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There was a time in the Colorado Rockies when skiing was less a sport than a necessity. In those days, a ski was not even called a ski but was known as a "Norwegian Snowshoe," Aspen was still named Ute City and a heavy snowfall was sometimes measured as being "six ponies deep." Avalanches were known as "the white death," and the winter mountains were alive with the raucous sound of miners risking their lives in pursuit of precious metal.
These were times—from the 1860s through the first couple of decades of the 20th century—when to ski was to survive and it was no matter of fashion or fun. Most everything essential in winter, from the delivery of mail to basic camp supplies, moved by Norwegian Snowshoe. During the great blizzard of 1899, perhaps Colorado's worst storm ever, it snowed constantly from Jan. 30 to Feb. 20. At least half of all the cattle in the state froze to death and the citizens of many towns had to chop up outbuildings and dismantle their barns for firewood. A hundred miners and their families were trapped at Hunters Pass, 19 miles from Aspen. When their food ran out, they tore down the shacks they called homes to construct crude skis. They made 75 pairs, then set out en masse into the teeth of the blizzard toward Aspen, many of the men carrying children on their backs. To alleviate the fear and bring some humor to the dangerous situation, someone posted a sign announcing the trek as "THE ANNUAL RACE OF THE HUNTERS PASS TENDERFOOT SNOWSHOE CLUB," and ruled that each "entrant" had to bring one ham sandwich as an entrance fee. The whole town fought through the storm and arrived in Aspen in a day.
That they could cover any ground at all, let alone breach a blizzard with the skis they made, was something of a miracle. Jack A. Benson, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado, devoted a chapter of his thesis to the Norwegian Snowshoe as a major form of 19th-century transportation in the Rockies. In an article in The Western Historical Quarterly. called "Before Skiing Was Fun," Benson describes the crude techniques used to make skis: "To construct the eight-to-12-foot-long skis, prospective travelers began by cutting long boards from hickory, ash or pine trees. They then planed the slats from four to six inches wide and an inch thick. Next, they attached broad leather straps—primitive boot bindings—near the center of each board...[and] curved the front ends upward by bending them around logs or by boiling the tips in five-gallon tins of water. In order to minimize friction, they sanded the bottoms as smooth as possible and waxed them."
The only other equipment needed was a single eight-foot pole. It was used to maintain balance, to slow down—by dragging it in the snow—and to turn, sometimes by straddling the pole and shifting weight from leg to leg. On the flats, skiers could skate along pretty much as cross-country skiers do today. To climb, they attached animal skins to the skis, and to careen downhill, they used something called "the early American ski technique." This is interpreted by Benson to mean "stand up and pray the snowshoes will go straight." Turns were executed only for the most practical or pressing reasons—to avoid trees, rocks, sheer drop-offs and wandering bears.
There may not have been much beauty to skiing in those days, but there was a kind of purity. Indeed. Colorado's 19th-century Norwegian Snowshoes had their roots deep in the snows of the Stone Age. A rock drawing from the northern Norwegian village of Rodoy shows a stick figure on skis. Curators at Oslo's Holmenkollen Museum have dated the drawing back to 2000 B.C.
Ah, but we have come a far piece from all that. The purity and practicality of skiing for transportation was replaced quite a while ago by something sleek and fashionable, perhaps even a bit effete by the lights of the tough old Norsk birds who skied Norway 4,000 years ago—and certainly the miners who skied the Rockies 100 years back. What we are dealing with now is a $2.47 billion industry, a soupedup sport spun out of equal parts of the 20th century's technological revolution and its leisure boom.
However, something new is happening to skiing. Or rather, something very, very old. In Colorado, many skiers who were once hooked on downhill runs have begun to head deeper into the hills, reliving some of the same thrills—and many of the dangers—of oldtime miners and prospectors. The activity is called ski mountaineering, which is a blend of both Nordic and Alpine skiing.
It is fitting that Telluride and Crested Butte in particular have grabbed on to this old-new sport the hardest. They are a couple of charming, semi-seedy villages that were once full of Norwegian Snowshoers. Telluride sits in lovely isolation deep in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Thanks to a wild optimism about the hoped-for success of the ski area there, a land boom is going on in Telluride that matches the wildest strike-it-rich days of the 19th century. Lots measuring 125 feet by 25 feet are going for $17,000 each. No one seems too sure just why people are paying this kind of money for so little land, but one resident says, "I guess they figure that if there's a big building boom here, and lots of people move in, they'll be on the ground floor to cash in on it. And if there isn't, then they've got themselves a nice, peaceful place to live far away from the big-city crowds and hassles."
Crested Butte sits in a cul-de-sac in the Elk mountain range, once the last stop on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad line. Though the lure of gold and silver brought the first fortune hunters into the area, it was the more mundane discovery of coal that kept the town alive through the early 20th century. Then in 1952, the main coal mine shut down and Crested Butte came close to becoming a full-fledged ghost. The ski area was opened in 1962 and, though it has never quite returned Crested Butte to the boom-town economy of the 19th century, it has kept the place alive and added considerably to its charm.
These aren't the only two places in the West where ski mountaineering has taken hold; it is widespread. One reason for the new interest in this oldest of skiing forms was the drought of 1976-77 when resorts throughout the West almost went bankrupt. Danny Hirsch, director of the Nordic skiing program at Telluride, says, "Everyone got more and more into mountaineering and cross-country skiing, because there was no other place to ski except back up high in the mountains where there was snow. The resort area was no good at all, so everyone got a pair of cross-country skis and some skins and went off to wherever there was snow. They had no choice."