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“A mixed blessing”

In 2016, smack-dab in the middle of the X-Games, a three-day storm his Aspen, Colorado. My brother and I skied at Snowmass, and then quickly showed, heading over to check out the Snowboarding half-pipe competition and the skiers’ big air. The problem was that there was too much snow. The skiers had to clear the flat after the jump. If they didn’t, they were libel to injure themselves. The fresh snow slowed them down too much. Leaving Buttermilk and heading to Aspen for dinner, my brother turned to me and half-jokingly said, “It’s not a snow sport if too much snow can shut it down.”

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Buttermilk and the X-Game Jumps from above Burlingame, CO.

The snow did not only disappoint fans, it affected the competition itself. In Sports Illustrated, Ryan Wallerson wrote, “the storm that came over the mountains on Saturday night made the last stage of the weekend a bit chaotic.” It disrupted the event, but it also disrupted the result. Wallerson explained hot “the weather was a dominating factor, as the skiers were unable to get the kind of airtime that they wanted for their biggest tricks. That led to a host of wipeouts and subdued runs and kept podium scores lower than normal.”

The 2016 X-Games, however, was not an aberration. About 35 years earlier, Park City became the first American resort to host Women’s and Men’s World Cup Races a the same time. With televised coverage reaching 200 million people, and with “over 380 reporters, photographers, and television correspondents,” Salt Lake City and Park City used the World Cup as an example of the city’s preparedness to host the Winter Olympics. The problem was that much like in 2016, the weather refused to cooperate.

In the Desert News, Joe Costanzo and Ellen Fagg explained how “during the previous three days of the World Cup, skiers and spectators enjoyed warm, sunny, and springlike conditions. The ski runs had been covered with man-made snow for the competition.” The problem was “the resort was not open to public skiing for lack of snow, a problem at all the major resorts.” A rapid-moving blizzard, however, flipped the situation.

The storm that hit Park City highlighted the paradoxical relationship between ski racing and weather. After a heavy snowfall, Mark Menlove, Park City Ski Area’s communications director, explained how Park City now had “enough snow to definitively open by Wednesday or sooner.” To emphasize his point, he told the press “It’s snowing heavily right now.” The general skiing population go skiing, but the ski racers were delayed.

Lorne O’Connor, the International Ski Federation technical delegate for the race Sunday, explained, “We were on the mountain at 6:30 a.m. with a crew to remove the new snow from the course… The track we left was basically a toboggan chute. Because of the high moisture content of the snow, the snow sticks on the flags, and would flick in the face of skiers, making it difficult to see.” He continued, “We felt if [sic] was very dangerous, and it was a unanimous decision by the committee [to cancel the race].

Ski racing was not always this way. In the early days, ski races were not measured in seconds, they were measured in minutes. More often than not, skiers would start at the top of Civilian Conservation Corps runs in New England or open fields in the West. From there, they raced through thick or thin snow. Falling, skidding, and crashing were not only frequent, but they were almost universal. However, with such slow races, sloppy skiing did not disqualify you from finishing. Often, people simply got up and kept going.

The film Streif: One Hell of a Ride beautifully depicts the difference between races today and the past. The movie opens with a shot of snowmaking and grooming. Snowmaking reservoirs are visible within the first few minutes, and snow fans blanket the racecourse with manufactured snow. Juxtaposed, however, is footage from the first race on the Streif course. In this footage, the snow is anything but uniform. Grass and rocks poked through the thin snowpack, and there were no gates for people to go around.

Other films, such as the documentary Legends of Skiing use historic footage to demonstrate the ad hoc and irreplicable nature of ski races and snow conditions during the early days of Alpine ski racing. One of the most interesting points in the film are clips of early races at Mount Mansfield. Rushing down a narrow winding slope cut through the thick Vermont forests, the snow was rough and skiers tumbled down the slope, wiping out again and again.

Frequently, general histories of skiing assume that ski racing naturally developed into the technology-reliant sport that it currently is. Today, the old way of racing seems somewhat comical, dominated by poor skills and a lack of modern uniformity that defined skiing as a true sport, rather than a pastime. But when people laugh at these early races, when they simply serve as comedic relief or evidence of a less complicated time, they overlook the many other ways that skiing could have developed.

Racers and X-Games competitors no longer compete on slopes built from natural conditions. Rather, they compete on well-manicured ice, made from snow machines and grooming machines. In many ways, the slopes seem more like concrete than snow. Hard, machine formed, and infrastructurally sound, the slopes are evidence of an ambiguous relationship between skiing and the environment.

The comparison between snow and concrete is hyperbolic. Snowmaking depends on the weather. Droughts, warm temperatures, and rain all change artificial snow’s molecular structure, and bad weather can keep resorts from making snow in the first place. Nevertheless, the simile is instructive. From this view, skiing is a microcosm of the United States. While the United State blanketed itself in concrete, ski areas blanketed their slopes with manufacture snow. In the process, they fundamentally changed the relationship between people, land, and the physical experience of the surrounding world.

Technological adaptions are not bad in themselves. But modernization does not have to correlate with technological improvements. It might be valuable to ask how ski racing could have developed if racers were left to the whims of the weather. They would need a fundamentally different – and likely more varied – skill set, racers would have a fundamentally different psychological mentality, and watching the significantly more unpredictable sport could have brought more kids to racing and more fans to racing. Who knows, perhaps racers at the World Cup in Park City could have raced on powder skis instead – although they would have had to invent them first. Imagine them ripping through powder, avoiding sluff, and adapting to constantly shifting snow. Wouldn’t that be fun?


How Much is a Life Worth?

How Much is a Life Worth? At Alta, the famous avalanche research beginning in the 1940s grew out of privilege, entitlement, and the monetizing of life.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, H.C. Wallace, Leo Moore, and L.H. Lawrence stumbled into Wasatch, Utah. Likely on skis, they had left the town of Alta five hours previous, slowly trudging through freezing temperatures and knee-deep snow. Over a foot had fallen over the previous two days. With a deep slab, newspapers reported avalanches running uninitiated throughout the range and discouraged travel. Yet in 1885, Wallace, Moore, and Lawrence willingly and knowingly crossed under 17 avalanche paths, risking the crushing force of thousands of feet of snow crashing down the mountain and burying them in the narrow valley.

The three men most likely knew each crook and cranny of the long trip. Settlers in the mountains, these men lived within what skier, journalist, and historian Clare Menzel describes as the “cyclical rhythms of winter.” With all their knowledge and experience, snow drove them to risk the journey. Yet unlike the current residents who frequently navigate Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah, they were not recreating. They traveled with morbid news, in a desperate search for help.

Alta, Utah: Remnants of buildings destroyed by an avalanche in the 1870s.

On the night of February 13, 1885, the whole mountain ran. The papers reported that a mile-long avalanche raced down the mountain above the town of Alta, upturning trees and boulders, producing hurricane-force winds, and burying three-fifths of the diminutive mining town the three men would travel from. In the dead of night, the townspeople struggled to assess the damage. But as the sun rose over the canyon, death and destruction slowly emerged from the darkness.

Upon arriving in Wasatch, the men immediately rushed to the Sheriff and telegraph operator, calling for help. Soon both Wasatch and Salt Lake City would send men, mules, and sleds to help dig out the many people buried in snow. Meanwhile, those remaining in Alta were hard at work digging through the snow in search of survivors. The Desert News reported the following day that amazingly “nine people were dug out last night, being thus rescued from a living tomb.” Several more were saved in the hours that followed. But, in the end, the snow took fifteen lives. Searching for friends, family, and enemies, residents mostly found cadavers.

Describing the Alta simply as the West disguises the canyon’s most defining characteristic. More than anything else, people called the region avalanche country. Avalanches were the simple reality of mountain life in the nineteenth century. With the discovery of silver, settlers swarmed the Wasatch Range in the 1870s and 1880s. Claiming Nuche (Ute) territory as their own, they plunged themselves deep under the skin of the mountains, boring holes in the mountain with the violent persistence of pine beetles decimating trees throughout the region today. As the fossil economy exploded, transportation quickened – and with rapidly-moving global networks, a booming middle class craved precious metals found under mountains and snow. Avalanches took miners’ lives year after year. Meanwhile, mining companies, federal courts, and consumers stood by, choosing profits and comfort over people.

Miners have long since left Alta. In the 1890s, the silver bubble burst. But Alta never quite disappeared. Four decades later, a collection of Alta residents, Forest Service agents, and Salt Lake City businessmen transformed the near-ghost town into North America’s ski Mecca. The same snow rhythms that destroyed Alta a half-decade before threatened the skiers. Out of Alta’s grisly past, American skiing bloomed. Unfortunately – and sadly, unsurprisingly – the federal government valued protecting skiers from violent death, more than they had valued miners, railroad workers, and mailmen.

Alf Engen, Felix Koziol, and Ted Keller at spring skiing at Alta, circa April 1938. (Marriott Special Collections, University of Utah.)

In 1937, regional Recreation Officer Felix “Kozy” Koziol made an irresponsible decision. He placed a ski area under a plethora of avalanche paths. In the process, avalanche research emerged to protect people who chose to put their lives at risk, not to protect people who needed to if they wanted to feed themselves and their families.

Koziol, the most ardent supporter of Alta’s creation, was born in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1900. There he likely learned to ski. At the same time, it is unlikely skiing brought him further west. The ski bum lifestyle only came about in middle age. Regardless, by 1924 he was in Montana working on a degree in forestry at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Missoula, 1891. (Library of Congress.)

The city occupied the perfect location for an aspiring alpinist. The name, meaning “place of frozen water,” was a bastardization of Nmesuletkw, the Salish name for the Clark Fork River. Nmesuletkw described the river and the region well. It was still relatively small in the early 1900s. But with an elevation of more than 3,000 feet, surrounded by high peaks on all sides, Missoula later became a recreational hub for skiing, hiking, hunting, climbing, and kayaking. With the Rocky Mountains in his backyard, Koziol, for the first time, was surrounded by public lands and tall peaks. By the time he reached Salt Lake City in the 1930s, he was by all accounts a phenomenal skier. He craved mountains and snow with an obsessive passion that drove him to help build a western ski industry.

In the 1930s, the ski industry was still nebulous, but Koziol and his superiors were obsessed with winter recreation. He envisaged a future where skiing transformed from roaming mountainsides into an activity bound and confined to comparatively small, roped-off, and protected spaces. Once in Salt Lake City, Koziol brought his energy, enthusiasm, and prescience to the Wasatch Range. There, he fell in with some of the best skiers of the era – most importantly the Engen brothers, Alf and Sverre. Hired by Koziol, these men became key participants in the creation of Alta.

Born in Norway, Alf Engen came to the United States at a young age. After getting to work, he managed to save up his money, bringing over Sverre, his mother, and his other siblings. (His father had died when they were still young.) While working in the Midwest, Alf began participating in ski jumping competitions. “Born on skis,” people watched, astounded by his skill. He soon joined the U.S. National Team and Sun Valley later recruited him to teach skiing. Within a few years, he migrated to Salt Lake City. As told by Alf’s son Alan Engen, the USFS “knew that if they wanted to enhance the recreational avenue for the population, and they were encouraging people to go to the mountains to ski, they had to have places for them to ski.” Thus, they needed someone to find and plan the resort. Koziol immediately called upon Alf.

Alf Engen Skiing. (Alf Engen Ski Museum.)

The first avalanche researchers worked to diminish the class aspects of their work. For example, in the first Avalanche Handbook, published in 1953, Koziol  and Atwater wrote, “the fundamental reason for [avalanche research] was the same as in Switzerland – necessity.” However, “necessity,” the word that dangled all alone at the end of the sentence vibrated with irony. The statement was overwrought. No one forced avalanche mitigation upon Koziol or the Forest Service. As the authors admitted, “the Forest Service planners who recommended Alta, F.C. Koziol and Alf Engen, were fully aware of its avalanche hazard problem.” Thus, Koziol chose to mitigate avalanches, not choose a safe location.

Koziol and Atwater were not unaware of the hypocrisy of the word “necessity.” They acknowledged that it “may seem inappropriate” that resort skiing drove avalanche studies. But they defended themselves by writing that “there was no simple explanation. Lacking any means of combatting it, the miners endured avalanches as one more hazard in a hazardous occupation.” Of course, the explanation was simple. Research could have started earlier, the town could have been better placed, and mines could have closed during high avalanche danger.

While miners never developed technological mitigation techniques, what they really lacked was economic might and the political power to force mine owners to value their lives like they valued balance sheets. The owners of the Alta mines chose not to study or mitigate avalanches to protect workers. After all, town boosters and mining companies did not bring miners west so they could become active and permanent members of communities like Salt Lake City. The miners, instead, were cheap and disposable labor.

People understand that modern skiing economically excludes most Americans. Yet histories of skiing’s origins still highlight former soldiers and charismatic ranchers, weaving yarns about men creating something out of nothing. The history of avalanche research suggests the opposite. Federal employees and investors built skiing out of the privileged safety demanded by wealthy winter recreationists and guaranteed by federal land managers. The government chose wealth over poverty and play over work. Simply pointing to American progress and improved technologies (as Koziol wrote) cannot account for these changes. As a result, mining towns turned into ski towns and never broke from the past. Instead, they continued a classist relationship between labor, economy, and safety.

Why do skiers find the cold so sexy?

Barely clothed women cover ski advertisements. But looking through a collection of old marketing materials, this ad for the Catskills from the early 1950s caught my eye. My first thought: “her butt must be so frostbitten.” In it, the woman sat almost entirely naked. Decked out in high heels, white gloves, and a suggestive fur coat, she perched herself on the edge of a snow bench. Sitting there, pants-less and shirtless, I can only assume she suffered from severe frostbite and hypothermia. But barely clothed women coat ski advertisements. So why did this one catch my eye?

Rather than other images that show lots of skin and offer innuendo, this specifically depicted a woman smiling while “bravely” suffering through the pain of severe cold. The role of snow, ice, and mountains distinguished the ad from examples like the Lang Girls and countless other pictures and advertisements where women mostly just show skin. In this case, it felt more familiar to the photo shoot of Kate Upton in Antarctica, where at least half the sex appeal seems to be Upton’s dedication to extreme and dangerous discomfort for men’s pleasure. (Thank you to historian Daniella McCahey for bringing the Upton photo shoot to my attention.) As I’ve pondered this image over the past month, I think the difference between this poster and many other ski imagery points to the importance of warmth in ski advertising; the exotic combination of unique environments, people’s bodies, and the contrast of “fire and ice;” and finally, the capacity for a woman to look at an image and think “parts of that look appealing,” even if they rarely women would rarely think “all of that looks nice.”

Marketers linked sex and skiing from the very beginning. In 1936, Steve Hannagan believed the brand-new Sun Valley resort needed to be advertised “with unusual pictures showing the visual climate of Idaho which suggests sunbathing in three-cornered uncovered ice houses, skiing in shirts tied at the waist, [and] bathing in natural hot water pools in the open.” He followed through. The resort’s first image showed a young man, his shirt stripped off as he wiped sweat from his hair.

Historians love writing about the provocative beginning to ski marketing. For example, in his foundational history of tourism in the West, Hal Rothman wrote that Hannigan “bombarded Americans with the image of a young man, muscular, handsome, and stripped to the waist, skiing through the powdery snow of Sun Valley.” Building on Rothman’s work, in her book Ski Style, historian Annie Coleman wrote about how the “opportunity to display fashionable bodies” at ski resorts “highlighted women’s traditional roles as… sexual objects.” Meanwhile, “the dating and après-ski sociability… expanded the meanings connected to Alpine skiing” while creating opportunities to appreciate skiers’ bodies. Hannigan’s ads tapped into something more, however. They highlighted the exotic pleasures of a seemingly impossible natural experience. A place should be hot or cold, so when skiing in the West still remained unknown to most of the world, skiers wondered, what would it be like to experience both at the same time.

Within the humanities, a field called queer ecology has driven scholars to examine the relationship between physical pleasure in human-environmental relationships. So, what might we discover by attending to the pleasure (or displeasure) that these advertisements depict? I think by focusing on the pleasure of exotic weather that was largely impossible in developed urban centers, we find an intriguing link between skiing and sex, which also links people to mountains, snow, ice, and sun. At least this was true for visual media that (unlike the Catskills advertisement) avoided promising complete domination of mountains and women.

Skiing constantly reinforced heteronormativity. But the relationship between temperature, snow, and semi-nude bodies tied the desire and pleasure of skiing, the bodily pleasures of sex, and the physical experience of temperature together into an exotic physical experience, impossible in urban areas with more stringent social expectations. This is not to say that skiing, or these posters, constitute a queer act. (Suggesting this “queers” skiing is going too far.) Nevertheless, the Sun Valley ad and the Concord ad (which I wrote more about in “Summer Sun and Winter Fun”) suggest that “the hedonistic desires of both men and women” have played a central role in ski culture, even if power largely resided in the hands of men.

         The exoticism of bodies that were both hot and cold became a key way that skiers found pleasure in mountains, wind, and snow. The draw of ads like the shirtless man and the bikini-clad women did not simply sell sex, they reflected a specific physical addiction that severed as a foundational pursuit in the history of skiing. Cold skin, warm sun, sweating bodies, adrenalin from descending – these were not just signifiers. These interplays promised new types of pleasure that were (at least in theory) impossible in other settings. For example, while men wanted to be the Sun Valley model, women also wanted him. Meanwhile, the Concord ad offered both men and women the promise of athletic and mostly naked bodies in exotic spaces. In the process, skiing passively challenged sexual norms through the vital role of specific environments in the pursuit of sexual pleasure. These images offered an acceptable space for this type of playful encounter for both men and women.

These photographs from a 1948 issue of Life, offer a non-advertisement example of the theme of “fire and ice.” In both images, the caption highlighted the relationship between cold temperatures and feeling warm. In the first,  Anna von Hoomissen was described as eagerly descending into the ski hut, looking to warm up. If she were truly so cold, rolling her sleeves down or wearing a hat would have been a good first step. Regardless, the image offered more than a woman as “eye candy.” Von Hoomissen was not passive, she walked toward the viewer. The photographer promised a visceral feeling for male readers by wrapping their arms around a cold girl (the pigtails depict von Hoomissen as precariously child-like) and warming her – once again, contrasting hot and cold. Furthermore, while the power dynamic is uneven, women likely found parts of the concept attractive. Many people associate the concept of pressing bodies together next to a warm fire appealing, especially around new or old friends. Studies out of Germany and Poland even suggest that these physical experiences are capable of lifting moods and combatting common winter experiences like seasonal depression. That said, many reflected a one-sided pleasure that, while exotic, still relied on women’s bodies as passive objects of men’s desire.

The second picture, for example, promised little physical pleasure. With the women posing and looking off to the side, the photo offers little hint at what they would do next. In other words, while the image of Hoomissen, the Concord ad, and the Sun Valley ad all offer components of motion that link the viewer to the model, these two are depicted as directionless, with no active role. As a result, while the heat of the sun and the “twenty-eight-degree” weather contrasted in an exotic and potentially enticing promise, the image suggested that for men skiing was a voyeuristic experience. The role of pleasure and transgression specific to the mountains disappears in favor of a far more common experience of men leering. That said, the women do not seem particularly cold. In fact, the photographer highlighted beach-like activities on the mountain.

So, with all of this, what do we make of the Catskills ad? The woman in the advertisement is not completely static. Rather, she seems to lean forward, inviting the viewer to step toward her. Her enticement almost suggests that she is a femme fatale. The artist also suggested a different outcome than other images. While the advertisements and von Hoomissen promised the prospect of mutual (if uneven) pleasure in an exotic place, the Catskills image suggested little contrast. Nothing suggests warmth in the image. Even the color scheme is crisp blue and white. The result was an image, that along with the word “MASTER” at the top, suggested something closer to domination. The point stopped offering sexual transgression, closely linked to environmental processes, and rather highlighted the control of a woman who happily suffered through discomfort for the watcher’s enjoyment. (A type of “normal” transgression.)

Parts of this history offer potential ways forward, while others demonstrate the violent aspects of skiing’s sexual history. There might very well be something redeemable in the motif of skiing, temperature, and bodily pleasure. The specific role of Alpine environments highlights a relationship too rarely associated with desire. At the same time, building these desires into a culture of consent would prove difficult in a place already obsessed with domination (whether it be mountains or women). As the Catskills poster demonstrates, the process can easily slide into narratives and promises of physical control. Nevertheless, embracing these pleasures could, and should, prove valuable in tying people to at-risk environments and increasingly suspect weather in the face of climate change.

From Bombing to Shredding: The development of metal skis may never have happened without the military-industrial complex

Howard Head was an average-sized man with a shiny bald head and ears that stuck out from his head, as though he were pushing them forward to better hear someone. He was also a famous man. At least, his skis and tennis racquets were famous. But sitting in the Archive Center at the National Museum of American History, I began to trace a different story. Along with thousands of papers detailing a happy, creative, and hardworking man, I began to develop a more corporate narrative that departed from the endless articles praising this man.

Head did not begin his career in the sportswear industry. Rather, he was a Harvard-educated engineer, who built his skis based on (admittedly) innovative military technology – his method came from some of the deadly warplanes of all time. His papers reveal this far more serious man, who understood mechanical and chemical engineering and who felt comfortable working with global corporations. So, what happens when we tell a story of Howard Head the businessman, not just the inventor?

It is not a secret. Our world thrives off World War II’s wartime innovation. And skis are not the only outdoor technology to benefit from it. New ski bindings, GORE-TEX, nylon and so many others were first invented for war. But skis are a little different. These weren’t invented to keep soldiers safe and warm – they came from technology meant to search and destroy.

So, how can we balance these opposing stories of Howard Head, the fanciful inventor, and the wartime engineer? What does it mean for the stories we tell about skiing’s past? And what does it mean for the soul of skiing?

Howard Head, posing for a playful picture of him with an early model of Head Skis.
(Elf.Agency)

Head designed the first popular metal ski. His “legendary aluminum sandwich ski,” one biographer raved, “played a critical role in transforming a small elitist sport into the booming recreational ski industry.” Easy to edge, pleasant to turn, comparatively light, and difficult to break, by the standards of the forties and fifties the original Head ski effortlessly carved into the snow. It didn’t twist under pressure, and its lightness let it float. It stands to reason they were a revelation.

The stories I found in his personal papers described an affable and spirited man – and there are many stories to back it up. For the most part, these letters came from a collecting initiative by the museum. In 1989, the Smithsonian Institute began collecting Head’s skis and papers. But Head hadn’t preserved all his models. So, the museum advertised. They asked for skis and stories from anyone willing to share. Enthusiastically, people replied in droves. They sent in their ski models and shared their stories. For friends and strangers alike, it was a chance to reminisce about their memories, about the good old days of skiing.

Head was still alive when the project started and seems to have reached out to old friends. Cliff Taylor, a longtime ski instructor, responded with an amusing tale describing his harrowing journey down Tuckerman’s Ravine in 1948.

There was a light chuckle hidden in his words, as if you could see his smile as he reminisced with his old friend. Setting the scene, he remembered his steep ascent up Mt. Washington. Meanwhile, Howard Head watched, sitting comfortably at the bottom. Then, Taylor spun his yarn.

“I proceed to put my skis on, and proceeded to pick up speed before dropping over the overhanging lip of the Ravine. My plan was to make 4 giant slalom turns, but after the forty-foot drop off of the lip, my speed was so great that I never got a chance to make even a second turn… You were elated and so was I, because the 1st Head Skis proved to have good edge control at high speeds” (emphasis original).

There is an irony here. A subtle roast lost to those who didn’t know Head. He may have been a ski innovator, but at the time Head was a novice skier. He only made his first turns the year before. In fact, the ski came from his frustration. He didn’t like that he was bad at the sport, and like all good athletes blamed his equipment. Until later years, he was by all accounts still a mediocre skier in the late forties. Bluntly, Head lacked the finesse needed to test the skis.

A picture of Tuckerman’s from the late 1930s, about a decade before Cliff Taylor tested out the skis. (Backcountry Magazine)

Finding a short autobiography in another folder, Taylor’s story went from charming to comical. In 1947, it turns out, Head went to Stowe, Vermont for the skis first ever on-snow test. Even with the tests,” he remarked, “every ski broke before the week was over.” Needless to say, it was not the best showing.

To his luck, the snow was variable, meaning he tested them in various conditions. Over the course of the week, the skis took on fresh snow and breakable crusts, crunchy eastern ice and ragged moguls. The skis may have broken, but they still received good reviews from the instructors who tested the skis. It least that is how he remembered it forty years later. The skiers may have felt differently when the skis split under their feet. Regardless, we can only assume Taylor, who lived in the region, knew how dangerous the test run truly was.

People who never knew Head sang his praise. In a letter accompanying his pair of 1957 Head Masters, Howard Siegle wrote to the National Museum of American History thankfully exclaiming that (in his view), “we all owe an unmeasurable debt to the foresight and inventive genius of Howard Head.”

Siegle wasn’t Head’s only fan. At the Archive Center, Box 13 is filled with folder after folder of people who wrote in, hoping the museum would choose their skis for the collection. It seemed a small space in which they could attach themselves to one of their ski hero, even if it was only through a simple piece of equipment. Often calling it an honor, they seemed to feel that even if their names went unmentioned, their passion for skiing might continue onwards, tied to the archive of skiing’s past. With them, the potential donators tried to convince the collectors, writing their thoughts and feelings about the skis – they were unanimously good.

These letters, the essays written, and the exhibits that celebrated him were all well deserved. But the history of the technology, rather than the mythological man, tells a different story. One that is far more uncomfortable, because it ties the most important improvement in ski technology’s history to the mechanical and chemical technologies from World War II that were developed to kill large numbers of people – quickly.

Head’s story usually starts after the war. In 1947, Howard Head, the founder, and creator of Head Skis quit his mid-level position at Glen L. Martin Company, an airplane manufacturer to make skis. Usually, these stories explain that he was a riveter (like Rosie). Ski writers describe the man as a “lifelong tinkerer.” The term is never said, but the implication is clear, these stories imply that he was just another working-class fellow. Even the finding aid to the Howard Head Papers embraces these keywords to carefully tie the man to a certain class – a class that matches the can-do attitude of the iconic ski bum.

This cliche is common throughout ski history, where upper-middle-class and upper-class industry members are sold as “down-to-earth” and relatable, lest someone confuse them with the wealthy skiers who dominate the industry. But, at least with regards to Head, the claim quickly disintegrates with only a cursory look through his papers.

The classic poster of Rosie the Riveter (History.com)

Combing through the Howard Head Papers, it is clear that Head was anything but a “tinkerer,” a simple riveter, or working class. Rather, he was the son of a Philadelphia doctor, the product of elite private education, and an engineer with a degree from Harvard. With this pedigree, he certainly was above the position of riveter. Instead, he overlooked significant portions of the development and manufacturing process at the Martin L. Glen Baltimore plant. As he described it at the time, his job required “a technical familiarity with all parts and features of an airplane.”

An image of the patent for a 1954 version of Head ski. You can see the “honeycomb” model in the drawing of the core, on the right.

Head’s voice is sometimes hard to parse in his early letters. In part, this reflects the fact that he mostly saved business-related correspondence. It turns out letters related to engineering, investment, and marketing are not where he embraced his inner novelist. (That drive didn’t come until old age.) Instead, the language was gray, terse, formal, and (of course) businesslike. Yet the cheerless prose offers a clear window into the development of skis as a business – not as a hobby turned profession. And through them, we can see what was actually happening at the time, not simply his and others’ fond memories from a half-century later.

Head was part of the large-scale war effort to build and improve warplanes at Glen L. Martin, which was one of the most important – and easily one of the most destructive – manufacturers of the time. The company was reasonably well known. Along with being featured in the famous propaganda film Bomber, the company designed and built the famed B-26 Marauder, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, as well as the Silverplate, which was used to drop the “Little Boy” and the “Fat Man” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In total, the company made over 2,000 planes throughout the war, received more value in government contracts than all but thirteen other corporations, and due to the nuclear bombs were directly related to the two most deadly attacks in world history.

Part of Glen L. Martin’s unique technology was a technique that used a honeycomb structure to create strong wings with minimum materials – in the process strengthening the plane without increasing the weight. They then bound the wings together through a process involving high pressure and high heat, in a process reducing the drag created by rivets. While the planes used aluminum honeycomb designs in the wings, Head adopted this same model for skis, though he choose to use lightweight plywood. (The use of wood was also used on the interior of planes for floors and walls.) Head then played metal around this airy frame, using the same seeling method as Glen L. Martin. Much as the lack of rivets reduced drag, the lack of rivets, screws, or nails mean that the bottom of the ski could remain flat, and slide evenly over the snow.

Here you can see Howard Head cutting the honeycombed wood that was used in his skis. Finding honeycombed plywood that could be cut at an angle was a long process that involved him reaching out to a number of different suppliers used by plane manufacturers.

Head, admittedly, was not the only one to use aircraft technology to make skis. While he was the most successful, both Tey Manufacturers (who also invented the first snowmaking machine) and Vought Aircraft Corporation, also used wartime aviation technologies to make metal skis. Meanwhile, Dow Chemical (who also invented STYROFOAM® during the war) created a single-piece magnesium-based metal ski, based on a development process that was once again designed for airplane wings.(Magnesium would late play a key role in other companies’ forays into metal skis.)

Howard Head cannot (and should not) be held responsible for the development of these technologies. He did not invent them, and expecting him to refuse both services and work in a war-time factory would be an unrealistic expectation of someone living at the time. Yet, he did profit off it. And many of us reap the benefits of this technology.

Studying technology moves us away from romanticized visions of skiers’ encounters with untouched powder and pristine wilderness. Deep dives like this also highlight how skiing was not simply founded off the back of perceived war heroes like Pete Seibert (who founded Vail). Rather, the role of the military in skiing is far more violent.

The technological side of skiing was developed by ambitious engineers, from highly educated backgrounds, who were most often associated with the founding years of the military-industrial complex. Stories like these suggest that the nostalgic “mom & pop” ski areas were not the central drivers in the rise of skiing. Whether talking about Sun Valley, Aspen, Stowe, or Whiteface (all founded by the rich and famous with the backing of corporate entities), the development of skis, or the production of snow machines, skiing’s history is much more industrial than common memory suggests.

Centering the war-time technology skiing relied on, and highlighting the death these technologies wrought, doesn’t serve the nostalgic narrative that many others have traced. But, it does hint that maybe skiing’s declensionist narrative is misplaced. It is not that skiing turned corporate in the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, people just finally noticed.


Skiing Snodgrass

One ski slid in front of the other. I was touring up Snodgrass in Crested Butte, slowly gaining altitude on a road that was packed solid by ski tracks. Moving up well-trod paths on skis is a unique and underappreciated feeling. It is comparatively easy, and with calmness comes time to think.  It is while skinning and hiking that I do my best thinking. The activities aren’t mindless or mindful. Rather, they drive insight and creativity.

Locals go to Snodgrass to exercise, train, and simply get out in the sun. But they also describe the place as a sacrificed part of the wilderness. The idea goes that Snodgrass gets overrun so that other places remain untouched. There is a disappointment in the idea, but there is also an acceptance that it is the best option in the face of a rush of new backcountry skiers. Interestingly, the sacrifice often has less to do with its ecology and with animal populations than it does with experience.

Yet, while skinning and thinking and thinking and skinning, it seemed to me like Snodgrass was one of the most beautiful places in the world. Rather than trampled and destroyed, it felt well-loved. I moved on the tracks of hundreds of other people pursuing the same basic pleasure. The land was not an abstract idea of wilderness, it was a place full of people who had collectively agreed to keep it in a certain state that served human purposes but left other forms of life relatively undisturbed, and which concentrated impacts on a comparatively small space.

The view of Crested Butte Ski Resort from Snodgrass. The picture was taken by the author on January 17, 2022.

Since the origins of the movement in the 1970s (sometime around when “backcountry” overtook “touring” as the sport’s most frequent name) places like Snodgrass have served ambiguous purposes. For skiers past and present the turn towards the backcountry was an ode to a nostalgic past before chairlifts, snow machines, grooming machines, and crowds overtook ski areas. Before 1936, there were no lifts of any sort within the United States, and as late as 1960, chairlifts were still a treat, only found at region’s biggest and best-funded ski areas. But as skiing industrialized, many felt the best part of the sport was slipping away.

Over time, this also led to a sense of ownership over non-developed lands – places where athletes could use skis to experience wilderness and to conquer mountains without the help of machines. As historian Mark David Spence demonstrated in his 1999 book Dispossessing Wilderness (book here) the idea that National Parks represent a primordial nature was fabricated through the creation of national parks. Rather than preserving “primordial nature,” early parks such as Yellowstone or Glacier National Park were built through the active removal of Natives from these lands. The expulsion of Native people was of course at gunpoint. Expanding on this argument in his 2003 book Crimes Against Nature (book here), historian Karl Jacoby showed how Natives, Blacks, and poor-whites access to these spaces were regulated while wealthier people whose goals were recreation or scientific extraction were welcomed in.

The desire for outdoor recreation and the way it has manifested in recent years was not inevitable. The late-historian Hal Rothman has contended that by the 1970s (for this article right around when backcountry skiing took off) people stopped consuming sport or environments, rather they sought “experience.” Experience, he explained, came with a type of social cache that increasingly played a key role in various social and class circles within America. The wealthy could return to their respective metropolis and tell the story of how radically different the wilderness was then the city. Meanwhile, the ski bum (and to some extent other locals) could tell stories about the wild and empty terrain they skied – a conversation that was (and is) almost universally steeped in biocentrism. (For more on backcountry skiing, experience, and class reach out to historian Alex Miller, who is an expert in the history of Alpine touring.)

Dolores LaChapelle was a powder skiing icon, as well as being the philosophical voice for biocentrism and backcountry skiing

As Jonathan Thompson recently pointed out in an article (read here) for Writers on the Range, has led to fights between backcountry skiers and conservation battles. Even when things like wildlife protection only removed small bits of terrain from backcountry access, the most extreme supporters of the sport would at times fight back, going as far as hiring prestigious law firms to sue federal agencies.

Historian Michael Childers wrote in his book Colorado Powder Keg (book here) about the long history of legal battles between ski areas and environmental groups who wanted to preserve lands for flora and fauna. A recent fight in the Tetons suggests that some backcountry skiers, even if they reject the technology-driven experience of in-bounds skiing, fell into the same legal battles as their fellow skiers. In many ways, because they rejected technology, they presumed their recreation is a low-impact activity. This brings us back to Snodgrass.

When I got to the top of Snodgrass, the view off the backside was beautiful. But meeting people at the top also had perks. The space was confined, and it was shared, and there is no reason we can’t learn to value these experiences over an obsession with and a feeling of ownership over more distant spaces. Acknowledging in day-to-day life that these places were not and are not truly wild can go a long way towards building this type of community and culture. People do not need skiing and they do not need backcountry access. Skiers would be better off striking the word “need” out of their vocabulary, it might give some much-needed perspective.

The largely avalanche-free terrain on the edge of Snodgrass certainly suffers from overuse. It is not a utopic space – and it never will be. What Snodgrass is, is a beautiful example of people sharing a space. There is no illusion while skiing there that the land was never and continues to be unoccupied and there is a much-needed radicalness in accepting that the relationship between people and Snodgrass and people and things like wilderness areas are not that different.

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Making Artificial Snow Natural

He likely had to wait. Perhaps he sat at Boyne Mountain Resort, sipping an Irish coffee with his feet up by the fire and a book in hand. Or maybe he was from the area, and he spent his free time developing film for other projects. It snows a lot in Michigan, but it doesn’t snow every day, and he undoubtedly wanted some fresh flakes. Eventually, however, snow fell. A white winter blanket covered Michigan, and Paul Ryan could finally trek out into the snow and take some pictures of winter in Michigan – specifically, his job was to take pictures of skiing.

“Michigan’s WInter” by Paul Ryan, Ski magazine, 1968.

In 1968, Ski magazine published a photo essay called “Michigan Winter” by Paul Ryan. Considering the purpose of the essay, his photos were surprisingly sparse of skiers. Instead, Ryan’s camera pulled him towards objects with high contrast. In his eye, dark blacks and browns stood out sharply from the brilliance of fresh sparkling snow. At the same time, the straight lines of trees broke up the otherwise pearly landscape, sectioning off the hill into long and thin sections of white.

Ryan was also enamored by rime ice and by the snow that froze to it. The trees he photographed were coated white. Sticking to the trees, while laying calmly on the ground, his pictures demonstrated the playfulness of snow. As people perused the magazine (inevitably spending more time on his inspired pictures than his terse and stagnant prose) they could not help but appreciate how the snow in Michigan settled in vertical, as well as horizontal ways. Deep in trees, the photos reminded me of a recent film “Treeline,” where skiing, it seems, was simply a catch, allowing the eye and soul to wander into a different world, with different rules, and a different way of being.

Nature photography, one would think, should stand in stark contrast to the image on the next page. There, Ryan offered an image of a snow gun. The accompanying text read, “Man’s inventiveness cakes trees with snow when nature neglects it. Clear skies and crisp cold bring out the snow guns, which are standard equipment at many Michigan ski areas. This assures consistent snow cover and a long season.”⁠ Yet, the image did not quite match the technological optimism of the caption. When he framed the snow gun, he did not do so without an appreciation for the technology. Rather, he avoided techno-optimism by diminishing the technological aspects of snow machines. In other words, he did not depict snow machines as oppositional to nature.

When he developed the photos, he carefully placed the snow gun. Ryan directed his camera towards the tree (rather than the ski slope). He placed the small black nozzle diagonally, almost perfectly parallel to the branch below it in the image. The direction the snow sprays pulls the viewer’s eye from the bottom left to the top right of the image. In the process, the eye also tracks the directionality of the branch. The relation of this image with those before reinforces a similar mystic portrayed in the previous shot. Ryan, rather than pitching the snow gun as technological, man-made, and as oppositional to the forest he had previously photographed, he integrated it into the landscape. For him, the gun was a beautiful addition to the glade behind it. Rather than separate from nature, this environmental technology was one-in-the-same. 

“Michigan’s Winter” Paul Ryan, Ski magazine, 1968.

While seemingly benign, the image took an almost political stance within ongoing debates about whether artificial snow was natural. In the earliest accounts, reviewers suggested that the snow “felt like the real thing.” This idea of manufactured snow continued. For example, in 1957, Larchmont Industries’ chief salesman William A. Walsh wrote an article in the American Ski Annual. There, he exclaimed that “man-made snow is real snow!” He continued this call within the professional and scientific world, stating in a 1974 paper published in the Eastern Snow Conference proceedings the exact same thing. “Man-made snow is real snow.” (He used this phrase so much it almost became a working catchphrase for him.) In both articles, he defended his claim by referring to the weather. To his point, as avalanche experts were studying in the West, weather events influenced man-made snow in much the same way as they influenced real snow. Once it lands on the slope, “the water continues to freeze, evaporate, or drain off after deposition, depending upon the temperature, humidity and wind velocity.” But others disagreed.

In contrast to Walsh and Ryan, meteorologists and backcountry skier Jim Steinburg recently wrote, artificial snow is more like “sleet” than real snow. Steinburg’s argument suggests that despite Walsh’s passionate battle to convince scientists that manufactured snow was in fact real, many disagreed. Often, the public sided with those like Steinburg.

Magazines and newspapers offer useful places to trace this development. In images and discourse were more likely to sway the public than scientific debates over what qualities define something as real snow or fake snow. After all, when people argued about the difference between these two types of snow, they largely relied on intellectual distinctions that were as dependent on the social production of knowledge as they were on the material reality of frozen water. The evidence these scientists explored is vague. Snow comes in many different shapes and qualities. When snowflakes are no longer a true snowflake was an arbitrary line, not a material fact. As a result, the depiction of snowmaking tells us more about how people thought about manufactured snow than they do about how natural the snow truly was.

Snowmaking, New York Times, 1950.

Most images depicting snow guns showed snow machines in opposition to nature. For example, this 1950 article from the New York Times showed pipes, stands, and hoses. In addition, in the top right corner, a man has depicted tinkering with one of the machines. Placed within an open space, the slope, the people, and the fences at the top of the run at Big Boulder all stand in contrast to the undulations of the slope and the irregular shape of trees and forest. The image suggested that the machines were separate from nature, rather than included in it.

Snowmaking, Washing Post, 1978.

Jumping forward, a 1978 picture in the Washington Post suggests that newspapers continued to favor the distinction between snow machines and natural snow, rather than working to integrate them in skiers’ minds. In this case, the photographer showed people, snow guns, and chairlifts, with one lonely tree stranded in the center of the slope. Whether to celebrate or to critique the technological process of snow creation, with images like these the media generally highlighted the technology’s distinct industrial qualities compared with the romanticized nature many skiers craved.

Ryan’s photographs are so interesting because they stand in sharp contrast to the more common imaginary regarding snowmaking. He avoided images of a snow gun blowing white plumes onto a clean-cut and straight slope. In contrast, visually burying the machine in the woods made them a part of the theoretically natural landscape in which ski resorts were embedded.

Ryan’s images offer two insights into the standing of technology in the North American ski industry in the late 1960s. First, the photo essay suggests that ski areas (presumably either Boyne or the Department of Tourism in Michigan paid for this article) were still struggling over the role of snowmaking on their resorts and in their advertisements. In other words, the cultural significance of snow guns on the experience of skiing – at least in the Midwest – was still up for grabs. So, highlighting snowmaking capacities was key. At the same time, they were deeply concerned with how this technology was highlighted. Ryan worked to make the composition match that of his other images, thereby tying it into a larger natural landscape in Michigan.

The second lesson is more about Michigan than about snowmaking itself. By 1968, much of the country knew that the most visited ski areas in the country were in Vermont, and increasingly they were aware that western resorts, such as Sun Valley, Vail, and Aspen had the best skiing in the nation. As more people skied, as snow machines brought skiing closer to cities, and as skiing technology, grooming, and snowmaking meant that more people could consider themselves expert skiers, Michigan’s small hills were increasingly unattractive to people outside the state. As a result, part of what the image suggested was that Michigan was still a place of natural wonder. Skiing, even in the Midwest, could connect people to nature, even as they worked to modify nature in technological and productive ways.

While small, these images tell us a lot about the way snowmaking is understood in the present day. While magazines and newspapers often highlight these machines as technological, in places like the North American West, the guns are often tucked away in trees, and when possible, even removed when not in use to keep from ruining the ambiance of the slopes. In effect, this battle is still going on, and it may become increasingly important as resorts suffering from climate change work to prove they can still offer the same experience of nature, even as the environment increasingly fails them.

Hiking Up a Cyborg

The modern ski mountain is a cyborg. Hiking up the Ute Trail on Aspen Mountain the other day, I couldn’t remove the idea from my head. Among academics, the term holds great weight. It is associated with an influential essay by Donna Haraway named “A Cyborg Manifesto.” There, Haraway uses the concept of a cyborg to call on people to deconstruct the rigid boundaries between human and animal and human and machine. For ski resorts, it deconstructs the distinction between human technologies and natural realities. Much as Haraway argued we are all more than human. In conjunction with that claim the ski mountain, is more than a mountain.

People who write about the environment tend to write about hybrid landscapes. These spaces blend the distinction between human made space and natural space. It has been used to great effect. The concept of the hybrid brings clarity to spaces like the Pacific Crest Trail which are not so much access to an undisturbed nature, so much as they are spaces where human footprints, cultural expectations, and political calls for conservation meet thereby constructing the physical space and the meaning people derive from hiking on it.

While I have called artificial snow “cyborg snow,” I had never paused to think about the mountain itself. In part, this is because the effects of permanent technological implants are more difficult to observe during the snow-clad winters. But hiking along the Gent’s Ridge chair lift, the bulldozers and snow guns, the retention ponds and abandoned hoses, and the crab grass and dandelions all demonstrated to me how intentionally and unintentionally the mountain has changed and been changed. Further, it will be forever changed, if and when humans abandon it. For me, this permanence distinguished the cyborg from the hybrid. Ski resorts are more than mountains.

I’ve hiked this hike before. Every summer Sunday, Aspen holds a bluegrass show at the summit of the mountain. When my parents and I are both in town, I have begun hiking the trail for exercise before meeting them at the Sun Deck, for what (at least this time around) turned into beer, pizza, grilled cheese, fries, and some casual conversation with myriad Texans. But before the beer, I had to walk up. Ignoring my audiobook, I began thinking about the desires that injected new technologies and new ecologies into the seemingly unchangeable mountain-scape I was ascending.

It seems that every part of the ski area is mediated by human desires. For example, water pipes, used for snowmaking, are deeply submerged into the rock and dirt. The space on which we ski and on which trees grow are now part metal. The very composition of the mountain’s minerals, density, and purpose has changed. With hydrants popping out of the ground, this hydrological web works like a superhero’s arm that miraculously turns into a gun, a senser, or a laser. True, water hydrants lack the fantastical abilities of Nebula (Guardians of the Galaxy) or Cyborg (from D.C. comics). But they are more fantastical than they seem. Pressurized water, hidden underground, and sprayed out of a nozzle to make snow at one point could have qualified as science fiction. For skiers hoping to ski through and past the climate crisis, it may once again become just that.

The base of Gentleman’s Ridge Chair Lift

While snowmaking is relatively new, only emerging in 1950, and only meandering west in the mid-1970s, ski areas have long modified and mitigated the outer layers of the mountain. People often think of these changes as temporary. For example, while I often think of nature reclaiming spaces. Insistently and incessantly, I remind people that it will be there after them. But I had to rethink the role of nature. In part, I had to pay attention to specific pieces of it, to the composition of plants, and access to sun. This walk called out to me. It told me that much like people who ingest a toxic chemical, even if most of it is eventually washed out, the person’s composition, their bodily reality, is forever changed. Recovery is never complete. This, in part, was Haraway’s point.

Meeting people’s desire for consistent snow has remade the ecology – and, as such, biology – of the mountain. This process started early on. Sun Valley, the first ski resort, learned their very first year that Alpine meadows of flowers and brush were mediocre surfaces for the collection of snow. Part of the reason they could not open until after New Year’s that year was because of poor slope preparation.

Other resorts did not make the same mistake. In the 1940s, in an attempt to solve the East’s snow problem, Mohawk Mountain in Connecticut tried laying down hay in order to better insulate the snow from the warm ground. Doing so was expensive – and it didn’t work great. But it was just one early variance of many future schemes. By 1950, ski resorts all over the country began realizing that summer maintenance was key to winter success. And the more permanent a solution, the more the very nature of the mountain changed, the more dramatic the shift in ecologic make up was, and often the more productive the solution was.

Even before the days of snowmaking, publications by Colorado Ski Country, USA demonstrate a continuous attempt by mountains to improve conditions by remaking the surface of the mountain. These publications were sent to individuals, ski clubs, and travel agencies. In the days when there was little immediate information and little press coverage for Alpine improvements, these pamphlets were ways for resorts to boast about their slopes and facilities. But first and foremost on every ski area’s mind was snow. And, almost every year throughout the 1960s, at least half the ski hills boasted that they had leveled key slopes, removed protruding stumps, and laid new sod, all to create a smooth surface for snow accumulation and to prevent erosion as rain and sun eventually melted the snowpack away.

Closeup of an Alpine wildflower.

Looking at the flowers and grass surrounding me, I realized the impacts of these decisions were visible. Far from surface level, this process began to remake mountain ecologies. While mountains post pictures of wonderful wildflowers covering their slopes, the images are rarely of a cut slope. That is not to say that flowers don’t bloom on ski slopes. I paused and stared, smelled, and photographed the many flowers that surrounded me. Nevertheless, dandelion and other weeds now hold dominion over the slopes.

Looking down Copper at the dandelions.

Oftentimes the ski resorts are given a way out from this. For example, on a guided hike my parents took at the top of the resort, they were told how the dandelion seeds are brought up the mountain on people’s shoes. To an extent, this is likely true. But for those of us who hike regularly in the region, there is reason to be suspicious that us, as individuals, are responsible – even if we are complicit. This is because other hikes, of similar steepness and altitude, are largely free of dandelions.

Historian Gregg Mittman has eloquently demonstrated how allergy causing plants tend to follow human disruption. And ski slopes are no different. The plethora of weeds are a result of the suburban lawns and the access roads that Aspen built on their mountain. Like any front yard, crab grass and dandelions must be fought, if other plants are going to be given space to thrive – but the task on a ski slope would be impossible. The wildflowers are now simply visitors in this new ecology ruled by weeds.

Ski resorts are not necessarily evil places. At least not for these reasons. These types of impacts can be seen worldwide. Nevertheless, new plants, new metals, and new water are only part of the many things that make ski areas cyborgs. The sewage systems, electricity, and artificial ponds have all changed the very reality of the mountain. Without extensive surgery these pipes will never come out. Even with extensive human care, the slopes where sod, weed, and wildflower meet will never become the Aspen, Fir, and Spruce Forest that it once was. The impact of the ski industry on their mountains does not end on the level of landscape, it plunges into the mountains core. It changes the mountain’s very reality. And it serves as a reminder that mountain and technology do not fight, so much as they mix, mingle, and coalesce into a new reality.

Bringing the Artic to Sun Valley

(This article is part of a larger series on Indigenous people and ski resorts.)

Resorts are mythical places, and Sun Valley is the origins of this myth making.[1] In the United States, Indigenous people play a central role in building fanciful resorts. By hiring Indigenous people to “play Indian,” American ski resorts used Native people to tie an otherwise European pursuit to the American landscape. The fact that many of those hired would never strap on skis didn’t matter. It was probably better. At least, as far as ski areas were concerned. Regardless, the Indigenous people served as a type of salvage tourism,” selling a supposedly disappearing past with what was still a national fad. Skiing, in turn, became an American sport, so much so that the United States has become a major player in international competitions.

Prestigious American resorts also sold a taste of European high culture. And at middling resorts often hinted at the Swiss, Austrian, or French Alps through architecture, place and slope names, and food and drink. Meanwhile Indigenous people and names routinely appear at ski resorts nationwide. Despite the aspiration to attain Europeanness, no one seems particularly perturbed, confused, or de-engaged from the environment by reminders of the United States’ settler past and present. Somehow Indigenous and European markers sit side-by-side, magically morphed into a single experience of place.

Figure 1 Grand Targhee’s trail map is littered with Native names, terms, and references.

Many ski histories start at Sun Valley. And like the chairlift, the ‘ski resort,’ and the celebration of exclusivity, Sun Valley was the first ski area in the nation to employee Indigenous people to play Indian. In 1937, Sun Valley’s second year of operation, Averell Harriman bought reindeer and transported them from Alaska to Sun Valley in order to pull a sleigh. Harriman believed (and recent studies prove him correct) that feelings associated with Christmas (warmth, family, fireplaces, and sleigh rides) are often as desirable among winter tourists as the desire for sun and warmth.[5] Regardless, Harriman undoubtedly had Christmas in mind – a reindeer pulled sleigh was a clear reference to Santa Claus. Yet, Santa did not drive Sun Valley’s sleigh.

Harriman could have found a pale, bearded man. But he chose not to. Instead, he wanted a Native American man to drive the sleigh. (An interesting choice for a place that intentionally mimicked the Alps.) The man would tie the resort to America – making it clear that while many parts of skiing were European, Sun Valley was also a part of the frontier. This small idea made the resort distinctly American. As a result, with his sleigh, Harriman built a hybrid fantasy that tied Christmas to a pre-colonial, and “primitive,” engagement with the landscape.

Harriman, rather than focusing on race, could have focused on finding a sexy Santa – wherever that man may have been from.

In the fall of 1937, Averell Harriman hired Ernest Ahsook to drive the sleigh. But he was not the only person hired to deal with the reindeer. Indeed, he was part of a team. In a sense, Ahsook was the designated driver. But that did not put him in charge. Rather, a man refereed to in the newspapers exclusively as Bango was the head herder and trainer. Bango, however, was a different type of settler than the people who frequented Sun Valley’s slopes. He was Sami – making him, like Ahsook, Indigenous.

Unlike in Scandinavia, there is no Indigenous tradition of caribou (reindeer) herding or domestication in Alaska. Hence, Bango (who also lived in Alaska) was needed to break, train, and care for the recently wild caribou. Ahsook, in comparison, may or may not have had experience with reindeer herding or domestication prior to his hiring. As a result, it is interesting that when Harriman could have pushed for a theoretically authentic experience of a reindeer pulled sleigh with a Sami driver, he opted to hire a Native Alaskan as a key part of the attraction.

While hiring Bango and Ahsook was a relatively simple matter, getting the reindeer to Sun Valley required carefully choreographed transportation. First, the caribou were flown on transport planes to Nome. From there, they boarded a boat to Seattle. Once again on dry land, the reindeer experienced the classic trip to Sun Valley, taking the Union Pacific from the coast to the Rocky Mountains. It was reported by the Idaho Daily Stateman, that the reindeer had been in captivity since August, although there was no mention of Ahsook. Nevertheless, the article informed readers that Bango and his team had begun training the reindeer before their long trek. Already at least partially domesticated, the caribou, it seems, had a pleasant of a trip – at least as far as captive animals could be expected to have on planes, boats, and trains. However, at Sun Valley the tide turned.

Sun Valley’s management had planned to feed the reindeer alfalfa in place of their native diet of arctic moss. But the reindeer were picky eaters. Refusing to eat the alfalfa, they almost starved themselves. Luckily for them, Bango knew this could be an issue and had the forethought to bring 100 pounds of moss as a backup. Mixing moss with the alfalfa, after weeks the reindeer finally acclimated to the new type of food. But it didn’t matter much for Harriman. The reindeer may have started eating, but they were not done rebelling against their captors. The caribou refused to pull the sled. Bango and his team of trainers were at a loss. Harriman’s hopes of providing a luxurious reindeer pulled sleigh failed. But even without it, Ahsook continued to reinforce the rustic-ness of the lodge. For example, likely to Harriman’s glee, articles circulated the States which joked that Ahsook, who had asked for better lodging, was moving into an igloo. It is not clear where these reports came from. They may have been an early twentieth-century PR blitz by Harriman’s well regarded publicity team. But, while the origins would be nice to know, they are not necessary to understand the role Ahsook’s employer desired. He was paid for his labor, but the reindeer, Ahsook was a commodity. He was there to be (culturally) consumed.

Unlike resorts to come, Ahsook had no direct connection to Idaho as a place. This is not particularly surprising. At ski resorts reality is not the primary concern. More often the opposite is true. Ski resorts like Vail have gone as far as building exchange programs with Disneyland in order to train their staff in the ways of the fanciful. And Sun Valley, like Vail and Disneyland, was intentionally mythical. Harriman brought all modern conveniences together with an image of the American frontier. In the process, he offered something more appealing than reality. It was an escape from the real world.

In the rapidly industrializing United States, Ahsook helped tie Sun Valley down to America’s mythical frontier past. Furthermore, meeting Ahsook, for the many metropolitan visitors to Sun Valley, was an experience. Many had likely never met an Indigenous person – or at least were not aware they had – and few if any would meet an Indigenous Alaskan outside the resort. Ahsook’s employment did not protect the cultural practices of his tribe, but he was still part of a larger process of salvage tourism. And this salvaging of a perceived lost past played an overlooked role in Sun Valley’s (and future resorts) image.


Indigenizing Ski Resorts

Historian Andrew Denning, studying the rise of Alpine skiing in the European Alps coined the term “Alpine modernity.” Slim wood physically binds skiers to the soft white snow beneath. The diminished friction paradoxically linked the skier to the wild, primitive, and rugged Alpine landscape. At the same time, the lack of friction tied skiers to a distinctly modern obsession – speed. In the early 1900s, Alpine skiing turned an old and slow form of transportation into a fast, reckless, and adrenalin filled thrill ride. In the process, Denning demonstrates that the “Alpine wasteland” of the Alps was transfigured, in the eyes of many, into a “winter wonderland.”

Southern Ute Indian Tribe performed a snow dance at Vail Mountain on Jan. 7.

I think Denning’s concept translates well to the United States, but Alpine modernism is a bit different this side of the Atlantic. In Europe, Denning showed how the unsolved paradox paradox of skiing is how skiing downhill has come to rely on the varying technologies used to bring people up the mountain, to manufacture snow, and to build sufficient infrastructures to deal, at times, with thousands of people. Ground lifts, chairlifts, and snowmaking highlighted the technological, not the premodern, side of skiing. As a result, for Alpine modernity to function over a sustained period, it needed to change.

Alpine modernity is fluid, its paradoxical nature shifts constantly to adapt to material changes over time. In the United States, the meaning of technology and modernity versus anti-modernity and “primitiveness” was closely related to westward expansion and the image of the “Indian.” As a result, in the U.S. many ski resorts hired Indigenous people to “play Indian,” in the hopes that this physical embodiment of an imagined pre-technological past could counteract the visibility of technology on the ski landscape.

Recently, Ojibwe historian and ethnographer Katrina Phillips wrote a masterful work called Staging Indigeneity, in which she coins the idea of “salvage tourism.” She writes that “by the late nineteenth century, the growing sentimentalism for the apparently dominated and disappearing wilderness turned native peoples and places into commodities.” (You can find it here. If possible, buy local! Other good options are Biblio.com) Skiing, although far different than the “Indian pageants” that Phillips writes about, partook in this process. Indigenous people were often hired to be commodities. In other words, Indigenous people, as far as the ski resorts were concerned, functioned the same way as snow, skating rinks, skis, and (as Annie Coleman demonstrates) ski instructors. They were all part of the experience for which people paid (Hal Rothman). The hiring of Indigenous people tied skiing to the ideal of wilderness. It also helped people understand ski resorts (which were massive feats of technology and infrastructure) as places where they could engage with the nature. In this way, American skiers embraced the use-value of modern technology, and an anti-modernist romanticism of primitivism.

Despite their roles as commodities, Phillips demonstrates that Indigenous people understood how these tourist towns were using them. And in certain situations, tribes (not just individuals) benefited from this economic interaction. Selling a sanitized version of themselves as Indian (at times) allowed them to maintain cultural practices. This became especially important during termination, when Native nations had to fight to continue their political and geographical existence. Additionally, these people were not forced to engage in the tourist market. Rather, as Erika Bsumek has demonstrated, Indigenous people often sought out settler-colonial markets. While ski resorts willingly and knowingly took part in a national process of cultural genocide, that does not diminish the agency of Indigenous people who worked to resist settler-colonial capitalism through specific interactions with markets. While not all Indigenous people engaged ski resorts in the same ways, this series will serve as a place for me to explore the role of Indigenous people at ski resorts. The first article will explore the hiring of an Indigenous Alaskan man to drive a reindeer pulled sleigh at Sun Valley. The second will explore the decision to advertise snowmaking at Ober Gatlinburg with a Cherokee chief. The rest are left open for future topics.


An Incomplete History of Black Skiers

In 1956, Ebony published an article on Bryce Parks and Floyd Cole. Cole and Parks were Black ski patrollers based out of Denver. And they were likely the first African American patrollers in the nation. The reporter wrote that the two skiers were invited in 1952 to “join the patrol by officials who had noted their skill and proficiency,” and that they “were assigned to duty tours with no thought of racial restriction.” Although it did not hint at where or when they learned to ski, the article praised their skill on the slopes. A subtitle noted that they had rescued over 100 people at Winter Park and Berthoud Pass which were the preferred skiing areas of Denverites at the time. The article continued that they were even awarded the Purple Merit Star (Ski Patrol’s highest honor) after saving a skier’s life. Lauding the volunteers’ accomplishments (all patrollers were volunteers in the 1950s), the magazine offered insights from two of the first Black recreational skiers in the nation. The most interesting statement came from Park.  “Amazingly enough,” he said, “there have been no racial incidents. We’ve had cooperation from everyone. Lots of people we rescue are southerners up for a vacation, and they are very cooperative.” It seemed from the article that the ski slopes – some of the whitest places in the country in all meanings of the word – were miraculously free of racism.

In its early years – the magazine was founded in 1945 – Ebony’s pieces on skiing were generally laudatory. The first article was published in 1949, and it was titled “Skiing: Popular Winter Sport Becoming Favorite with Negro Fans.” According to the magazine, skiing which was rapidly growing in popularity nationwide, was also increasingly appealing to America’s Black middle class. About a decade later, in 1958, Ebony published a laudatory piece celebrating Chet McGuir, a Black skier at Dartmouth. Noting McGuir’s place in one of America’s most exclusive institutions, the article recounted the invitation he extended to Carolyn Morant, a Black student at the equally prestigious Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. Despite only being students, the article was filled with pictures. One depicted McGuir teaching Morant to ski on Suicide Six, in Woodstock, Vermont. To the knowledgeable skier, the implication was clear. Suicide Six was the location of the United States’ first rope tow in the mid-1930s (although it is far to wonder how many readers at the time had a sense of ski history). Iconic and prestigious, the implication was if Black skiers could ski there, why not anywhere? The magazines general reflections on skiing continued. An article in 1960 celebrated Dave Lucy, a Black student from North Conway, New Hampshire. Lucy had formerly skied on the Denver University race team. Furthermore, his hometown of Cranmore, New Hampshire where one of the first ski hills in American was located, enhanced his bona fides as a skilled skier. These first several articles were almost formulaic. They highlighted young Black skiers. They celebrated the sport as increasingly popular to the Black middle class. And, almost universally, the subjects had ties to iconic ski locations, Denver University and North Conway, Berthoud Pass and Winter Park, and Dartmouth and Suicide Six.

Ebony averaged about one article every two years (or every other winter edition) on skiing from its founding in 1945 through 2000. (In comparison, golf was mentioned once every 1.6 years, tennis every third issue, while football and basketball were mentioned multiple times an issue on average.) While skiing certainly did not dominate the magazine, an article every eighth edition does demonstrate some level of consistent interest in the sport by the publication’s journalists and by their readers, for a sport that is mostly white.  Like many of Ebony’s articles, their pieces on skiing were mostly positive. While focused on Black culture and politics, the magazine unabashedly sought out “the zesty side of life.”  Ebony was founded on the premise that “not enough is said about all the swell things we Negroes can do and will accomplish. Ebony will try to mirror the happier side of Negro life – the positive, everyday achievements from Harlem to Hollywood.” The more exclusive aspects of skiing, expensive lodges and cottages, beautiful mountains, and isolated locations, all gave skiing the glamour that Ebony sought to share, while simultaneously demonstrating barriers that were being broken.

Early on, the magazine celebrated individual Black skiers. But as time went on, they also began writing about Black ski clubs. The first article to investigate a group of skiers was a 1962 piece on the Jim Dandy Ski Club of Detroit. Founded in 1958, they were the first Black ski organization in the United States. And though unstated in the article, the organization offered safety in numbers for Black enthusiasts who were passively or explicitly unwelcome at many resorts. This focus continued into the 1970s, as the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), a national organization for Black enthusiasts, began to gain prominence (both in Ebony and nationwide, in a country that had largely come to think of explicit segregation in negative terms).

Park’s 1956 claim that he experienced “no racial incidents” was frequently repeated, although in different words. It became the calling card of ski articles in the magazine. Despite people’s perceptions, and despite skiing’s reputation, overt racism was largely absent on the slopes – at least as far as the journalists and those interviewed were concerned. The party line of Black skiers embraced what Ibram Kendi, in his book Stamped from the Beginning, calls an assimilationist logic. Rather than embrace a philosophy that skiing must change to offer equitable access to ski resorts, ski equipment, and instruction, most of the Black skiers interviewed (although not all) highlighted how easy it was to melt into the Eurocentric ski world. For instance, in an article in 1974, Ebony estimated that there were between 15,000 and 60,000 Black skiers in the United States (which is to say, they had no idea how many Black skiers were in the States). Importantly, the article quotes Art Clay, one of the founders of the NBS. He said, “as more blacks have become middle class, they have found that they have more time and money to spend on leisure interests. In his own words, ‘you don’t want to sit around all winter just because it’s cold outside.’” As he suggested, middle-class Black people understandably wanted to partake in the same type of recreation and vacations as the white professionals they increasingly interacted with.

Economic prejudice became the party line of the NBS and of Black skiers more broadly – at least those interviewed. But threats of violence, explicit exclusion, and overt racism quietly emerged in Ebony and other news sources. In the early years, like in all aspects of tourism, Black skiers (like Jewish skiers) found that many hotels and resorts were “restricted.” For instance, in a 1949 survey conducted by the magazine, of 116 resorts surveyed about whether Black skiers were welcome, 90 responded: 32 qualified acceptance, 35 rejected Black skiers, 4 didn’t know, 8 claimed they were closed or closing, 4 said they had no overnight facilities, 7 gave general info, 3 said yes “but were filled”, 6 said “Filled now, try later.” This type of information was quite normal for Ebony at the time. As Carolyn Finney has written in her canonical book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, one of the magazine’s essential functions was informing Black Americans about where they could safely travel and recreate. But as journalists continued to write about Black skiers, explicit statements about racism were sometimes more difficult to parse.

Clay and many others in the NBS contended that Black exclusion from skiing was the result of class dynamics more than racial dynamics. Ben Finley, another founder, frequently mirrored this sentiment in interviews, highlighting what he saw as a type of economic exclusion. For instance, the following year, Finley was quoted in The Independent, a paper in Long Beach, California. In the interview he suggested that “the sport is prejudiced – but not in the traditional sense.” Finley said, “It’s an economic prejudice… Anyone on the lower level is excluded from skiing because of the expenditure necessary to participate.’” As a result, the issue was not ski culture or the ski industry; rather, the primary enemy was Black poverty. However, not everything was about economics. Finley, Clay, and many others also highlighted the importance of representation. They pushed for more ads with Black people skiing (which Ebony began publishing in later years). And the NBS’ stated mission was (and is) to help find and fund the first Black Olympic skier. Nevertheless, at its root, they argued that the reason more African Americans did not ski was due to the economic realities of American life, which was built on a foundation of inequality, rather than the types of vacations ski resorts sold.

Often, in Ebony, comments on racism in skiing were disguised or hidden but would have been understood by careful readers of the magazine. For example, in a 1965, an article placed a quote by Kert Samples, an instructor in France, at the end of an otherwise benign image. Samples insisted that racism had hampered his career as a skier in the United States. He said, “otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” Yet, the photo, far from depicting Samples’ resentment, focused almost exclusively on the glamour of skiing in France. In another instance, an article focused on Dick Martin, who owned Four Seasons Ski Shop in New York, and ran a successful ski club. The second paragraph in the article begins by stating that “Martin claims his skiers have never run into racial troubles.” Yet the article continues, noting that one skier in the club had “overheard a white skier quip to another: ‘I don’t see any cotton fields around here.’” The statement by the white skier may have been intended to be a harsh “joke.” But we also know jokes of the kind usually come with a specific intent: to convey messages about white supremacy. So, despite Martin’s claim, the lack of “trouble” was likely due to Black skiers avoiding confrontation as much or more than the fact that they were welcome on the slopes. As Black scholars have pointed out, and as many Black people know from personal experience, explicit threats are not necessarily needed to convey a danger. And these types of “jokes” were likely common (and likely are still common) on ski slopes throughout the country. According to Black skiers like the current NBS head Henri Rivers, such forms of not so subtle racism continue. In a recent interview, he noted that despite his qualifications (and unstated his position as the head of the single largest ski club in the nation), he has frequently been passed over when it comes to teaching the highest level racers at his home mountain. He also recounted that even now, he will get “looks” and that “people will say to him ‘I didn’t know Black people ski.” Though the press and Black skiers tend to highlight the ways in which economics restrict people from skiing, reading closely reveals what Anthony Kwame Harrison calls “the everyday racism” inherent in skiing. In skiing’s history, both overt and veiled acts have worked in conjunction with economics to make skiing seem unappealing even to upper-middle-class Black communities who can afford to partake in the exclusive winter sport.

A broader history of Black skiing has not been told to its full extent. Most articles begin the history in the 1970s, with the story of the NBS. Such histories are usually based on interviews with the founders of the National Black Brotherhood, an organization that (fairly enough) tells an intentional and welcoming story of skiing’s past. Interviewing the same people who were interviewed by journalists in the 1970s has resulted in articles that tend to recount a now well practiced story of the organization. Journalistic attention has emerged historically in clusters and in moments in which America was especially focused on racial conflict. For instance, the National Brotherhood of Skiers emerged – and received an outpouring of press – during the Black Power movement. Once again, after the Rodney King beating and riots in the early 1990s, press interest in Black skiing rose once again. And, in the past few years, the rise of Black Lives Matter and the protests over the summer of 2020 initiated a third wave of press attention and discussions of diversity and inclusion in the ski industry. (Since I wrote this article as the Derek Chauvin verdict was being released, it can be assumed that this post fits well within the trend.)

Black skiing deserves a more extensive history. Rather than remarking on the absence of Black bodies in the sport, such a story could focus on the difficulty African Americans had in taking part in it. An in-depth study of historical articles, and the usage of a diverse set of oral histories may reveal elements of the past that do not fit into the clean and well-practiced narratives of the Black skiers who make up the majority of interviews. By diversifying the stories told, and depicting a broader history of Black skiers, it may become possible to demonstrate to the ski industry and ski culture at large that economic investments in Black skiers are not enough. The ski industry and skiers more broadly need to change if the sport is to become genuinely diverse, inclusive, and equitable.


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