Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed skiing in California in the 1930s.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Wooden skis and leather boots gave way to metal and Fiberglas skis and plastic boots. Chairlifts eclipsed rope tows. Ski trains lost out to cars and planes. Bumpy trails with uneven coatings of natural snow were made nearly perfect by snowmaking and grooming. And for resorts, condo sales and snowboarding became as crucial to the bottom line as skiers buying lift tickets.
Throughout all these changes, as documented in John Fry's recent book, "The Story of Modern Skiing" (University Press of New England, 27.95), Americans have maintained their passion for zooming down a snowy slope. And if you think Hollywood stars living it up in Vail is something new, guess again. One of the book's highlights is Fry's depiction of the luster that celebrities and power brokers have long added to skiing.
Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed skiing in California in the '30s, writes Fry, who is the former editor-in-chief of SKI magazine. Mont Tremblant in Quebec, Canada, was a favorite spot for the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Sugarbush opened in Vermont in 1959 and became a hangout for designer Oleg Cassini and his crowd, while, according to the book, Bobby Kennedy and his family spent Christmas at Aspen in 1964 along with the recently widowed Jackie Kennedy and her children. One of Bobby's children, Michael Kennedy, died in a skiing accident there 33 years later.
Sun Valley, Idaho, which Fry describes as North America's first destination ski resort, was created by William Averell Harriman, a politician and diplomat who was also the chairman of Union Pacific Railroad. Located at the end of the railway line, Sun Valley opened in 1936 with the very first chairlifts, which Fry writes were designed by an engineer based on his knowledge of how fruit companies loaded bananas on ships in Central America.
While Fry says that modern skiing really didn't begin until after World War II, ski trips and outings organized by Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and by the Appalachian Mountain Club, helped create interest in the sport in the East in the 1920s. Even earlier, immigrants from Scandinavia and Central Europe helped popularize it, both as a participatory sport and as a spectator sport of jumping and speed skiing. At shows in Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden, skiers hurled themselves off ramps covered with shaved ice; in 1936, Saks Fifth Avenue let customers practice skiing on an indoor slide covered with Borax.
By the 1930s, Fry writes, there were several hundred rope-tow areas in New England, and by the mid-1930s, tens of thousands of skiers from New York and Boston were filling weekend trains to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, the Berkshires in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania's Poconos. San Franciscans began riding the Snowball Express train to Truckee in Lake Tahoe, while Chicagoans took ski trains to Wisconsin and Michigan.
The first Winter Olympics ever held in the U.S. took place in 1932 in Lake Placid, N.Y. Godfrey Dewey, son of the creator of the Dewey Decimal System used to categorize library books, helped establish the village as a winter sports destination and was instrumental in bringing the games there.
Growth of resorts
But the biggest developments in the sport happened after World War II with the creation of modern resorts and ski areas, and "a big factor in that was the 10th Mountain Division troops who trained at Camp Hale" in Colorado's Rockies, Fry said in an interview. The 14,000 soldiers from the 10th Division were trained on skis, and after the war, some of them returned to Colorado. Among the veterans were Pete Seibert, who started Vail, and Friedl Pfeifer, an Austrian ski racer who founded the ski school at Aspen, cleared trails and persuaded an investor to build the resort's first chairlift.
The decades after World War II also saw phenomenal growth in the number of ski areas. By the start of the war, the U.S. had between 200 and 300 rope tow-equipped hills and by 1943, 19 chairlifts. By 1965, there were 662 ski areas, and by 1971, there were 1,000 chairlifts in North America.
And while ski visits began to decline in the 1980s, snowboarding helped turn that trend around in the 1990s.
Blessed with climate
But eventually, the Colorado Rockies and Utah's Wasatch Range came to be seen as superior to Eastern destinations for discriminating skiers. Not only can you fly to Denver from New York in less time than it takes to drive from Manhattan to Stowe, Vt., but, says Fry, the West is simply blessed with better climate and geology than the East.
"If you're a skier, what you want is vertical drop on a mountain - the height from the base to the summit. Not that there aren't good vertical drops in the East, but you've got bigger mountains in the West," said Fry.
And despite 21st century concerns over climate change, this season's warm weather is hardly the first time the East has had too little snow to satisfy skiers. Even machines can't make snow in 40-degree weather. Many skiers also prefer the West's powdery snow and numerous sunny days to the wetter snow and sometimes gray days of winter in the East.
Fry lives in Westchester, a suburb north of New York City, and says he still likes to drive to nearby ski areas like Catamount and Butternut Basin in the Berkshires, and Thunder Ridge in Patterson, N.Y. In his book, he laments the loss of hundreds of small community ski areas where kids once learned the sport at low cost.
But he admits that his personal preference is "to be in a place where I can ski out the door. I think it's part of a vacation that you don't have to get in a car. Snowmass (at Aspen) has a lot of ski-out-the-door skiing. So does Alta" in Utah.
Fry acknowledges that a groomed trail of natural and machine-made snow in the East is roughly comparable to the same thing in the West, but "if you've ever skied in 10 inches of fresh powder on a beautiful morning at Vail or Aspen, no machine can duplicate that experience."
"The Story of Modern Skiing," by John Fry (University of New England Press): www.skiinghistory.org.
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