Alpine touring: The post-war era
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that takes 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.
With the end of World War II, the mountain troopers of the 10th Mountain Division, headed home to family and friends. They returned to their “normal” lives and jobs in the banks, factories and stores.
But for many of the 10th Mountain veterans, there was something missing. The mountains that had been so much a part of their lives were calling, and many of them answered, returning to Colorado to re-energize the development of the state’s ski industry.
The post-war backcountry skiing movement also got back on track with the 1948 publication of the “Sun Valley Ski Guide” by Andy Hennig. The book, a complete guide to alpine tour skiing in the greater Sun Valley area, proved to be North America’s first guidebook for high mountain ski touring.
The Ski Club of Great Britain would expand the scope and scale of this work from a global perspective in 1961, publishing the second edition of the “Handbook of Ski-Touring & Glacier Skiing,” the first modern compilation of the collective body of knowledge of ski mountaineering.
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Back on this side of the Atlantic, Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, preserving a large amount of potential backcountry ski terrain. Written by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society, the bill established the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, protecting 9.1 million acres of federal land.
The following year, Austrian-born Hans Gmoser, considered the father of modern mountaineering in Canada, pioneered the first helicopter ski trip in the Canadian Bugaboos. In the U.S., the first backcountry ski guide service, directed by Alexis Kelner, was created as part of the Alf Engen Ski School in Alta, Utah, while Europe saw the first full ski traverse of the Alps, from Innsbruck to Grenoble. The 600-mile trip took 22 days.
At the same time, alpine touring gear was about to undergo a major evolution as the heavy skis and cable bindings had fallen out of favor, giving way to Nordic equipment for ski alpinism. In 1972, Fischer imported their “Europa” aluminum sandwich fiberglass Nordic backcountry ski to the U.S.
The ski featured side-cut and aluminum edges that allowed alpinists struggling with wooden skis to embrace this new technology, enabling them to better utilize the telemark turn in backcountry skiing. Rossignol would follow suit four years later with the introduction of their “Haute Route” metal sandwich ski.
The early ’70s also ushered in the first public sales of the Skadi avalanche rescue transceiver. The prototype device was created in 1968 by a Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory research team, headed by John Lawton.
The mid-’70s saw the first production of Ramer alpine touring bindings, sold by Boulder’s Paul Ramer. The binding system introduced the concept of a heel lift for climbing, was lighter weight than any other ski touring binding of that era. It was a concept that was soon copied by European manufacturers.
The decade also began to showcase the work of Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame member Lou Dawson. One of the world’s foremost experts on ski mountaineering, Dawson published his “Colorado High Routes” in 1985. The first complete guidebook to the 10th Mountain Division hut system, the book also detailed backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering in Central Colorado.
That same winter, insurance rates for ski resorts increased dramatically, some as much as 300 percent. As lift ticket prices followed suit, more and more skiers began to feel that earning their turns by climbing and skiing in the backcountry made for a more attractive alternative.
Dawson would become part of Colorado and backcountry history in 1991, completing his project to ski all 54 of the state’s 14ers. The 13-year skiing and climbing quest included first or second descents of extremely technical routes on Colorado 14ers such as Pyramid Peak, Capitol Peak and the Maroon Bells.
Equipment made a quantum leap in 1991 as Dynafit created a boot and binding system that would soon be imported to North America, making alpine touring equipment as light weight or lighter than free-heel telemark equipment. The following winter, the Black Diamond “Terminator”, the first plastic free-heel ski boots were introduced to the public.
Dawson would help close out the 90’s with the publication of his “Wild Snow”, the first book to chronicle the history of North American ski and snowboard mountaineering, as well as covering 54 classic ski mountaineering routes on the continent.
John Dakin is vice president of communications for the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame.