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Reliving days long past

Sierras home to first recorded downhill races

Email|Print| Text size + By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2008

They take the term "retro" seriously high up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, where skiers still lace up 16-foot monster wooden skis the old-fashioned way - with leather boots and tie-down bindings - before bombing down the hill in period garb, just like the sport's pioneers did way back in the '50s.

The 1850s, that is - a century and a half back in time to an unlikely location for the birthplace of the world's first downhill ski races.

"California doesn't leap to mind when folks think of downhill skiing," said Scott Lawson, director of the Plumas County Museum, about 150 miles northeast of Sacramento. "But no one's ever disputed or disproven it. Call us backwater. We're way out here in the boonies. But it's our claim to fame. It's important to us."

Not just fame, but global bragging rights will be on the line starting Jan. 20, when Plumas-Eureka State Park hosts a series of unique ski races that will culminate in the Historic Longboard Revival World Championships. The rules are simple: Every aspect of the competition must conform to 19th-century skiing, including clothing, skis, and - in keeping with the region's reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining community - "maybe a flask or two," said Lawson.

Skiing in the United States is linked to the California Gold Rush more than 150 years ago, when prospectors were drawn to the remote mining camps that began to proliferate in the Sierras. According to Lawson, who is also a longboard competitor, Norwegian miners introduced the concept of using long, rigid planks to travel through deep snow in the winter of 1853. It didn't take long before the rugged miners got their competitive juices flowing, and they soon began to challenge one another to downhill contests of speed. An informal series of Sunday races began to take root, spreading throughout Plumas County and the surrounding area.

"It was something to get the miners outdoors, off the bottle, and to do something productive during winter," said Mark McLaughlin, a California author who specializes in the history of the Sierras. "People out here worked hard, played hard, drank hard, and skied hard. It was bragging rights, town vs. town."

Technique in the formative days of longboard skiing was basically a combination of staying upright and overcoming fear. The wood of choice was Douglas fir, with grooves planed into the bottom. A pair of 12- to 16-foot racing skis weighed 25 pounds and were bound to the feet with leather straps, with wooden blocks to hold the heel in place. Getting a fast start was accomplished by a few powerful thrusts at the top of the slope, but turning and stopping were another matter entirely.

A ski nearly three times as long as the person riding it was practically impossible to maneuver in any direction other than straight down. Stopping was accomplished by a stout wooden pole held between the legs, over which a skier had to crouch in a sitting position, using the unwieldy device as a brake by digging it into the snow. That piece of equipment was referred to as a "soprano stick" - derived from the painful mishaps of men who failed to be proficient of this skill.

Curiously, men were not the only practitioners of skiing in the Sierras. Outnumbering women by about 6 to 1 in the mining camps, McLaughlin said that lonely miners were always on the lookout for potential wives, and because of this, the men were more inclined to let women participate in various activities. Newspaper accounts from the 1860s confirm that the women's races often drew the largest crowds and loudest cheers.

According to Lawson, the first sanctioned ski meet in the United States was held in Johnsville in February 1867, a decade before similar tournaments were staged in Norway. The California courses were typically 1,800-feet long, 100-feet wide, and straight downhill. A gong signaled the start of each heat, and skiers raced alongside one another in groups up to six across. The larger events drew 50 competitors and 500 spectators, and for good reason: The purses - as high as $1,000 - were astronomical, so the competition was fierce.

"Side bets and gambling were a big part of it," said Lawson. "Occasionally, so were fisticuffs. As a matter of fact, we even had a murder over a ski race in the 1870s."

Rules were liberally interpreted, and locals had a distinct "home hill" advantage when outsiders came into a rival mining camp to try to ski away with the prize money.

"You've heard of Snowshoe Thompson?" McLaughlin asked, referring to the legendary 19th-century backwoods pioneer who hauled mail solo, on skis, through the treacherous mountain passes of California and Nevada. "The miners challenged him to a race. Snowshoe Thompson was all about survival. The miners were all about speed and recklessness. [Thompson] went up there and got his doors blown off."

Records are difficult to authenticate (the length of the course was divided by the number of hand-timed seconds it took to complete it), but two early skiers have been credited with runs of 88 miles per hour, probably the fastest speeds attained by humans at that time. A racer named "Cornish Bob" allegedly careered down Lexington Hill to set the first recorded mark in 1867, and Tommy Todd is said to have also reached 88 miles per hour at La Porte in 1874. For comparison, the modern speed-skiing mark is 156 miles per hour, accomplished in France by Simone Origone in 2006.

If speed was the name of the game, then "doping" was the means to achieve it - although that term had a far-less sinister connotation 150 years ago. Doping to Sierra mountaineers meant ski waxing, and concoctions consisted of such eclectic substances as spermaceti (the fatty substance from the brow of a sperm whale), pine pitch, wintergreen, resin from larch trees, and soapstone. The ingredients were cooked together in various combinations and hand-rubbed onto the bottoms of skis.

"These guys would hold their dope recipes close to their hearts and would pass them down through generations to their sons," said McLaughlin.

By the 1880s, the downhill craze began to wither, largely because the mining industry was tailing off, too. When gold was discovered near Denver, the camps moved east, and so did the skiing. According to Lawson, locals began a revival of longboarding in the 1890s that went "full blast" until 1911, then the pastime waned and waxed over the decades. Periodic spurts of interest followed in the 1930s and '50s, and the most recent resurgence dates to 1993.

This year's races (Jan. 20, Feb. 17, and March 16) are open to all comers for a nominal fee. The Plumas Ski Club will loan you longboards if you don't have a pair stashed in the garage, but at least one old-school craftsman exists who is capable of carving 16-foot skis nearly identical to the originals.

Bob Yerman grew up in Ohio with a passion for collecting antique skis. About 16 years ago he took early retirement, bought a second home in Utah, and opened up his dream workshop. Yerman began restoring historic skis - for free - to help a museum prepare for the 2002 Winter Olympics, but his hobby soon blossomed into a business. Lightning Boards (motto: "Size Definitely Matters") now sells about 100 pairs of handmade wooden skis each year, although Yerman only gets four or five requests for 16-footers. He finds it easier to make them back home in Ohio, where he gets good leather hide from Amish farmers and better quality straight-grain poplar.

"I think I'm the only guy still making them. Last month I shipped a pair to a guy in New Jersey," said Yerman. "Can you believe that? He said he was going to ski back East with 'em. I said, 'You realize what the hell you're doing with those things? I hope you have good insurance.' "

Yerman, 72, skis practically every weekday and has firsthand experience on longboards. He said he would like to round up a team to send to Plumas.

"I've skied Alta with them, but they don't let you on the lift; you have to hike up," he said. "They work well on a straight drop. But if you have to turn, forget it. If you're not careful, it's a good way to break an ankle."

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