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A History of Tahoe Skiing

Skiing wasn’t always so commercialized.

For so many people, the sport of skiing provides a welcome interruption to the daily grind. However, it also often takes a herculean effort to pull off a successful ski trip. First, time must be taken off of work. Next comes a 5-hour drive, through stop and go traffic, in a blizzard. Then you will need to haul your uncomfortable, awkward gear across an icy parking lot, wait in lines for just about everything, pay $15 for a cheeseburger, and contend with whatever the conditions happen to be at the time. Meanwhile you are juggling reservations for lodging and dining, while trying to manage the various wants/needs/abilities of everyone in your party. When it is all said and done, with hundreds, if not thousands of dollars invested, it can seem like a going skiing is the archetype for Type II fun.

But it turns out that very little of that has to do with actual skiing. For some, going skiing represents more than just an expensive diversion. Instead, skiing can become a vehicle for a way of life; one that can lead us to a sublime appreciation of nature’s winter world.

Having a variety of styles, approaches and equipment is one big key to this transformation of lifestyle. The ability to enjoy a variety of snow sports, including lift-serviced downhill, cross-country and backcountry, depending on the conditions, crowds and our mood, gives ample opportunity to get out in the snow whenever the mood strikes. Being able to get away from the masses at the groomed, commercial resorts, and get into the serenity of the backcountry, lends a whole new way for our sport to provide a true connection with nature, and ourselves.

An Ancient Form of Transportation

It turns out that the sport of skiing has existed for 5000 years - well before the advent of the modern ski resort. There is some debate as to when and where skiing originated. There have been rock paintings and petroglyphs discovered high in the Altai Mountains of northwestern China, depicting skiers that have been dated as being over 5000 years old. In Scandinavia, remnants of actual skis have been found in bogs in Sweden that were estimated to be up to 4500 years old. Clearly these Altai and Sami cultures used skiing for utilitarian purposes such as transportation and hunting, rather than recreation. This is confirmed in rock art images of skiers carrying spears and a bow.

The use of skiing as transportation spread throughout the snowy regions of Europe over 1000 years ago. Skiing for sport began in Norway in the mid-1800s with public demonstrations, competitions, and clubs. However it wasn’t until the 1860’s, when Norwegian Sondre Norheim invented a handy heel strap and shaped skis, that skiing became a more practical sport for the common man. With the advent of rope tows and then chairlifts in the 1930’s, skiers began locking their heel down to the top of the ski, and downhill skiing began to really flourish.

Early Skiing in the Sierra

The history of skiing in the Tahoe area represents the emergence of some the first recreational ski culture in the Western Hemisphere. By around 1853 gold miners were using 12-foot long boards and a single, long pole to traverse their snowy environment. They were soon racing in these same skis for sport, sometimes reaching speeds of 80 mph. Legend has it that the skiers used the mining ore carts going uphill as the first ski lift in the world. This tradition continues today at the Plumas Eureka Ski Club in Johnsville, CA, where racers compete on similar homemade equipment, with period dress required for participation in these ‘longboard races’.

Starting in 1856, the legendary ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson began weekly mail delivery trips across the Sierra in mid-winter, making the trek from Placerville, CA to Genoa, NV and back with 10-foot long skis and an 80 pound pack. The trip took at least 3 days one way, and Thompson completed it without stopping to camp. He continued this journey every winter for more than 20 years, and was never paid for his services.

The sport of ski jumping can trace its origins to Truckee, with the first organized jumping competitions at the Hilltop Lodge in 1895. This became part of a large winter carnival in Truckee that continued for over 20 years.

Some of the first ski lifts in the world were installed in the Tahoe area, starting with a rope tow at Hilltop Lodge in 1910. The second chairlift in the country was established in 1939 at Sugar Bowl on Donner Summit. The lift whisked skiers 1000 vertical feet up Mt. Disney, named after principle investor Walt Disney, who also produced several early ski films, including one movie in which cartoon character Goofy learns to ski. Sugar Bowl also boasts the first aerial tram in the west, installed in 1953.

Skiing became popular on the Nevada side of the lake in the 1940’s, when there were at least five separate ski areas serving Reno and Carson City. White Hills ski area was a popular spot on Spooner Summit, while remnants of the old Tannenbaum and Reno Ski Bowl ski areas can still be seen along the Mt. Rose Highway. Eventually, Slide Mountain and Ski Rose were combined to form the modern day Mt. Rose Ski area. A little further down the road, Sky Tavern still operates on weekends, offering reasonably priced instruction for thousands of young skiers every winter.

Returning to Our Roots

Many of these early skiing experiences bear little resemblance to the luxury-oriented mega-resorts of today. It turns out that skiing itself has little to do with the crowded shopping, hot tubbing, fine dining and luxury lodging experience that the ski industry markets to its potential customers. Skiing existed for 5000 years before the invention of the chairlift, and such an authentic and fundamental ski experience is still available.

At Ski Nevada, we encourage people to diversify their ski experience beyond just downhill skiing, to include cross-country and backcountry excursions, to not only take advantage of the best conditions, but also to remind us of the roots of our ski culture. If you think back to what attracted you to skiing in the first place, it might include such ideas as getting out in nature, enjoying spectacular winter scenery, with fresh mountain air and good old-fashioned exercise. It turns out all of that is available in the backcountry, in abundance. All that is needed is a little guidance, education and determination to beat the crowds and experience the authentic essence of skiing.

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