100 Years of Ski FilmsI have a pair of wooden skis screwed vertically on the wall of my garage. We use them as measuring sticks to record the annual growth of our three boys over the past 15-years. The numerous notches and dates in black ink serve to hold the memories of years past; they are reminders of small children stretching to be taller than their older siblings and of the vanishingly brief moments when our rambunctious boys stood still.
The old wooden skis hold other memories too. Memories of when they slid through powder and made wide slashing turns. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to ski on antique skis and bindings. Could I still ski the same terrain that I do on modern equipment?
I doubt it.
Archeological evidence suggests that the use of skis is at least 8,000 years old, and the earliest ski media (paintings and rock drawings) are about 5,000 years old. By contrast, ski films are only around 100 years old. And Jerry of the Day is only just over a decade old (which, as a ski professional and an actual Jerry, I’m not yet sure how I feel about it).
Fortunately, some of the earliest ski films - featuring classic wooden skis - are available to stream online. These early films took place without the use of ski lifts, when all skiing was backcountry skiing! The best examples of early technique - of both skiing and filmmaking - is found in the films of Arnold Fanck (1889-1974). Fanck was a German film director and pioneer of 20th century cinema, especially mountain films (Bergfilm in German). His life and work remain controversial because of his association with Leni Riefenstahl (actress and producer of Nazi propaganda films) and the Nazi regime.
However, despite the controversies of Fanck’s life and of the Bergfilm genre, his work remains as one of the earliest examples of skiing on film. One of his earliest films, Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs (The Wonder of Snowshoes, early skis were sometimes called snowshoes) was produced in 1920 (embedded below).
The film features steep terrain, roped skiing on glaciers, and a rappel entry to ski inside a crevasse. Not bad for wooden skis and a hundred year old film!
Jerry Isaak is an Associate Teaching Professor and the program lead for ski touring in the Adventure Studies Department at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. He is an AMGA certified Ski Guide and has guided backcountry ski adventures in Iceland, Kyrgyzstan, Japan, and throughout the United States and western Canada.