helped grow the skiing industry.

The 1960s saw huge advances that carried on into the 80s. Plastic boots, better bindings, and skis made of increasingly complex composite structures gave way to a new technique, the elegant parallel turn.

Playing with Shapes

The ski industry went into a tizzy when Elan introduced a radical new ski design in 1993.

Its SCX, or SideCut eXtreme, featured a sidecut three times deeper than previous skis, which gave it an hourglass shape. This made it easier and more efficient to carve turns. After proving the design on race courses, other companies started producing “parabolic” or “shaped” skis. By the end of the decade, straight skis had pretty much become endangered species.

Ski design continued to get funkier. In 1998, Salomon produced the 1080 with raised tails, initially designed for allowing skiers to do snowboard-like tricks by skiing backward and negotiating reverse takeoffs and landings at terrain parks. Twin-tip skis later proved to provide better float in deep snow.

The Modern Era

After a century of trial and error, ski designers had perfected skiing on groomed terrain at resorts, but the industry was diversifying, and extreme skiers were eyeing virgin peaks.

In 2002, Volant introduced a powder ski called the Spatula, a concept originally dreamed up by pro skier Shane McConkey. Years earlier, he’d sketched it on a beer napkin. It featured reverse camber (now known as rocker), wherein the waist of the ski sat flat or lower than the tips and tails, allowing it to float. Reverse sidecut made the ski turn more easily without grabbing in deep, soft snow. This created a new genre of twin-tip, super-fat skis. Some, like the modern Fat-ypus A-Lotta, are 6.8 inches wide at the tips.

Technology continues to drive the industry, yet, as with the ancient hunters, more people are burning calories in the backcountry. Alpine touring bindings unhinge at the heels so that skiers can walk uphill with climbing skins attached underneath skis. For the trip down, the heels are locked and skiers make traditional alpine turns. This is much easier than learning the old-fashioned telemark technique. But they should give a nod to Norheim for showing them the way 150 years ago.

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