A potted history of the piste

How did they cope without chairlifts? Sally Brookes skis through 150 years of winter tourism

Mankind may not have skied before learning to walk, but it wasn't too long after we stood upright that we were getting down into a tuck position in order to minimise wind resistance on our skis. The earliest skis date back some 4,000 years. Found preserved in northern Russian and Scandinavian bogs, they were used for getting about, rather than enjoyment.

It was 150 years ago that winter tourism kicked off in Switzerland. At about the same time, clever Norwegians invented the first downhill skiing technique, telemark, and the idea of having fun on skis was born. It took another half century before the Austrians worked out a modern ski technique and the first ski lifts were conceived. Today's mass-market ski industry began after World War II, with plastic and metal equipment, chairlifts, passenger jets and apartment blocks making it all possible.

THE OLDEST SKI RESORTS

Austria is where modern downhill skiing began a century ago. One man to thank is Mathias Zdarsky, from Lilienfeld, a small ski area close to the Austrian capital, Vienna. He organised the first downhill ski race with fixed-heel rather than telemark-style skis in 1905. The other is Johannes Schneider, who began as the ski guide at the Hotel Post in St Anton in 1907. He created the sliding turn with skis held parallel that is the basis of the technique still taught today. In St Anton, besides skiing some of the world's oldest downhill pistes, you can learn about skiing at the village museum.

Lilienfeld's ski hill is too small and low by modern standards to offer more than a day's snow fun, assuming good conditions. But, if you do make the effort to visit the local Muckenkogel mountain, you'll be able to feel the history beneath your skis as Zdarsky made the world's first alpine turns on the slopes 100 years ago. In 1906, a special ski train ran from Vienna and was used by the first of the 20,000 skiers Zdarsky taught to ski. It is still possible to make the trip by rail.

St Moritz is the birth place of winter sports holidays. In 1864, the owner of the Kulm hotel bet some English tourists a free stay if they dared to spend the winter there, and the rest is history. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Kulm, which, coincidentally, opened in 1856 and is exactly 1,856m above sea level.

By 1910, around 2,000 guests, mostly British, spent the winter in St Moritz, but ice-skating and the Cresta Run remained the most popular winter sports until the Twenties, with skiing dismissed as "not a serious sport" by the Swiss. That attitude had all changed by 1934, however, when Davos unveiled Europe's first ski lift.

The oldest ski areas in France and Italy are conveniently lift-linked on the Milky Way pass and only a few kilometres apart. Montgènevre is celebrating a century of ski tourism this season; the First International Ski Competition was held there in the legendary Le Prairial stadium on 11 February 1907. The resort will be staging centenary celebrations all season and will reopen the original ski facilities at Le Tremplin, restored for the occasion.

Another French resort, La Clusaz, has centenary celebrations this season. The first skiers arrived here in 1907. Twenty years later, local teacher Monsieur Bertone created a winter sports club, and a primitive ski lift, the télé traineaux, was installed in 1935. In February, a Rétro Ski festival will celebrate everything from wooden skis to the latest kit.

If these resorts don't appeal, spare a thought for trendy Avoriaz which, like the average age skier, is about to hit a mid-life crisis, turning 40 this season. The avant-garde centre will be celebrating its visionary development all winter, pointing out that its pedestrian model and in-tune-with-the-environment perspective have now come of age.

SNOWMAKING THROUGH THE AGES

Long before global warming, America's New England ski areas feared that snow would not fall in time for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. The first artificially made snow was created at Grossinger's Resort in New York, and two years later, Fahnestock became the first ski resort to use snowmaking. It's still open for cross-country skiing.

RACING THROUGH TIME

The Inferno Race is believed to be the oldest surviving ski race in the world. Sir Arnold Lunn, a British pioneer of ski tourism and international ski competition, had staged the first modern slalom race in Mürren in 1921. Seven years later, he organised the first Inferno Race. In his book The Kandahar Story, he writes: "The Inferno remains today the only important Alpine race which is a real test of Alpine skiing, for though there is usually a piste down to Mürren, the rest of the race to Lauterbrunnen is almost always run on natural snow."

The winner of the first race was Harold Mitchell, who covered the 12km course (which descends a massive 2,170 vertical metres) in an hour and 12 minutes. The only woman competitor was Doreen Elliott, who finished fourth despite helping another competitor who had broken a rib. Today, around 1,800 people, some of them aged over 70, take part. The winners complete the descent in around 15 minutes. The next race will be on 20 January.

It's more than 70 years since the Winter Games first staged Olympic alpine events - a downhill and slalom combined - at Garmisch. Next year will mark 40 years since the first Alpine Ski World Cup competitions were staged. It is now the main winter competition for the world's elite racers.

THE OLDEST SKI LIFT IN TOWN

This winter marks the 70th anniversary of the first POMA ski lift at Alpe d'Huez. But the world's first ski lift was probably built in 1906 in Schollach, north of Titisee-Neustadt in the Black Forest. The patented lift was 280m long, with a rather gentle ascent by today's standards. It was powered by a water mill - a renewable energy source that many of the leading ski areas are now beginning to use again.

Only a few years after the first proper drag lifts, Sun Valley, Idaho installed the world's first chairlift, based on a devise designed to load banana crates on to ships. The resort also claims to have invented another ski resort favourite: the hot tub.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Avoriaz (00 33 45 07 40 211; www.avoriaz.com)

Clavière (00 39 01 22 87 88 21; www.comune.claviere.to.it)

Davos (00 41 81 41 52 121; www.davos.ch)

Fahnestock Winter Park (00 18 45 22 53 998; www.roberts-1.com/fwp)

Garmisch (00 49 88 21 18 07 00; www.garmisch-partenkirchen.de)

Lilienfeld (00 43 27 62 52 21 217; www.lilienfeld.at)

Montgènevre (00 33 49 22 15 252; www.montgenevre.com)

Inferno Race (00 41 33 85 68 680; www.inferno-muerren.ch)

Skiing Heritage Magazine (00 13 03 98 71 111; www.skiinghistory.org)

St Anton (00 43 54 46 22 690; www.stanton amarlberg.com)

St Moritz (00 41 81 83 73 333; www.stmoritz.ch)

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