2012 Mountain activities

For many of us, skiing has become an annual treat. It is one of the most popular types of holiday and at this time of year; it seems our thoughts turn to the sun-kissed glamour of the French ski resorts – and away from the depressing drizzle of the British winter.

For many of us, skiing has become an annual treat. It is one of the most popular types of holiday and at this time of year; it seems our thoughts turn to the sun-kissed glamour of the French ski resorts – and away from the depressing drizzle of the British winter.

But the idea of skiing as a sport or holiday is a far cry from its first incarnations. The earliest evidence we have of man conquering the white stuff is a Nordic cave painting from 2000BC (Stone Age) depicting early man on skis. This was primitive man’s method of moving though the snow for hunting.

Later, Finnish and Icelandic mythological tales spoke of skiing heroes. In one legend, the goddess Skadi left her husband Njord for skiing, such was her love for the sport and the mountains. Ullr, the Norse god of winter (stepson of Thor) was described as wearing skis with great curved ends that morphed into shields or boats depending on his heroic needs.

Sloping off to France

While skiing evolved further in Scandinavia in the 1700s (when it was mainly used by the military), it was Norway who sped ahead in the sporting and leisure stakes, holding the first cross-country ski race in Olso in 1867 and establishing the first ski school in 1881.

Meanwhile, in France, skis had been one of the modern exhibits at the Universal Exhibition of Paris three years earlier. When the Grenoblois Henri Duhamel stumbled across them, he invested time and money to develop material and designs.

Later, at the turn of the century, the French alpine military adopted the ski and developed it for their requirements. Captain François Clerc, leader of the 159th regiment of French infantry, equipped his team with skis and soon after, Captain Bernard established the Briançon skiing school, which now trains the regional troops to defend France’s south-eastern frontier.

But it was during the first ever Winter Olympics, held in Chamonix in 1924, that the sport really took off. The event really glamorised skiing, with the result that more Brits came to the Alps for winter jollies and the little villages of Chamonix and Val d’Isère began to grow into desirable holiday destinations.

Soon after, in 1932, the EHM (École de Haute Montagne) was established, providing professionals with creditable qualifications.

The first resorts

Modern skiing holidays are all about fun, escapism and glamour. And if it’s the latter you’re looking for, then the earliest established resorts of Chamonix, Megève and Val d’Isère have it all. The first two grew organically around the turn of the century from small villages.

Val d’Isère (number one for British winter holiday makers) was one of the first to be developed and is arguably the most glitzy of the lot. Oozing 1930s charm and allure, it continues to be the place to head for some slope-side posing.

Staying in one of Descent International’s most exclusive chalets, the Beckhams were snapped sporting the most expensive designer ski-wear. They showed us how it should be done (if money’s no object): with cordon bleu chefs, an outdoor hot tub and a chauffeur to ferry them to the piste in a 4X4.

It’s thanks partly to Ian Fleming that this glamorous image came about. The author spent his early life in the now popular Austrian resort of Kitzbühel, site of pioneering ski holidays in the 1920s. Just think of the chalet glamour epitomised by James Bond: ladies in fur hats and oversized sunglasses enjoying a glass of après-ski champagne, and James Bond wearing a white polo-neck chasing the baddies down the slopes.

It was this image he helped to create that made skiing a popular and glitzy holiday activity in the 70s. But even now, the place has lost none of its old-fashioned-charm – The World is not Enough in 1999 played on this image, and where better to film it than Chamonix?

The newer breed

Purpose-built resorts such as Courchevel, La Plagne or Val Thorens don’t have quite the same authentic appeal as these first resorts, but over the years they’ve attracted hordes of skiers and become equally as popular.

Courchevel is quaintly Savoyard, but the resort was largely developed post-war and architecturally influenced by Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus movement. Dubbed the ‘people’s ski resort’, Courchevel was designed as a functional and affordable skiing base under the direction of town planner and architect Laurent Chappis. The project was backed by the Tourist Commission as a kind of socialist venture, turning the sport into a popular, mainstream activity.

Covering four towns, and linked by the most advanced cable cars to neighbouring Les Arcs resort, La Plagne is one of the largest resorts in the world. Meeting the growing demands of the 1960s, the ski villages in the resort are full of hotel blocks, and having once been pioneering examples of alpine architecture, now seem about as cool as ski bibs and one-pieces with parka hoods.

Val Thorens, the highest resort in the Alps at 2,300m, is another purpose-built resort with a very modern look. Sometimes described as a ‘concrete jungle’, it’s a great example of how tastes have come full-circle. The old-fashioned appeal of Val d’Isère continues to influence the design that these resorts are trying to emulate more than 50 years on. Val Thorens has realised its mistake and now its dominant 70s and 80s architecture is being renovated to achieve a more traditional style.

What not to wear

By contrast, ski-wear and equipment is looking to the future. It’s only the chalets that are wooden these days, no longer the skis; wood and leather have been replaced by the fibreglass ski invented in the 1970s (made compulsory at the 1976 Olympics). And nobody even wears salopettes anymore; it’s ski pants all the way.

And then there’s the lifts. Skiing holidays before the days of the ski lift involved spending half the day climbing up the mountain in order to spend half an hour skiing down it again. The cable car was the first method used to transport skiers up the mountain and one of the first was constructed in Megève in 1933.

It was the drag lift, however, that really revolutionised skiing – Alpe d’Huez was the first resort to have a drag lift in 1935. When one was first installed at the village of Val d’Isère, it was considered a joke. Little did they know how much the sport was about to (literally) take off.

And it’s no longer all about the skiing. Winter sports have expanded to include the increasingly popular snowboarding, the cool activity of the younger generation. The precursor to the snowboard, the ‘snurfer’, was built in 1965 by Sherman Poppen who combined two skis to create a snow surf (hence the name) for his daughter. This design grew into the board that became popular in the 80s and was included as an event in the 1988 Olympics in Japan.

To see how far things have come since their humble beginnings, you need a really modern take on winter sports. Consider the extreme sports such as base jumping – previously only attempted by highly paid James Bond stuntmen. Imagine being transported back to 2000BC and telling primitive man that people jump off mountains for fun!

This article first appeared on FrenchEntrée.com

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