published on 10 January 2007 in earth
Man and the mountain
Life on the mountains
The antique populations that used to live at the bottom of the mountains didn’t face them for a personal or a sport challenge as we do now, but only when it was necessary to survive, pushed for instance to procure food and what not. Many times people had to move far from their camps to hunt, research and follow their preys. Many times they had to face misery and dangers to procure food for themselves and for the family and they were frighten to get too close to the mountains.
When men from hunters became farmers nothing changed much because they still had to face the mountains for pasture-lands researches and the necessity to procure material to make habitations with and wood for the heating.
Later on when metal use was discovered, mineral fields drew man’s attention towards the mountains: on the Alps, for example, men used to collect the “rocca crystals” which were quartz crystals used for chandeliers fabrication and optical instrumentation or for the auriferous claim exploitation from the M. Rosa’s metamorphic rocks, foreknown by the Romans.
Commerce and trade intensified a lot and this pushed them even more towards the exploration of mountain new territories, to look for new passes that would let them overpass the highest mountain chains, overcoming natural obstacles that otherwise would have been impossible or very long trips to put up with. Whoever had to achieve the first season trip, challenging adverse atmospheric conditions, was able to sell his products for first, extrapolating better prices and major benefits: so the mountain challenge began and was more often faced voluntary during the colder seasons, in tougher conditions, this way it was possible to arrive for first and bring their own precious merchandize load.
Let’s not forget then, that the mountains played a decisive role during conflicts and wars as massive defensive bastions and ideal “watch towers”: history narrates the half legend on Hannibal’s Alps passage with his elephants, but also more recently, the long trench war on the Alps’ crest and glaciers during the First World War. Many testimonies of this conflict and hosts struggles of both factions against the mountain remained in the Big War’s paths such as trenches and harbours dug between rocks and ice, military residuals and unlucky alpinist leftovers that are given back from the glaciers recession.
The relationship between man and the mountain that kept evolving, the techniques and the equipment materials gradually gotten better thanks to personal experiments to see the validity: slowly techniques refined, info started to be exchanged, voyagers started to talk with astonishment about populations from the mountains that moved on snow by doing evolutions on “arched wood pieces” or with “pine tree branches” under the feet or on strange vehicles pulled by dogs… someone started to use these utensils not for necessity but for game, for fun and to explore: the winter sports finally arrived!
A moving beginning
The birth of Iditarod, the longest and toughest sleddog race which happens to be one of the most legendary winter sports competitions is a particularly touching story.
In 1925 in Nome, a small town lost in the middle of nowhere in northern Alaska, a diphtheria outbreak took its toll particularly on children. There was urgent need for a vaccine but the closest “civilized” inhabited area was 1800 km. away. In extreme adverse climate, with terrible snowstorms and temperatures reaching 30 degrees below zero, the “mushers” (the dog sled drivers) of the area put their dogs and equipment at the disposal of the town organizing a courier to carry the medicine over the long distance. Thanks to the ability and resilience of the dogs, the vaccine was in Nome within 127 hours thus saving many lives. The hardest part of the journey in a particularly violent snowstorm when everyone was on the verge of giving up, the pack was lead by the very strong and brave dog named Balto. Since then Balto has become a symbol of generosity and determination even in extreme weather conditions. His story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending: after being taken away from a new master that mistreated him he ended his career as an heroic sleddog by being stuffed and put on show at the Cleveland zoo. He also played a small part in a Hollywood movie and when his story was recently rediscovered it was made into a beautiful animated film yet few people know that it is a true story and that the incredibly rough and evocative Iditarod race takes place on that same course in memory of this epic enterprise which marked a unique example of generosity of men and animals.
Techniques and equipment
All the modern techniques and equipment that enable us to slide on snow, walk on ice or deep snow without sinking in it, to climb vertical walls and descend steep slopes, in spite of their modern appearance and design, are of ancient origin and all the material which we use to face the mountain safely comes from the experience and knowledge of ancient civilizations.
Otzi, the famous iceman that was found in 1991 on the Senales Glacier, in the Otzthal on the border between Austria and Italy, shows us the typical “mountain climber” attire from 5000 years ago. The materials that he had were far from the modern synthetic warm, light and transpiring nylon materials but at the time they were well aware of the need to protect themselves from wet and cold with water-repellent layered clothes. Everything was made of leather except for the “anti-rain” cloak which was made of weaved herbs (much like our mountain “ponchos”), while strong footwear stuffed with hay enabled them to walk safely on ice and keeping their feet warm. Even without all the medical and physiological knowledge, people who lived on the mountains were well aware of the devastating effects of extreme cold on the human body. Judging by his equipment Otzi must have been a hunter because he had a bow, arrows and horn daggers. He also had a birch bark container which was designed to hold the embers to light a fire at night and he also carried a supply of dried meat. All this makes us think that he was prepared to face high altitudes and around his neck he had a polished marble pendant: maybe a lucky charm to protect him from mountain demons?
5000 years ago the climate was milder than it is now and glaciers were receding as they are today, but walking on high mountain glaciers with only a pair of leather shoes stuffed with hay to protect one’s feet must have been a tremendous feat which only particularly strong men could endure.
In 1864 Sir Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote something very funny regarding the necessity to have adequate clothing to face severe high altitude weather conditions complaining that “… the characteristics of the very expensive tweed fabric that the London tailor had guaranteed against extreme cold are in fact only in theory!”
However adequate clothing isn’t the only requirement. The need to face vertical or very steep slopes called for the invention of ropes to ensure the climbers. Initially they were made of intertwined vegetable fibres, now they are of strong and elastic nylon, which can absorb the energy from great falls without breaking. A book on the Alps which was printed in Zurich in 1574 explains the rules for climbing glaciers on a rope and the use of ropes to overcome crevasses.
Walking on soft snow is extremely tiring and the use of “equipment” to save energy and move faster goes back a very long way: news of the most ancient skis dates as far back as 5000 B.C. In addition to skis, weaved ropes and twigs were used to cover shoe soles and this is how the forefathers of crampons and snow-shoes were created. In a study printed in Basel in 1561, the Bergamasque doctor Guglielmo Grataroli mentions that crampons can already “be purchased anywhere”.
Therefore, no matter how modern, aggressive and technological the materials and appearance of our present day mountain equipment, it all originates from its very modest wood and intertwined vegetable fiber forefathers!
Skis on our feet
The history of skis is very ancient. They were invented by inhabitants of northern countries such as Siberia, Lapland and Scandinavia, where snow covers the countryside for many months out of the year and the need to travel compelled man to find a way to move easily and quickly over the snowy land.
The first drawings of a pair of “skis” date as far back as 1000 B.C. and were found in 1920 in a wall painting in a cave in Balingsta near Uppsala, but some archaeological findings apparently reveal that skis were used as far back as 5000 B.C. which means even before the wheel was invented! The first well preserved pair of skis was found in the Hoting peat-bog in Sweden and dates back to 2500 B.C.
Historical evidence of the use of skies is very ancient. In the 4th century B.C., Erodoto wrote that people in Minor Asia (present day Turkey) moved about with small wooden boards on their feet. In the 6th century A.C., Procopio from Cesarea talks about the barbarians that used to “slide on the snow with carved pieces of wood strapped to their feet”, but it was not until the 16th century that the use of skis started to become known to people of other countries thanks to the tales and drawings of travellers and merchants.
The first detailed description of a pair of skis can be found in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalis, written by the Archbishop of Uppsala Olaus Magnus in 1565.
In Italy, the first images of a pair of skis appeared in Venice in 1539 and in Verona in 1578, but to see them in use on the Alps one has to wait until the end of the 19th century.
Skis made their appearance for the first time in Italy in Carnia (Friuli Venezia Giulia), where a group of Scandinavian soldiers decided to stay and live after the end of the Thirty-year war in 1648. The Scandinavians continued to use skis to move about on the snow, but apparently none of the Italian inhabitants were willing to try them! According to historical evidence, the first Italian to ever use a pair of skis was the monk Francesco Negri during a journey in Lapland in 1663.
Skiing became fashionable in the 19th century also thanks to the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen who in 1887 accomplished an incredible enterprise for those days: the crossing of Greenland on skis in 42 days. Nansen was also the author of the first handbook on skiing technique in history.
Initially skis were regarded as something to use just for fun yet people were somewhat puzzled about them. Once again the writer and great mountain lover Sir Conan Doyle, after having complained about his tailor’s bad advice, wrote in 1894: “…looking at them, there is nothing extraordinary about a pair of skis. At first glance, nobody could imagine the incredible power that is hidden in them. You put them on, you turn and smile at your friends to see if they are looking at you, but at the same time you precipitate like crazy head first in a heap of snow…thus your friends enjoy a show which they never imagined you could be capable of… Skis are the most capricious contraptions in the world!”
Soon however some of the bolder people began to comprehend their potential as a means of approaching the mountains in winter and to reach some of the highest summits. Many took to traversing and climbing the Alps, but it was the great alpine skiing endeavours accomplished by Doctor Paulke (crossing the Monte Rosa at 4200 m. among others) that turned skiing into a popular activity on the Alps. That was the beginning of epic alpine skiing which enabled man to conquer all the tallest Alpine summits: the first ski climb on the Montblanc took place in 1904.
After the initial quest to conquer the main Alpine summits, man went on to search for more difficult climbs, longer and tougher traverses and slopes, as was already happening in mountain climbing.
This pioneer and explorative phase in skiing made the sport more popular and widespread among people: it was intended however as Alpine skiing which meant strenuous climbs with seal skins fastened to the bottom of the skis and fresh snow descents since ski resorts with organised slopes and ski-lifts didn’t exist yet.
From wood to fibreglass
Experiments by the first climbers lead to improvement both in techniques as well as materials. Needless to say modern skis are very different from the first “prototypes” created by the people of the northern countries even though the basic idea remains almost the same.
In Lapland, with a technique which was invented over 2000 years ago and still in use during the last century, skis were very different from the ones that we are used to nowadays: on the right foot one wore a very long ski while on the left foot one had a shorter one covered with seal skins which was used to push oneself forward. Elsewhere skis were simple long and narrow wooden boards, with an upward bend at the front end so that they wouldn’t sink in the snow. The wood they were usually made of was ash.
The bindings were simple leather laces and they required a particular skiing technique: for instance, the first skiers used only one long pole for curving according to the Norwegian technique “telemark” (its name comes from the Norwegian town where this technique was invented). Subsequently they used a shorter pole in one hand and an ice-axe in the other. Apparently the use of two poles was started in 1907, during the climb to the Aiguille de Chardonnet in the Montblanc massif, where a Mr. Roget proved the efficiency of this new invention to his fellow climbers who still used the pole and ice-axe. Following the introduction of the pair of shorter poles, people started to use the “christiania” technique. Also this method which is still widely used in ski schools worldwide is of ancient Norwegian origin: in fact its name comes from the old name of Oslo (Christiania) which is apparently where it was invented.
In the beginning on the Alps instead of using seal skins (which now have fortunately been substituted with synthetic materials) they used crampons which were fastened directly to the bottom of the skis. The use of seal skins as well was started in Lapland.
The first “alpine” skiing competition was organized in 1843 in Tromso, Norway while the use of skis was spreading to Canada, Nevada and California for reasons other than sport because goldseekers used them to work also during the winter.
At first there was hardly any distinction between “alpine” skiing which enabled people to ski on very steep slopes or on icy snow and “Nordic” skiing which allowed people to cover long distances on mostly flat land because both materials and techniques were basically the same.
Major changes took place at the end of the 19th century when the eclectic painter-inventor Mathias Zdarsky tried to shorten the skis (from over 3 meters to 1,80 meters) and, after experimenting with a hundred different systems, invented the fixed binding made of metal parts which blocked the heel.
The techniques used with this kind of bindings varied greatly from the traditional ones used with mobile bindings and determined major differences between what was to become alpine, downhill and cross-country skiing.
In Italy skiing became widely diffused thanks to the Swiss engineer Adolf Kind who in 1897 founded the Ski Club of Turin which would then become FISI (the Italian national winter sports federation) in 1908. At first the terminology was the same but then both “skis” and “skiers” had their Italian versions: “sci” and “sciatori”.
Skiing became more and more popular and in the fifties the first ski lifts and cableways were created thus making it even more widespread. It is totally different though from its forefather, alpine skiing in the use of equipment and techniques but above all in the philosophy and motivations: on the one hand exciting and breathtaking descents along fast and endless ski slopes and on the other hand the mystery and magic of a silent climb in deep fresh snow to reach pure and wild summits.
Contrary to what one can imagine, the snowboard which has become so popular among young people in these last years is not a new invention. The first snowboard prototype was created in the U.S. in 1929 and it was made with a piece of sled with some laces to bind it to the boots, but it wasn’t very successful because the feet were bound parallel to the board as opposed to at an angle as they are nowadays.
By putting two skis together many skiers tried to make a monoski which would have enabled a much faster descent down a straight slope: with a modern day version of a monoski, in 1982 the speed record was set at 100 km per hour!
The first real snowboard was created in 1963 when Shermann Popper tried to use a surfboard to entertain his children on the snow: it was no longer a matter of speed but rather riding the snow “waves” and having fun on the “snurfer” (from snow surfer).
The snowboard that was created in America became popular worldwide in the mid ‘80s thanks to its appearance in a scene of the film “Apocalypse Now” which has become a cult movie among fans of this sport.
Snowboarders however had to earn their right to use the ski slopes in the same way as “traditional” skiers: until the 80s, there was such diffidence towards this piece of gear that its use was forbidden in all ski resorts and, when allowed, it was upon request of a document which certified that one was able to control the board.
After the first U.S. championship in 1982 and the first European meet in 1989, snowboarding earned its right to become an Olympic discipline for the first time at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.
Mad people on skis?
Skis allow whomever knows how to use them properly to do all kinds of things on snow and this has brought about the creation of many completely different and also very spectacular disciplines that have in common only the use of skis.
Ski jumping is among the most ancient and traditional and was performed also in the first editions of the winter Olympic games.
In the 70s speed racing down a 1 km slope was introduced to fulfil man’s quest for speed. On specially designated slopes athletes reach incredible speeds which are currently as fast as 200 km. per hour which happens to be man’s fastest motorless speed on land. To verify these records a speed detector which wouldn’t interfere in any way with man’s aerodynamics had to be invented. Extended and meticulous research was done in wind galleries which brought to the creation of ultramodern “spatial” outfits and equipment (spatial in the real sense of the word since many of the materials used come from the air and space industry). Even though this speed race is performed only by a very select number of athletes, it has contributed to bring about major progress in the research for better equipment to be used by the general public (for example: ski poles which are designed to fit the shape of the skier’s body thus reducing air resistance or modern day racing outfits that allow the skier to slide on the snow decreasing the risk of injury in case of a fall).
The most spectacular discipline is acrobatic skiing also known as “freestyle” or “hot dog” where athletes perform incredible jumps and pirouettes on slopes where holes, humps and dunes are created artificially on purpose for this instead of being smoothed out as slopes usually are. Needless to say, this discipline the same as the two previous ones, is strictly forbidden on normal ski slopes!
As for the evolution of “alpine” skiing, starting in the 70s (but even before that as early as the 30s) some skiers started facing slopes which were even steeper than 45°: this marked the beginning of extreme skiing where people dared steeper and steeper slopes, ranging from the north face of the Montblanc to the Matterhorn. At present the most difficult descent conquered is the east face of the Fletschorn.
Steep slopes are dared also high up in the Himalayan giants: in 1964 the west face of the Cho Oyu was descended from a height of 8100 m, only 50 m. below the summit and in 1978 part of the standard route to Mount Everest was descended from a height of 8200 m.
About artificial snow
For ski lovers, a snowless winter, without being able to wear a pair of skis and slide down white snowy slopes is a terrible idea, so much so that it was the request made by a growing number of skiers that in these last few years has started the habit of covering the slopes with artificial snow.
How nice to be able to ski in spite of the weather’s will to spoil the party! But what are the consequences of this on the environment? They are not few and quite major: anybody who really loves and cares for the mountains should think of the price that the environment pays for our “unseasonable” skiing sprees before planning to spend a day on artificially snowed slopes.
To snow up a medium sized slope (about 1600 m.) it is necessary to use at least 20.000 cubic metres of water, that is to say that 20 million litres will produce 42.000 cubic meters of snow: this amount would fill 4200 lorries (data source: “ALP, La fabbrica della neve”, march 2002, n. 203).
The water needed to produce snow in usually taken directly from the waterworks, therefore using good quality potable water which is obviously a waste. In the past many ski resorts had problems because of excessive draw from the waterworks. If instead the water to make artificial snow is taken directly from the natural water courses and basins, during particularly dry seasons this can cause serious alterations to the natural hydrological balance often with the risk of eliminating the minimum amount of water necessary to keep a natural course or basin “alive”. Causing the water level in minor lakes to fall too low can also lead to dangerous landslides and lake shore erosions.
Lately many ski resorts have been building their own artificial water reservoirs to gather rain water during the fall season. From a hydrological point of view this is certainly a more responsible attitude towards the environment, but it still is not problem-free: the reservoir remains hidden below snow and ice during the winter, but becomes very visible with its clay or cement lining during the summer. Furthermore, the weight of the reservoir and its contents as well as small water infiltrations can cause subsequent landslides and erosions.
In the past, to prolong the duration of artificial snow, chemicals were added to modify the freezing temperature of water. When the snow melted these substances were released into the ground with consequences to the ecosystems of the environment. The latest models of snow making machines are able to produce longer lasting snow even without the use of chemical additives, yet even “clean” snow can take its toll on the environment because artificial snow, being more compact than natural snow, lasts longer and modifies the dormant period of the flora. A delay in the growth of the vegetation at the end of the winter can have a negative effect on soil erosion. Furthermore artificial snow is denser and heavier than natural snow and can contribute to further compact the surface layers of the soil making it less permeable: this keeps the water from snow and ice thaw from infiltrating into the ground and causes it to run down the surface instead thus increasing the soil erosion process. A harder soil surface also makes it more difficult for vegetation to take root on it. The result is that during the summer, ski slopes appear as long bare and barren strips of rubble and loose soil, in strong contrast with the green of the surrounding meadows and woods.
To obtain artificial snow at lower cost, some ski resorts haven’t hesitated to take the precious substance by literally “scratching” glacier surfaces (as has been the case of the Marmolada glacier), to then transfer it to the slopes. At a time when the glacier situation is already so critical this is a very deplorable action which will surely have devastating consequences.
One can remark that during most winter sport events one can see these artificial snow machines in action but in these cases use of artificial snow can be justified by the importance of the event which is often of worldwide interest, as is the case of the Olympic Games or the World championships.
We must ski responsibly
Nobody can deny it: to fly while sliding down a snowy slope with skis on our feet is one of the most wonderful sensations that one could ever feel. It is an enjoyable and healthy sport which brings us into close contact with an often spectacular and majestic natural environment.
Unfortunately however it is a sport which has a high cost in terms of impact on the environment. Visual and acoustic pollution in terms of meadow and wood destruction as well as disturbance to the local fauna caused by a ski resort are considerable and it certainly isn’t difficult to be aware of this. Yet it is difficult to give up a nice comfortable ski session using skilifts: “alpine” skiing is definitely more respectful of the environment but it is a strenuous, difficult and risky sport, which requires great knowledge of the mountain in addition to good training, which makes it impossible to turn all skiers into “alpine” skiers.
Even if we are avid skiers and we don’t want to give up our favourite sport, there are some very important issues that we must keep in mind when we make our choice of a ski area and think of how we should behave during our days on the snow, in order to fully enjoy our activity yet minimizing our impact on the environment.
An intelligent choice
Choosing the right ski resort is of vital importance: if we care for the environment, we will not choose those which are most “trendy” or famous, but we will select instead those which have not only a lesser impact on the environment and more respect for the mountain and its delicate ecosystem, but that will also take into consideration the skiers’ quest for peace, silence and unspoiled nature. The choice of the most compatible ski resort (or less “invaded”) on environment, we choose those structures that have less visual impact as possible, those where the old disused plants are dismantled, not the old pylons and wire fencing that get rusty and left on the side of the mountain. Too big areas for skiers, with attachments between adjacent valleys and slopes ten or more kilometres long bring up to an total unsettlement of the entire mountain, obliging for instance, animals to escape from a zone. If the skiing part is limited, the wild fauna will have the possibility anyway to find shelter in another part of the mountain and we will have the possibility to admire a few specimen near or far away from us. We mustn’t choose resorts that every year make up new slopes that are close to each other and causing as a consequence a loss of woods and trees: a slope one hundred metres more will not modify our amusement very much, but it will make a big difference for the woods that needs space! Let’s avoid places that achieved too many artificial structures, such as bridges, “slope overpasses” and underpasses and let’s renounce as much as possible to “outer season” skiing and to resorts that use too much artificial snow.Since a few years, many ski resorts spread high volume music on the mountain. This fashion, appreciated evidently by many people, could be very disputable from a customer’s point of view, because many skiers might prefer the mountain’s silence and peace: this group of skiers spontaneously avoid these type of resorts. But if we concord with the first category we must think just for a moment that our favourite music is a big disturbing source for all the wild fauna. The possibility of skiing during the night too, on well illuminated slopes by strong reflectors lamps is very attractive, but before enjoying this amusement, we must think about the night illumination that disturbs the wild fauna and flora’s rhythm that have been tested already during the day! This consciousness choice of resorts that respect environment, if effectuated from all the skiers, could bring up to more environmental attention from societies that manage big skiing areas, with indubitable advantages for the mountain and for the people who benefit from it. With our choices we can “reward” the most meritorious managements, encouraging them to continue their activity respecting the environment in the same time. Let’s choose well and invite our ski pals to do the same: it isn’t a small contribute for the environment defence!
Let’s behave in a right way
Chosen the best resort, naturally, it is right to give a personal contribute to respect the “usual” rules of behaviour! We mustn’t then throw our garbage on the floor, not even small things such as chewing gum and candy wrappers: it is easy to hide everything under the snow, but what about during the springtime? If the ski resort doesn’t afford adapted containers for rubbish accumulation, let’s put them in our backpack and take them home: stuff made of paper and empty containers won’t certainly disturb us during a slope!
Let’s not waste light, water and heating in huts and hotels: even if we have chosen the formula “complete pension all included”, we mustn’t necessarily consume all the electric energy or hot water that are at our complete disposition!
We mustn’t buy souvenirs or handicraft made up with animal parts of protected species, and we must respect the fauna and flora: with a snowy mountain fortunately it is impossible to pick protected kinds of flowers, but what are we supposed to say about people who rip branches off from the trees along the slope just for fun, and others that bash trunks while they pass near by them on a ski lift?
Let’s take into consideration that we aren’t the only ones to maintain a respectful behaviour of a tranquillity desire of other skiers. We must respect the security rules and we mustn’t risk our and others safety with exhibitions and dangerous acrobatics which are dumb.
We mustn’t adventure ourselves beyond the slopes: it is an emotion that might cost us a lot, that might create a dangerous situation for us and for other skiers and that might disturb animals that are trying to escape long ways away from the confusion that reigns on the slopes.
So if we understood what to do… we are set! We are ready for a more apprehensive and ecological ski, but not less fun!
Written by Paola Tognini