The Skiing Diaspora 

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - A ski-equipped postman delivers "Her Majesty's Mail" to Kiandra
  • Photo submitted
  • A ski-equipped postman delivers "Her Majesty's Mail" to Kiandra

"The introduction of the modern lightweight skees has made it possible for all ages and both sexes to enjoy traveling over snow-clad land or ice, breathing in the cool, crisp air and feasting the eyes on the passing landscape and its myriad panoramic charms."

- The Winter Sport of Skeeing, 1905

In case you'd ever wondered, "white planet" — the term I appropriated for a book title in 2011 — was first coined by European adventure skiers in the 1990s to describe the globally scattered but nevertheless cohesive international brotherhood of skiers. The thinking went like this: although widely dispersed around the planet, these folks were bonded not only by a passion for snow, but by an ever-increasing knowledge of — and influence on — each other in this age of burgeoning information and increased travel. While any skier who has travelled and met other skiers readily understands this, what's not always clear is how the various centres of ski culture around the world actually got going. Here we can cue the concept of the "diaspora."

Originally applied to the emigration and eventual global dispersal of Jewish culture from ancient Palestine, the dissemination of modern skiing qualifies as diaspora in the broader sense with which the word has now entered the modern lexicon. From their roots in the Telemark district of Norway, local ski traditions blew like dandelion seeds in the wind to the four corners of the globe during the mid-late 19th century, taking root wherever there was snow. Earlier seeds, of course, had been landing in continental Europe for hundreds of years, but it wasn't until this particular period that they found fertile ground in individuals who would take both the utilitarian and sport aspects of skiing to heart. In the Alps, skiing would be continually refined by various zealots and frequently carried onward across the Atlantic.

Despite these numerous European transplants to North America, however, it was the father of modern skiing himself — Norwegian farmer Sondre Norheim — who introduced the basic turning, jumping, and cross-country techniques to this continent when he immigrated to Minnesota in 1884. While Norheim's influence on the technical aspects of skiing is indisputable, conceptually on this continent he was preceded by fellow Norwegians in California's Sierra gold camps, who, beginning in 1849, fashioned "snowshoes" from four-metre planks for terrifying straight-running races on their days off from mining.

In short order aficionados also delivered skiing to the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, India, Korea, Japan, and the former Soviet Union — all during the same historical window. Why such an explosion during this period? Not surprisingly it was a simple artifact of evolving global culture — the Industrial Revolution and dawning of an era of world travel and massive emigration. Accompanying these tectonic upheavals was a reformation of the way people spent their leisure time (a new concept for straight-laced Victorian minds), a new impetus for recreational pursuits that involved open spaces, nature, peace, and adventure. It was thus only natural that many gravitated toward the ski, a high-profile tool receiving top billing in several grand accomplishments of this modern age of discovery: Nansen's crossing of Greenland; Perry and Amundsen at the North Pole; Byrd, Scott and Amundsen at the South Pole; Shackleton on the Patagonian ice cap.

Once the seeds of skiing had landed in distant snows, how did they thrive? One word: clubs. Almost universally, the story of skiing in a far-flung outpost revolves around dedicated individuals and the clubs that coalesced around them. Take W.W. Naismith, for instance, who, after observing skiing on the continent, introduced it to the Scottish Mountaineering Club in the late 1800s, begetting a fascination with ski transport in the Highlands that persists to this day. Not long afterward the Scottish Ski Club formed under a cloud of cigar smoke in a cluttered laboratory at the University of Edinburgh, with founding members pegging their main intention "to encourage ski-running as a pastime and to promote its development in districts, where it could be of real value, particularly to gamekeepers, shepherds, rural postmen and schoolchildren."

Concurrently, New Zealand ski clubs were pursuing similar objectives, developing "skifields" and hosting competitions. In neighbouring Australia, skiing's roots among various immigrants — particularly Norwegians — saw it develop much as in California a decade earlier. Australian skiing was born on the high plains of the Kiandra goldfields in the 1860s, blossoming on the strength of pioneers like A.B. "Banjo" Paterson and Charles Kelly in the Kiandara Snowshoe Club, the Norwegian Trysil Shooting and Ski Club, and the Telemark Ski Club.

Also as in California, the development of skiing in Oz occurred independently — though chronologically parallel — to that in the outside world, with some of the first racing and jumping competitions in history organized by Australian gold miners. And now these twin plots truly run together. The only genuine ski hero to emerge in California was neither a racer, a jumper, nor even a ski-maker, but a postman. John "Snowshoe" Thompson became famous for his death- and nature-defying mail carries on a 480-kilometre round-trip ski route across the snowbound High Sierra, a genuine legend whose exploits are still recounted. Likewise, ski-equipped runners slogging Her Majesty's Mail into Kiandra and other outposts of Australia's Snowy Mountains were mythologized and immortalized in folklore and books.

If nothing else, the striking similarities of the Californian and Australian ski enclaves demonstrate how the integrity of an idea, a way of life, a culture can survive and thrive in a place far from its origin, fueled only by the passions and beliefs of a dedicated group of individuals. A true diaspora and the very essence of those Euros' modern brotherhood idea: white planet, small world.

Further Reading:

How Skiing Came to the Gatineau, Herbert Marshall. Ottawa Ski Club, 1967.

Lost Sierra: Gold, Ghosts & Skis, William B. Berry. Western America SkiSport Museum, 1991.

Skiing off the Roof... History of the Australian Snowfields, Rick Walkom. Arlberg Press, 1991.

Skisters: The Story of Scottish Skiing, Myrtle Simpson. Landmark Press, 1982.

The Winter Sport of Skeeing. Theodore A. Johnsen Co., 1905. Reprinted by ISHA, 1994.

White Planet: A Mad Dash through Modern Global Ski Culture, Leslie Anthony. Greystone, 2011.

Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, Porter Fox. Rink House, 2013

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.



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