The Origins of Skiing in the Ziller Valley

Norway, Russia, Sweden or China? There are many countries which claim to be the birthplace of skiing. Join us to take a short journey back in time to the ancient beginnings of this much-loved snow sport….

The beginning of wintersports in Zillertal

©Chronik Mayrhofen

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The Norwegians claim to have invented wooden skis as a mode of transportation, but the Russians say the same. And, recently, the Chinese have also thrown their hat into the ring, claiming that skiing was invented in northern China over 10,000 years ago. Apparently, this is where it actually all began. This is where one resourceful stone age hunter-gatherer, living after the last ice age first strapped two planks of wood to his feet to chase his next meal through the snow. 

©Chronik Mayrhofen

But what evidence is there to back up this claim? In northwest China ancient rock carvings of people standing on wooden planks and hunting deer have been discovered. Similar carvings have been found in Norway and Russia, but these are not so old. So, it seems that China can boast that it is the home of the first “skis”, or rather snow planks for hunting. But what about the oldest actual ski? Well, Sweden wins this one. A primitive Scandinavian ski, which radiocarbon dating estimated dated from around 2500 B.C, was discovered close to Hoting in Sweden.

To find out when skiing first became a sport, we must journey to Norway and the Norwegian region of Telemark, which is generally regarded as the birthplace of skiing as a sport. The Norwegians are also largely responsible for the proliferation of skiing as a sport in Europe and North America. These prototype skis were concave in shape and narrowed in the middle, similar to modern carving skis.

 

This original Norwegian skiing featured bindings which were not fixed at the heel from which other types of skiing developed (e.g. cross-country skiing, ski touring and even ski jumping). Skiers from Norway took their sport with them to central Europe and the Alps. 

Wintersport im Zillertal
©Chronik Mayrhofen
Wintersport im Zillertal
©Chronik Mayrhofen
Wintersport im Zillertal
©Chronik Mayrhofen
©Chronik Mayrhofen

The birth of Austrian skiing can be traced back to 1901 and St. Christoph am Arlberg, which is still where Austria’s highest qualified ski teachers go to complete their training. It was in Arlberg that the first pioneer skiers dared to ski the steep mountain slopes. On the 3rd January, 1901, three friends founded the Ski Club of Arlberg at the Hotel Hospiz in St. Christoph at an altitude of 1800m. At this time, skiers wore ‘loden’ (wool) clothing and the wooden skis were steered using a one-pole method. Nowadays, 100 years after it was founded, the Ski Club of Arlberg, including the villages of Lech, Zürs, Stuben, St. Christoph and St. Anton, is the biggest ski club in Europe with 7,000 members from 53 countries. In addition to the rising membership of ski clubs and the founding of the first ski schools, the wooden ski was given edges, an improvement made by an Austrian in the 1920s. In 1909, the French company Rossignol developed curved skis, but they didn’t catch on for a long time. It was only in 1996 that carving skis were introduced again and conquered the market.  

©Chronik Mayrhofen

 

 

And Mayrhofen has its own skiing story to tell - the first World Cup victory for Uli Spieß in 1978. At the age of two, Uli swapped his nappies for skis. His parents – Ernst und Riki Spieß – had helped develop Mayrhofen into a renowned winter sport destination and founded the first ski school in Mayrhofen. In 1968, the Ahorn cable car was built, opening up an ideal practice ski area. In 1971, Ernst, Uli and a team of builders and ski teachers built the Ahornhütte. 

Nowadays, Uli Spieß still loves to ski, especially with his grandchildren.