It was a day in March that saw only the most intrepid of ski racers strap on their skis and brave the race course set up for the National Slalom on Mount Mansfield: the temperature was minus five degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind was gusting up to 50 miles per hour. Charles “Minnie” Dole was doing a sweep of the course when he saw a pair of flailing arms in the distance. Concerned, he shushed down the trail to investigate, coming across a fellow Patroller, Rodger Langley, who was only trying to restore circulation and warm up in the harsh temperatures.
As they stood on the Nose Dive trail (still a current favorite at Stowe), it didn’t take long for the two patrollers to realize the need for a National Ski Patrol committee, and they essentially formed one on the spot, changing the course of skiing in the United States.
The need for a formally organized ski patrol was certainly correlated with the rise of skiing’s popularity, and it was particularly the rise of the popularity of ski racing that fueled this growth. Long a means of a transportation, skiing’s natural progression into competition was formalized in Tromsø, Norway in 1843, essentially the first real organized ski race. Many of these early races were started by ski clubs in the spirit of friendly competition. Like polo and rowing clubs, ski clubs were formed as a place where gentlemen could gather over a shared passion in a refined, relaxed atmosphere. In this time before ski racing was recognized as a legitimate worldwide sanctioned sport, racers competed as amateurs, carrying with them only a passion for the mountains and love for the sport.
Racing in the late 1920s and early 1930s was driven by these ski clubs. A group of self-professed “ski crazy” Brits formed the Kandahar Ski Club in Mürren, Switzerland in 1924, setting up the famous Inferno race that is still run to this day - the largest amateur ski race in the world that sees 1800 competitors tackle a demanding all-around course. Back stateside, the Dartmouth Outing Club was the leading force in the US. Founded in 1909, the club aimed to foster a love of the outdoors and inspire activity in the mountains among Dartmouth students and alumni. Through their field days, winter carnivals and a growing network of cabins in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, membership ballooned to the point where 73% of all students were members by the mid-1920s. Around this time, the club purchased a house at the summit of Mount Moosilauke, which served as a new base of operations. While early outings focused on trips to Mt. Washington, Moosilauke squarely brought ski racing into the picture. By 1927, club members were running the first National Slalom - the same race where Dole and Langley founded the National Ski Patrol - down the Moosilauke Carriage Road. The annual race was the highlight of the year, and when an alum filmed the race in 1931 and showed it to the National Ski Association, races were then held all over the country in more disciplines.
Dartmouth College’s racing team was legendary by that time, producing skiers like Dick Durrance (shown above) - the first American who really made a name for himself and the country on the European stage, a veteran of the 1936 Olympics, and a key member of the first roster of patrollers put together by Dole and Langley on that cold day in 1938. Somewhat ironically, the 1936 Olympics Durrance raced in were the first time alpine skiing was featured in the games and it was only a single event: the alpine combined. While the formal introduction gave past and future patrollers the opportunity to compete for an individual Olympic gold, formal competition between entire patrol units was already widely established.
Now considered to be a precursor to what we know as the biathalon, the first winter games in Chamonix in 1924 featured an event called the Military Patrol: a mash up of cross-country skiing, mountaineering, and rifle shooting. By the rules, the units consisted of an officer, a non-commissioned officer and two privates, with a required climb from 500 to 1200 meters with packs weighing at least 24 kg. In extremely harsh conditions in the Mt. Blanc massif, five groups of patrol units set out to tackle the course, with the Swiss narrowly edging out the Finnish and French teams for the gold medal. Teams from Italy and Poland failed to finish due to the conditions, while the sport was demoted to demonstration status for the next three games, leaving the Swiss as the lone gold medal winners for the event. The sport gradually trailed off, as increased opportunities arose to race or patrol individually prior to World War II.
The history and heritage of patrol units born from military origins competing against one another is a unique piece of the sport of skiing’s history. The evolution in the US is especially compelling: intrepid amateurs braved untested slopes to race one another, leading to the rise of developing patrolling skills that would ultimately prove useful during World War II in the storied Tenth Mountain Division, which in turn furthered resort development that gave skiers all over the country increased opportunities to take up the sport and improving the racing pedigree of the entire country. But that nostalgic military patrol event is not entirely lost: in recent years, mountaineering competitions have made a comeback. In 1992, the Comité International du Ski-Alpinisme de Compétition was founded by France, Italy, Slovakia, Andorra and Switzerland to sanction a European Championship, held every two years.
The main events, collectively known as the “big three of ski mountaineering” are held by the Italians, French and Swiss: the Mezzalama Trophy (held bi-annually in the Italian Aosta Valley, reaching the highest altitudes of any competition), the Pierra Menta (held annually in Savoie, France) and the Patrouille des Glaciers (put on by the Swiss Armed Forces every other year). These competitions are open to men’s and women’s teams, both military and civilian alike - competitors who honor the patrollers and racers of yesteryear in one of the original “racing” competitions on skis.