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The ski was invented before the wheel. Twenty-two thousand years ago, when the Cro-Magnon man first attached two sticks to his feet, it was not to race down a snowy mountain just for the thrill of it. Skiing began as a mode of survival, writes Roland Huntford in Two Planks and a Passion: A Dramatic History of Skiing.

According to Huntford, cave drawings suggest that man used skis during the last Ice Age in the Palaeolithic period. The oldest ski artefacts, though, come from the more recent Mesolithic period. Fragments of ski-like objects, discovered by 1960s archaeologist Grigoriy Burov, date back to 6000 BC in northern Russia.

Skis and snowshoes were first invented to cross wetlands and marshes in the winter when they froze over. They enabled man to travel during the winter and hunt reindeer and elk across the frozen tundra. Skis were widely utilized in Central Asia and Europe, while snowshoes were common in the New World - probably because snow was more compact and less soft in the Old World, theorizes Huntford.

Skiing's next era evolved out of military considerations. In the 1760s, the Norwegian army held skill competitions involving skiing down slopes, around trees, across level snowfields and while shooting. These races were precursors to Olympic sports. The first national race took place in Oslo in the 1860s.

All the while, more and more civilians – both in Norway and other parts of Europe – were trying their hand at skiing. The 1880s saw a shift from Nordic skiing (cross-country skiing), to Alpine skiing (downhill skiing), because the adrenaline rush of gliding down a mountainside had more mass appeal than skiing across level terrain. This evolution eventually made the Alps the new centre of the skiing world.

Then, in 1924, the first Winter Olympics was held in Chamonix, France. At first, the Winter Games only featured the more established sport of Nordic skiing, but the growing love of downhill skiing resulted in the inclusion of Alpine skiing in the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. That same year, writes John Fry in his book The Story of Modern Skiing, the chairlift was invented in the US, revolutionizing skiing as a recreational activity.

Fry, the president of the International Skiing History Association, explained that the pastime of skiing grew rapidly between 1955 and 1965. "It became much more accessible to people," he said in an interview. "The metal ski, invented early in the 1950s, made it easier for recreational skiers... In the 1960s came the plastic boot, since there were a lot of disadvantages to the leather boot." All of these advances resulted in ease of use and control on the slopes.

Some of the resorts that help tell the story of skiing's origins are still around today. Skiers with a mind for history would be remiss not to visit one of these monuments to modern ski history.

  • La Clusaz, a French ski resort about an hour from Geneva, Switzerland, has been around since 1907 and is one of the oldest in continued use. Since La Clusaz is still very much a village, it is a nice change of pace from the larger ski resorts. 
  • Also in southeastern France, Chamonix Mont Blanc had the honour of hosting the very first Winter Olympic Games in 1924. It is still considered one of the best ski resorts today.
  • Alta in Utah and Sun Valley in Idaho are among America's first ski resorts, both having opened in the 1930s. The first chairlift was installed in Sun Valley in 1936 after its invention by Union Pacific Railway engineer James Curran. This year Sun Valley celebrates its 75th anniversary. 
  • Murren ski area is one of the oldest in Switzerland. James Bond fans may remember it as backdrop for scenes in the 1969 movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service. 
  • Quebec is home to one of Canada's oldest and best known resorts, Mont-Tremblant. Just an hour from Montreal, Mont-Tremblant was the country's first resort to install a chairlift.

Wherever snow travellers decide to take the plunge on the slopes, Fry leaves both ski veterans and newcomers with this bit of advice: "I do think that people can derive a lot more enjoyment out of the sport if they know something about its past."

Skiers can delve further into ski history at the International Skiing History Association website.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

 

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