By the 1860s, with cash incentives, they pushed speed to the limit.
The 19th-century longboard ski racers of Plumas and Sierra counties in California were the fastest mammals on the continent at the time. The swiftest horses were only half as fast. When snow conditions were right, these early two-legged speed demons rocketed downslope at velocities approaching 90 mph. Sometimes fueled by alcohol, and with the promise of lucrative cash rewards awaiting them below, they pushed speed—and sanity—to the limit.
Ski racing in the rugged, remote northern Sierra Nevada dates back to the 1850s. Norwegians who arrived during the Gold Rush spread the concept of skiing, then propelled by a single long pole, as transportation. Prior to the introduction of skis in the region, traditional rawhide-laced snowshoes had been the only means of crossing snow. (Miners also referred to skis as “snow-shoes,” spelled with a hyphen.) Some historians believe a few fearless miners may have ridden empty ore buckets uphill and then schussed downslope on barrel staves strapped on with leather bindings. After some venturesome souls decided to take their traveling skis and point them downhill for a thrill, snow-shoe mania swept through the northern mountains.
A snow report in the March 3, 1857, Plumas Argus served notice to flatlanders that skiing was well established in the mountains:
This has been the hardest winter within the knowledge of the oldest inhabitant. It is estimated that about 25 or 30 feet of snow has fallen so far. The snow now lies from 8 to 10 feet deep, and in Onion Valley it is 12 or 15 feet deep. Nearly all residents have Norwegian snow-shoes. They are about 9 feet long, 4½ inches wide, shaved thin and turned up in front like a sled runner. By fastening them to the feet about the middle of the shoe and with a pole in the hands for a balance, a person can run over the light and new-fallen snow at railroad speed.
By 1860 Sierra ski racers had formed clubs with elected officers and codified rules and regulations. Gold rush towns such as Poker Flat, Whiskey Diggings, Rich Bar, Johnsville and La Porte all sponsored longboard ski teams that competed with each other for cash prizes of up to $1,000, paid in silver dollars or bags of gold dust. Champions often spent a portion of their purse on drinks for friends.
In 1867 La Porte’s snow-shoe club announced three days of racing for purses ranging from $25 to $75. The contest drew 42 competitors and some 300 spectators, most of whom arrived on their own cross-country skis. This longboard tournament was heralded as the world’s first downhill ski championship. The title owns some legitimacy since no one else was conducting such highly structured downhill racing competitions. “Cornish Bob” Oliver, of Sawpit Flat, was proclaimed world champion after he streaked down 1,804 vertical feet in 14 seconds flat—at a calculated maximum speed of 88.8 mph.
During the longboard racing era, victory often relied on the “dope” (the equivalent of modern waxes) skiers applied to the bottom of their boards. Dope comprised a mix of ingredients such as whale spermaceti (a fatty substance derived from the sperm whale and first used in candle making), pine pitch, oils from trees like cedar, hemlock and sugar pine, as well as rosin and balsam. The dope-maker would cook his signature recipe and allow it to cool before hand-rubbing it into the base of his clients’ skis. Dope recipes took on descriptive names like “Greased Lightning,” “Breakneck,” “St. Patrick’s Day Dope,” and “Gibsonville Cold Snow Dope.” The various ingredients and cooking times were considered trade secrets. Good dope-makers were so prized that champions split the winnings 50-50 with their wax man. Skiers often averaged 75 feet per second and could cross the finish line at 100 feet per second. During a weeklong meet at Howland Flat, Frank Woodward blasted down a 1,950 feet course in just 17 seconds. Fortunately, the presence of portable saloons at the tournaments helped calm pre-race jitters.
Considering how much money was up for grabs, it’s no surprise the dope men kept their best recipes secret. The difference between the right or wrong dope for the temperature and snow conditions meant the difference between a large purse or instant elimination. In addition to the sizeable award for the winner, side bets ran rampant, as each town wagered on its local champion. An 1868 announcement from the Downieville Mountain Messenger confirms big money at play:
Premiums to the amount of several hundred dollars will be presented as stakes, and the entrance fee will be $1. The Howland Flat snow-shoers intend to raise $800 or $1,000 as the stakes for their races. We hear that the Onion Valley and Sawpit Flat boys are trying on the dope and that some mighty slick shoes have been made in view of the handsome premiums that will be offered during the tournaments.
In 1869 John “Snowshoe” Thompson (born Jon Torsteinson-Rue in Ost-Telemark, Norway) skied more than 100 miles to La Porte and entered a race against the “dopers” from Plumas County. Thompson had successfully braved harsh Sierra Nevada storms and avalanche risk for more than a dozen years to deliver mail, newspapers and supplies. This faithful courier was not paid for his rounds, as he had failed to sign a contract with the postmaster who had required his services. But he was probably America’s first freestyle skier and an advocate for shorter, more versatile wooden skis. People who had watched Thompson schuss down a mountainside, dipping his ski pole from side to side across his body, compared him to a soaring eagle.
But now Snowshoe faced his greatest challenge—trying to fly down a mountain with his 7½-foot skis faster than locals did on their 14-foot boards. The boys from Plumas stabbed the snow with their single poles to launch themselves from the starting line and then immediately dropped into a tuck for maximum speed, while Thompson stood up for balance. Unaware of the secrets of waxing skis for a fast glide, Thompson never had a chance and was soundly beaten on the first day of a five-day competition.
Instantly disqualified by his loss, an angry Thompson skied back home to Alpine County and posted a challenge in the local newspaper offering cash prizes to the winner of up to five races. The contests included cliff jumping, tree skiing, mountain climbing and cross-country endurance skiing to any competitor. The winner of each race would earn $1,000. Despite the lucrative payouts, there is no evidence anyone ever took on Snowshoe’s bold challenge.
Meanwhile the racing competitions continued in the Sierra Nevada. In 1879 a group of Norwegians from Marysville in the Sacramento Valley challenged the La Porte snow-shoers to a series of squad races for a $500 first place prize. The La Porte team accepted the offer, but when the Norwegians arrived and saw the long skis and steep course, they defaulted. As one old-timer explained it, “The Norwegians took just one look at our speed-burners and went right back —they just weren’t fast enough.”
Racecourses were about 100 feet wide, up to 1,800 feet long and ran straight down the mountain. The start and finish lines were typically marked with American flags. Racers ran in four-man heats with the winners advancing to the next round in a single elimination format. With no chairlifts or rope tows available, winners of each race hiked back up the mountain in order to run the next heat. The favorite ski length for most racers was between 11 and 13 feet long, most made of spruce. Bindings comprised two straps that laced tightly over the toes, while the rider’s high leather boots fitted securely over a wooden block beneath the instep.
Women participated—in full-length skirts—and their races often drew the most spectators. “Nothing on a bright sunshiny morning can be more graceful or beautiful than a fair young lassie gliding over hills upon her Norwegian snowshoes,” recalled one male observer. In 1867 Lotti Joy shot down a 1,230-foot race slope at 49 mph to set the earliest women’s speed record. At another event a 14-year-old girl schussed down 1,230 feet in just 21 seconds.
California’s snow-shoe racing era ended in the early 20th century, but in the early 1990s a new generation of Plumas Ski Club [www.plumasskiclub .org] members fired up a Historic Longboard Revival Series at Plumas County’s historic Eureka Bowl, one of the world’s oldest recorded alpine racing sites. The old rope tows haven’t operated for years, so skiers must climb for their runs, just like in the old days. Alcohol consumption is forbidden in the park, but on race day silver flasks are common. Park rangers are tolerant of all the festivities, keeping in mind the motto of the Plumas Ski Club: “Skiing and Whiskeying in the Sierra Nevada since 1874.”
This article is adapted from the author’s 2010 book Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.