The history of ski racing is so varied and diverse, it is difficult not to be inspired by the countless threads of heritage and tradition.
In reality, ski racing as we know it - the modern sport divided into the disciplines of Downhill, Super G, Giant Slalom, Slalom, and Combined that takes center stage every four years at the Olympics, with a small but dedicated following for the annual FIS tours - was really the result of years and years of development behind the scenes. Drawing some inspiration from one another, various cultures around the world developed their own traditions, races and techniques. Courses were developed ad-hoc. Equipment was makeshift. Participants skied for the love of the sport. There weren’t standards, there was just racing.
The Brits behind the Kandahar Ski Club in Mürren, Switzerland developed the now famous Inferno course, which stretches 15 km, takes 15 minutes or longer to complete and certainly does not fit cleanly into a single discipline - skiers need to combine downhill, slalom and even cross-country techniques to be successful and win the race - but it remains the largest amateur ski race in the world today: 1,800 racers show up every year to take on the course for a shot at amateur glory.
We’ve written about it before, but the intrepid alpinists of Dartmouth College pushed forward the fledgling concept of ski racing in the US. After making numerous trips up the carriage road to the Outing Club’s headquarters on Mt. Moosilauke, the group figured it only made sense to race down the road on skis, developing a precursor to the National Slalom, a key race in the 1930s. Drawing inspiration from their brethren in Switzerland, an American Inferno was run down Tuckerman Ravine for little more than bragging rights.
Stories like this are littered throughout skiing’s history, and it becomes pretty clear that the amateur spirit is inseparable from the heritage of ski racing. It’s the foundation that the sport was built on, and though skiing is quite a bit different now - we ski less on snowy carriage roads and more at multi-million dollar ski resorts - the amateur spirit is alive and well.
The trend of resort development kicked into high gear in the 1950s and 60s following World War II, as 10th Mountain Division vets branched out across the country, installing ski lifts and creating destinations to enjoy the sport recreationally and teach technique to the next generation of skiers, putting places like Aspen, Vail and Sun Valley on the map. Olympic skiing was firmly established at this point, as was collegiate skiing, when John Fry had an idea. At the time, Fry was the editor in chief of Ski Magazine, which shared an office with Golf Magazine. Golf, like skiing, is a sport driven by amateur participation. Golfers played to improve their handicaps and could directly measure their skill compared to any other golfer. Could that be done for skiing?
Fry was also intrigued with an innovation that ski instructors had implemented at Sun Valley. Skiers were timed as they worked to perfect their turns around gates. Fry’s fascination with developing a handicapping system for skiing took over, and he developed the National Standard Race (known as Nastar today) in 1969. The idea was simple: bring the thrill of ski racing to as many recreational amateurs as possible by creating an open-gated Giant Slalom course on intermediate terrain that could be recreated at mountains all over the US. A course could be run by a professional in the lowest possible time, establishing “par” for the course that could serve as a comparison for every skier who ran the course thereafter. Thus, skiers everywhere could be measured by how well they skied against par. Eight resorts set up the system in that first year, and more than 2,000 skiers participated. Fry had delivered ski racing to the masses, and created a crucial link between the amateur and professional worlds.
The legendary US Ski Team coach Bob Beattie ran with Nastar, implementing it across the country. Bob had coached the US team through the 1960s, co-founded the modern FIS tour and ultimately became the voice of ski racing on Winter Olympic broadcasts in the 1970’s and 80’s. Bob passed away in 2018, but his legacy lives on: Nastar can be found at most resorts in the US, and well over 6 million skiers have been able to say they’ve competed in a race.
When you ski at a resort today, you’ll often see scores of young amateur skiers clad in their race helmets, with race suits tucked into their stiff race boots, lapping the mountain to take run after run on the Nastar course. Others hop on a bus after school, shuttling them to their local hill to race under lights in frigid temps and icy courses. While some may go on to bigger and better, racing for a prestigious mountain prep school or for their college or country’s colors, one thing remains the same: those that step into the starting house do so with the same spirit of an amateur that drove the racers before them in Switzerland, New Hampshire and all over the world.