Alpine touring: The early years
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum
Editor’s note: The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage. Its eight themed galleries display artifacts, narratives and film documentaries that entertain and educate visitors of all ages.
In the early days, one could easily argue that all skiing was backcountry skiing. There were no chairlifts, ski patrol, gates or grooming. Skis were originally used for work rather than pleasure.
The oldest recorded written description of skis and climbing skins dates back to 1555, courtesy of Olaus Magnus, a Swedish writer and Catholic ecclesiast. The first recorded use of skis in the United States came in 1841 in Wisconsin.
The pioneers of alpine touring include the likes of John “Snowshoe” Thompson, a prolific traveler who used skis to deliver the mail at least twice a month up and over the steep eastern scarp of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to remote California mining camps and settlements.
In 1850, Sondre Norheim from Telemark, Norway, created the first binding heel strap, using a twisted willow root, that allowed for not only more lateral control of the ski, but also provided the ability to make powerful turns.
By 1880, there were over 50 skiing mail carriers in Colorado, known as the “Snowshoe Express”. One of the most renowned was Father John Dyer who ran most of the mail routes in Summit County. Legend has it that he would refuse to hand over the mail until the miners had listened to his sermon.
Austrian Wilhelm von Arlt, regarded by many as the father of alpine touring, made the first ski ascent over 9,800 feet when he climbed Austria’s Rauris Sonnblick in 1894. Three years later, fellow countryman Wilhelm Paulke recorded the first true alpine ski traverse, crossing the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland. It was an event that initiated the concept of modern ski mountaineering as we now know it. Paulke would also go on to organize the first ski courses for mountaineers in St. Anton, Austria, in 1901.
Irving Langmuir, a Nobel Prize winning American chemist and physicist, is considered to be the first mountain skier in North America, touring the mountains of the Northeastern U.S. during the winter of 1906-07. On a pair of handmade skis, Langmuir climbed Slide Mountain in the Catskills and skied down from the summit.
In 1934, Walter Mosauer formed the Ski Mountaineers section of the Sierra Club. The initial charter group was made up of Mosauer and thirteen others, including ski and mountaineering legends such as Glen Dawson, who would go on to become a 10th Mountain Division rock climbing and skiing instructor at Camp Hale during World War II.
That same year, ski historians have also ventured that potentially the first aluminum randonnee ski was manufactured in Europe. The ski featured a pattern of wedges milled into the metal base that served as a form waxless kicker pattern.
Up until the opening of the Sun Valley Resort in 1936 by Averell Harriman as America’s first destination ski resort, the history of backcountry skiing had been synonymous with the history of U.S. skiing as a whole. Sun Valley was the fork in the road where skiing diverged into the modern concepts of resort skiing and backcountry skiing.
While that perspective is apparent today, at the time it was more likely a distinction been between wealthy individuals and “normal” people skiing. For ordinary ski enthusiasts at the end of the 1930’s, a vacation to Sun Valley was only slightly more feasible than a visit to St. Moritz.
The University of California Press published the first North American how-to book on backcountry skiing in 1942. Titled “Manual of Ski Mountaineering,” the book was primarily written and edited by David Brower who would go on to become the first executive director of the Sierra Club. The manual was also used to train Allied mountain combat troops.
With the onset of World War II, the sport and equipment would enter the next phase of its evolution.