Colorado Ski Museum series: Norwegians introduce Nordic skiing competition
Special to the Daily
This winter, Vail/Beaver Creek are hosting the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships for an unprecedented third time. The Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum has opened its ski racing archives to tell stories that connect the dots between today’s spectacular made-for-TV competition extravaganzas and their humble beginnings. This series will feature many of the significant milestones, instigated here in Colorado by individuals now enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which helped shape skiing and international racing. When you are in Vail Village, stop by the museum for a trip through skiing’s past. For more information, go to http://www.skimuseum.net.
The first reported race on skis was organized in Colorado in 1886 by a group of miners. A call went out to the surrounding mining camps that a contest would be held to determine the best skier in the Rocky Mountains. A series of five circuit races were planned in February 1886. Twenty-five men competed in heats on a hill above Crested Butte. The equipment consisted of 12-foot-long rudimentary wooden slates and one long pole that was dragged through the snow acting as a ruder. A carnival atmosphere reigned as school was let out and a special train was run to the race site. The townspeople turned out to cheer wildly for their favorites.
Five heats were run with the contestants being paired up by lot. Al Johnson was the race favorite because he could whiz down the track at nearly 80 mph but the most exciting racer was Chal Baney, who developed his own unusual style. Raising his guide pole clear of the snow and folding himself in half, until he seemed only a small ball. This positioning allowed him to instantly shoot forward in his heats. Baney’s “tuck,” as described by the Gunnison Review Press, won the day and Al Johnson came in second.
Although Crested Butte and Gunnison staged these “ski races” into 1887, the circuit soon died out. Already the surrounding mining camps were being abandoned as the gold and silver ores played out.
People in the Colorado mountain towns from Telluride in the southwest to Steamboat Springs in the north kept on skiing. Winter ski outings were popular; young people organized ski parties; winter carnivals featured cross-country ski races, skating and tobogganing. For the next 25 years, Coloradans would ski to school; to work; to mend fences; but they would remain largely unaware of the improvements in equipment and technique being made in the Scandinavian countries and in the Alps.
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All that would change in 1911 when Carl Howelsen, a great Norwegian champion, skied down the western slope of Rollins Pass and into Hot Sulphur Springs. There he found a winter carnival in progress and proceeded to demonstrate ski jumping to an awe-struck group of spectators. This first “ski jumping tournament” in Colorado was the beginning of the ski-sport in Colorado that would change the state forever. Two years later, Howelsen found the deep dry snow of the Yampa Valley to his liking and moved to the ranching community of Steamboat Springs, where his enthusiasm for ski jumping was welcomed. He taught the locals the art of Nordic skiing and ski jumping. In 1914, Howelsen built the takeoff for the ski jump for Steamboat Springs’ first annual winter carnival. He jumped a distance of 108 feet, winning the competition. Howelsen returned to Norway in 1922, yet his name is synonymous with ski jumping in Colorado. The famed ski jump hill of Steamboat Springs is named in his honor — Howelsen Hill.
During this same period, Anders Haugen, a native of Telemark, Norway, came to Colorado and settled in Dillon. Andres won many of the ski jumping tournament titles, including two U.S. professional titles and two U.S. amateur titles. In 1919 and 1920, he set successive world ski jumping records at the Dillon ski jump with measures of 213 feet and 214 feet, respectively.
Nordic skiing, which included cross country, ski jumping and Nordic combined, were the only skiing events featured during the first “international week of winter sport” held in 1924 Chamonix, France. In retrospect, this week-long competition was recognized as the first Olympic Winter Games. Anders, by then a Colorado resident, was captain of this first U.S. Olympic Ski Team in 1924 and won the nation’s first Olympic skiing medal, a bronze, in Chamonix. His trophies and full length jacket worn in the 1924 opening ceremonies are on display at the museum.
Next week: Austrians introduce Coloradans to the “alpine” ski technique. Downhill ski chases soon followed.