Weather Window: Origin of California Skisport in the Sierra |

Weather Window: Origin of California Skisport in the Sierra

Photo courtesy Mark McLaughlin

California skiing got its start during the 1850s, not as a sport per se, but as a form of transportation over deep snow. Among the first were men like Norwegian immigrant John and#8220;Snowshoeand#8221; Thompson who braved winter storms and avalanche risk to make his deliveries of mail, newspapers and supplies.

The mountainous region of Sierra and Plumas counties has been called the and#8220;Lost Sierraand#8221; due to its remoteness and snowbound isolation during winter. Some old timers in the region insisted the first skis were wooden staves taken from flour barrels, used by a gold miner named Hamilton Ward. Most evidence suggests Norwegians who arrived there during the Gold Rush introduced the concept of skiing. Either way, soon miners were traveling over the snow on carved wooden planks, pushing themselves along with one long pole. After an avalanche in 1853 took the life of a lone miner struggling along without skis, their use grew quickly in the high elevation mining communities.

A report from the Plumas Argus newspaper from March 3, 1857, served notice that skiing was already well established in the northern mountains: and#8220;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 this winter. The snow now lies from eight to ten feet deep, and in Onion Valley, two miles from here, it is 12 or 15 feet deep. It may be a wonder to some of your readers, how people get about where there is so much snow, but it is the easiest thing in the mountains. Nearly all have Norwegian snowshoes. They are about nine feet long, four and one-half inches side, 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.and#8221;

Doctors were soon skiing miles to treat injuries or deliver babies. Residents in snow country skied to work, hauled supplies on skis, and sometimes funerals were held with mourners and pallbearers shuffling over the snow.

There is little documentation of ski racing in California prior to 1859, but there is some anecdotal evidence that the sport was underway. In an interview with John and#8220;Snowshoeand#8221; Thompson published in 1859 by a United States Geological Survey party, Thompson challenged all comers to race him. The earliest centers for straight speed-skiing in the Sierra Nevada were Onion Valley-Saw Pit Flat-Washington Hill in Plumas County, and Newark-Whiskey Diggings-Gibsonville in Sierra County, most of which had laid out down-mountain courses.

There may not be much in the way of journalistic documentation (traveling correspondents usually retreated to the lowlands when winter storms buried the mountains), but in an article titled and#8220;Snow-Shoeing and#8230;to Skisport,and#8221; ski historian Bill Berry wrote, and#8220;There are old-timers’ recollections of speed events having been initiated in Onion Valley of Plumas County in 1855 and then carried to La Porte in 1857. The early races were limited to two men for a posted stake. Over time, the events became and#8216;free-for-alls’ with squads of riders sent away simultaneously.and#8221;

When it comes to the origin of organized skiing and racing for sport, historians and purists have long debated where and when it all began. Australia argues that the world’s oldest ski club did not form in Norway, but sprouted in a short-lived gold mining camp in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales. After newly-arrived Norwegian miners converted some split fence posts into workable skis, and#8220;snow-shoeingand#8221; became popular in Australia’s snowbelt. The and#8220;Kiandra Snow Shoe Cluband#8221; was organized in 1861, the same year Norway’s Trysil Rifle and Ski Club formed. However, the Trysil club did not begin any winter activities until early 1862 due to late snow. The Kiandra Historical Society states that Norway’s venerable Holmenkollen Ski Museum has confirmed their claim as world’s first ski club. The Kiandra club, now known as the and#8220;Kiandra Pioneer Ski Cluband#8221; considers itself the longest continuously operated ski club in the world.

Although the Northern Sierra can claim to be the origin of the world’s oldest competitive skiing, the bragging rights are obviously still up for grabs.

and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin’s newest book, Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports will be released in January 2010. His other award-winning books are available at local bookstores. You can reach Mark at

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