TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series. Stay tuned for the next installment Jan. 10, 2014.
There’s no doubt about it — the 19th century longboard ski racers of Plumas and Sierra counties in California were the fastest humans on the planet.
When snow conditions were right, these early speed demons rocketed down the mountainside at velocities approaching 90 miles per hour. With an intensity often fueled by alcohol, ego, and lucrative cash rewards, early longboard racers pushed speed and sanity to the limit.
Ski racing in the northern Sierra Nevada enjoys a long and colorful history dating back to the 1850s, when some historians believe enterprising miners rode empty ore buckets up the mountain and then schussed down slopes on long skis in an aerodynamic tuck. These down-the-mountain runs led to bragging rights and soon individual skiers were competing against a clocked time. The evolution of these early “snow-shoe” races, from casual competitions among friends to well-publicized events by 1860, with hundreds in attendance, illustrates the rapid growth and popularity of skisport among California’s early mountain communities.
The “Lost Sierra” is a rugged, remote region north of Truckee and snowbound most winters.
But it was also home to gold miners and their families who craved entertainment and competitive sport.
Norwegians who arrived during the Gold Rush spread the concept of skiing as transportation, with winter travelers pushing themselves along with a long pole. Prior to the introduction of skis in California, web-style snowshoes had been the only way over snow. (Skis were known as snow-shoes by the miners, spelled with a hyphen.)
After some adventurous souls decided to take their traveling skis and point them down the mountain for a thrill, “snow-shoe mania” swept through the northern mountains. Gold rush towns with colorful names like Poker Flat, Whiskey Diggings, Rich Bar, Johnsville, and La Porte all sponsored longboard ski teams that would compete with each other for cash prizes reaching $1,000, paid in silver dollars or bags of gold dust.
A report from the Plumas Argus newspaper from March 3, 1857, served notice to “flatlanders” that skiing was well established in the mountains: “This has been the hardest winter within the knowledge of the oldest inhabitant. It is estimated that about 25 or 30 feet of snow has fallen so far. The snow now lies from eight to ten feet deep, and in Onion Valley it is 12 or 15 feet deep. Nearly all residents have Norwegian snowshoes. They are about nine feet long, four and one-half inches wide, shaved thin and turned up in front like a sled runner. By fastening them to the feet about the middle of the shoe and with a pole in the hands for balance, a person can run over the light and new fallen snow at railroad speed.”
By January 1860, Sierra racing clubs were formed in Onion Valley and La Porte with elected officers and codified rules and regulations. Huge financial jackpots for the winners were a big part of the excitement and champions often spent much of their purse on drinks for friends.
In 1867, La Porte’s Alturas Snow-shoe Club announced three days of racing for purses ranging from $25 to $75. The contest drew 42 competitors along with 300 spectators, most of which arrived on their own cross-country skis. This 1867 longboard tournament was heralded as the world’s first downhill ski championship.
The title owns some legitimacy, since no one else was conducting such highly structured downhill racing competitions. Robert Oliver, known locally as “Cornish Bob,” was proclaimed World Champion after he streaked down 1,804 vertical feet in 14 seconds flat — with a maximum speed calculated at 88.8 miles per hour.
During the longboard racing era, victory often relied on the “dope” (the equivalent of modern waxes) that skiers applied to the bottom of their boards. Dope could consist of ingredients such as whale spermaceti (a fatty substance derived from the Sperm whale and first used in candle making), pine pitch, oils from trees like cedar, hemlock and sugar pine, as well as rosin and balsam.
Various mixtures would be cooked and then allowed to cool before being hand-rubbed into the base of the skis. The ingredients and cooking times were considered trade secrets. Dope-makers were so important that champions split their winnings 50-50 with their wax man.
Dope recipes took on descriptive names like “Greased Lightning,” “Breakneck,” “St. Patrick’s Day Dope,” and “Gibsonville Cold Snow Dope.”
Skiers often averaged 75 feet per second, and could cross the finish line at 100 feet per second. During a week-long meet at Howland Flat, Frank Woodward blasted down a 1,950 feet course in just 17 seconds. Fortunately, the presence of portable saloons at the tournaments helped calm racing jitters.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.