It’s hard to believe that people have been skiing for over a century now. With each new year, we’re treated to a new look at the winter sport as it once again takes the lead in the news. Backcountry snowboarding, big air ski jumping and ski-in/ski-out accommodation are just a few of the innovations that have kept the sport fresh for all these years. But who invented snow skiing?
Huge thanks to the Internet, we can now locate and research the answer to this question in mere seconds. Using search engines like Google and Bing, we can discover just how much effort went into the invention of the sport we all love so much.
On October 21, 1913, Scottish born George A. Millar was working as an engineer for Thomas Harris, the proprietor of the Chateau Laurier in Canada. One day, Harris asked Millar if he would like to join him on an upcoming expedition to the Canadian Rockies. Impressed by Harris’s offer, Millar accepted and thus started his association with skiing. His first stop on this new journey was the town of Revelstoke, where he met up with a local named Charlie Purcell. Together, they tackled a steep slope and Purcell managed to plant the Scottish engineer’s flag at the top. More importantly, this was the first time that the two had spent any significant time together outside of work and it led to a strong friendship that lasted until Purcell’s untimely death in 1933.
The following year, Millar and Harris climbed the next two passes together. On the ascent to the Aiguille du Midi, they were joined by two other men. Millar later named these three men as the ‘inventors of modern skiing‘ after they made the first ascent of the three magnificent mountains in the Canadian Rockies in 1914.
The next stop on this historic trip was the US. While crossing the border in 1917, Millar met up with American Al Penny and the two teamed up to form an import-export business that would evolve into the Alpen Trading Company. In the United States, Millar would help pioneer a number of recreational activities, including a tennis-themed cafe that served as a venue for important social events for locals and visitors alike. These included match play and mixed doubles tournaments as well as music concerts and theater productions. His contribution to the American skiing scene would earn him the designation ‘father of American Skiing’.
In 1929, with the stock market in turmoil, Millar left the States and returned to Canada. There, he purchased a ski lodge in Haileybury, Ontario and established a small ski club. The following year, he bought a neighboring property and the Millar Ski Club became the Haileybury & District Ski Club. In 1933, Millar and his wife, Helen, had a daughter, Virginia.
By this point, Millar was sufficiently settled in Canada that he began looking for ways to improve on the traditional downhill experience. What better way to enjoy a powdery white Christmas than by inventing a whole new sport? With the help of a good friend, Bill MacKenzie, a mechanical engineer and the son of the founder of the Canadian Ski Association, Millar designed, built and tested a ski boat. With its smooth floor and soft, luxurious seats, the little nautical vessel was the perfect place to enjoy the thrill of floating down a snowy mountain.
In 1936, Millar took his boat out for a test run on the Madawaska River and, to his delight, mastered the art of skiing on water. The following year, he and his wife, Helen, hosted a dinner party at their home in Haileybury to celebrate the opening of their new indoor sports center. That night, the Millars were treated to a display of ballroom dancing that would leave them breathless. After the dancing, George proposed a game of ‘snow golf’, an idea that he had concocted while playing in the Andaman Islands back in 1931. The game would combine elements of golf and hockey and utilize an entire course made of snow. Thus, was born the game that we now know as ‘snow golf’.
Snow golf was played in a round-robin format with four players and a caddy. Two teams of two would alternate between hitting a ball into a snowbank and returning it to the tee for their opponent to do the same. After each person had hit twice, the caddy would roll away the snow and play would continue. The objective was to become the first team to reach the clubhouse after completing the course. In the decades that followed, the game would spread across North America and the rest of the world and be played in a number of different variations. Some of the more prominent names in the sport include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bob Hope. In fact, the Hope family owns the rights to the game and holds annual competitions for amateur writers.
In the winter of 1939, Millar took his family on a skiing vacation to Europe. While there, he would meet up with Canadian ski legend Joe Morrison at a bar in Zermatt, Switzerland. The two would hit it off and the next day, Joe invited George and his family to become members of the Canadian Ski Association. Thanks to this new connection, Morrison would help Millar spread the word about his little game of snow golf in Europe. In the decades to follow, many thousands of people would learn to love the sport and the town of Calgary, Alberta would build the Happy Valley Ski Club in honor of the Scottish engineer.
An Engineer’s Best Friend
Although George Millar would go on to play an important role in the development of snow golf, his invention of the game would not have been possible without the vital assistance of a technical expert. So who helped make these first ascentions possible? Let’s take a quick look at the men who helped pioneer the modern era of ski science.
Charlie Purcell made the first ascent of the three Canadian Rockies in 1914 and would go on to become an important figure in the development of European and North American skiing. During his lifetime, he would guide numerous people to the summit of various European mountains. Some of Europe’s most famous mountains like the Matterhorn, the Eiger and the Dolomites would be tackled by Purcell and his clients.
Another brilliant mind behind some of the greatest ski achievements of all time is Austrian Otto Pichler. Not only did he design the iconic ski pole, Pichler is also credited with inventing the sport of ‘backcountry’ skiing. This involves skiing down one-way trails that branch off from the main ski runs. Backcountry skiing is all the rage today and is a favorite amongst snowboarders and ski-in/ski-out enthusiasts who want to maximize their downhill experience.
The late French alpine ski pioneer, Gabrielle Balade would go on to found the Fédération Française de la Montagne in 1922 and help spread the gospel of ski touring to the rest of Europe. In her honor, the French ski mountaineering organization would declare Gabrielle the first woman to summit Mont Blanc, in the Western Alps. While on the Matterhorn in 1927, Balade became the first person to ski down the east face, a feat that still stands as a record today.
The Making of a True Master
As we’ve established, George Millar was a man full of great ideas and passionate about his craft. While living in Canada, he would often invite people over for dinner and offer to give them a lesson in his craft. One of these students was an Englishman named Arthur Wint, who had also attended Repton School in the UK. After completing his studies, Wint traveled to Slovenia to work as an electrical engineer. It was there that he would meet up with a local named Dragoljub Babic, a former ski instructor who was teaching English as a second language. The two would hit it off and eventually, Wint would join Babic on his next project: building an indoor ski facility in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
In the winter of 1937, the two men built a small indoor ski slope that had a T-bar for beginners, a sit-down wooden chair for intermediates and a pair of snow cannons for experts. Though not officially opened to the public, the two men and their team of volunteers used the indoor facility to train for and compete in the Slovenian Republic International Ski Tournament, which they won. This was the first international ski competition in Slovenia and the beginning of the establishment of the Slovenian ski industry. It would not be the last.