The Nordic Origins of Skiing

Nasjonalbiblioteket / National Library of Norway

For many people all across the Midwest the first snowfall means layering on the warm clothes, getting out the hats and mittens, waxing the skis, and braving the cold for a day or a weekend of cross-country skiing. Whether you’re a die-hard skier preparing for the 50-kilometer Dyno American Birkebeiner race held in Hayward, Wisconsin, each February or just out for a day trip, the lure of the snowy woods and the swish and creak of skis and poles on fresh snow proves too much temptation for many.


“Can you imagine anything freer and more exciting than when you, swiftly as a bird, zoom down the wood-clad hillsides while country air and spruce twigs whiz by your cheeks and eyes; brain and muscles tense, ready to avoid any unknown obstacle which any moment might be thrown in your path? You are one with your skis and nature. This is something that develops not only the body but the soul as well, and it has a deeper meaning for a people than most of us perceive.”

— Fridtjof Nansen, 1890

The tradition of cross-country skiing began thousands of years ago in northern Scandinavia where skis were used as transportation across the winter landscape. A ski was unearthed in Sweden that is dated at 4500 years old, and rock drawings have been discovered depicting hunters using some kind of primitive ski. It was not until the early 1800s, however, that skiing began to develop into a leisure sport.

Morgedal, located in Kviteseid, Telemark, Norway, is considered to be the cradle of skiing. Not only were ski conditions just right in Morgedal, but there lived a poor tenant farmer and maker of weaver’s shuttles there named Sondre Norheim who is today thought of as the father of modern skiing.

Sondre Norheim

Sondre Norheim was born on June 10, 1825. He was very poor and eventually had a large family of 6 children to take care of, but his life’s passion was skiing. He experimented with new techniques and equipment still used today. He was the first to use heel bindings and waisted skis (to make turning easier). He was the first to make jumping and slalom turns into something more serious than just goofing off.

The term slalom comes from Morgedal, as well. It comes from the word slalaam— sla: smooth and slanting hill and laam: track.

Sondre Norheim did not become nationally known until he was 42 years old, at a competition in Iverslokken in Christiania in 1868. The competition combined cross-country skiing, jumping and slalom. At this competition Norheim demonstrated for the first time the Telemark turn and the parallel turn, which later became the basic turn in alpine skiing (later called the Christiania turn). His skis were the first to have a heel strap and he used a short pole rather than a long, heavy one traditionally used. His skis were shorter than most and waisted. After this competition everyone started to use this type of equipment.

Sondre Norheim eventually immigrated to the United States. He, along with his wife and younger children, joined their second eldest son there in 1884. He died in 1897 and is buried in the Norway Church cemetery in Denbigh, North Dakota.

The Birkebeiner partisans Torstein Skjevla and Skjervald Skrukka escaping, on skis, from the Bagler faction with the future King Håkon IV

When the Norwegians immigrated to the United States so did their passion for skiing. Ski clubs sprang up all around the country, and today in places such as Minnesota and Wisconsin ski races and events are held almost every weekend during the winter months.

One of the largest events is the 50-kilometer Dyno American Birkebeiner, held in Hayward, Wisconsin. The American Birkebeiner stems from the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet, a 58-kilometer ski race held in Lillehammer each March. It is named after the birkebeiners (the birch legs) who were a faction in the Norwegian civil war in 1200. They were the underdogs and often so destitute they had nothing but the bark of birch trees to wear on their legs and feet.

When the birkebeiner chieftain died in 1204 the baglars (the rival faction) saw a dangerous rival in his son Haakon Haakonson who was born in 1204, just after his father died. The birkebeiners wanted to bring him to safety in Trondheim. Two men took the 2-year-old boy, in very harsh winter conditions, across the mountains in Osterdalen. He later became King Haakon and ended the civil war.

Today in Norway, skiing is so popular and the Norwegians so famous for their excellent skiers, it is said that the Norwegians are born with skis on their feet. This might be a slight exaggeration, but the Norwegians do provide many opportunities to become proficient on skis.

Holmenkollen, located just north of Oslo, Norway, is the site of the famous ski jumping competitions, as well as the Holmenkollen ski festival. Athletes gather there to compete in  six world cup events in cross-country skiing, nordic-combined, and ski jumping. It is also site of the oldest museum specializing in skis and the history of skiing, and is one of Norway’s most visited tourist destinations.

Born with skis on their feet

Some web sites of interest:

Norway’s History of Skiing
American Birkebeiner
Holmenkollen Ski Museum
U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum
Norwegian Birkebeiner site
Ski events and trails in MN