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Hey, you young’uns (i.e., skiers and boarders under 50), if you were to be plopped down in the middle of a ski slope in 1966, you’d find yourself in a strange and unfamiliar land—from the snow to the skiing techniques to the clothes on skiers’ backs.

Skiing in the ’60s was a mixed bag of plusses and minuses. The minuses were mainly the danger we were putting ourselves in due to the fact that skiing was new as a mainstream sport. The plusses were mainly the kinship and adventure of it all…and all-day lift tickets priced at around $5 (nearly everyone I knew skied most weekends).

Skiing 50 years ago…

So What Was it Really Like to go Skiing 50 Years Ago?

THEN… Skiing legend Stein Eriksen getting air at Mammoth Mountain, 1962. PHOTO CREDIT: Fred Lindholm

So was it really like back then? I just happen to remember. I was there!

1. Questionable equipment safety

Even though “safe” and technologically upgraded ski gear was gradually appearing in U.S. ski shops (fiberglass skis in 1959; heel-toe release bindings in 1960; ski brakes in 1961; and all-plastic, buckle boots in 1964), most of us were still skiing on our 1950s-era wooden skis with “bear-trap” bindings (i.e., zero safety release) and our non-waterproof, leather, lace-up boots that offered no ankle support whatsoever and were strapped onto our skis with long, wrap-around leather thongs.

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2. Primitive transport and untamed terrain

Getting to the top of a run was as much of an adventure as skiing down. The first challenge was getting off a lift, whether a fast-moving two-seater chair, an uncomfortable T-bar or J-bar, or a soggy rope tow that would fling you into a nearby snowbank if you didn’t grab it just right.

Finally at the top of a run, what was that chunky gunk beneath our skis? Ah yes, barely groomed snow. Slope grooming was in its infancy and snowmaking was a non-entity. So we basically skied on whatever snow fell with little if any manicuring. In college, we’d head for the closest ski area on a weekday when we had no classes (or maybe did!), and before we began each run down through the heavy, choppy snow, we’d take a swig of blackberry brandy (aka “courage”) from our bota bags; our bravery quotient decidedly increased as the day went on.

And then there were the moguls, enormous ill-shapen mounds that would form on the steeper slopes. Somehow over time, we learned to navigate them, but fun it was not. Shortly after a skier died plunging down a cliff off a steep, narrow, icy trail at his Squaw Valley ski area several decades ago, Alex Cushing famously and cavalierly stated that skiers came for the danger and the risks; the days of his way of thinking were numbered.

3. Nary a snowboarder

Snowboarders wouldn’t start appearing on the slopes until 1983 in Vermont, so skiers didn’t have to worry about running into a first-time boarder (For a history of snowboarding, view this Liftopia post: http://blog.liftopia.com/history-of-snowboarding/).

4. The pinnacle of ski fashion

So What Was it Really Like to go Skiing 50 Years Ago?

PHOTO CREDIT: Fred Lindholm

The 1960s was considered by many to be the glam era of skiing. Expert skiers carved their way gracefully down the mountain, knees and ankles pressed firmly together, on skinny, metal Head® skis and clad in skintight black Bogner ski pants, a colorful handknit sweater under a thin fabric ski parka, and a tall wool ski hat.

5. An era of unrelentless camaraderie and gemütlickeit

Before social media, there were college ski clubs and groups of friends renting a ski cabin for the winter (a lot of face-to-face time!). Skiers drove to the slopes in VW bugs with skis on the back, never failing to honk as they passed a similarly adorned beetle. Aprés-ski, we played Twister in front of a roaring fire after imbibing a goodly number of hot-buttered rums. We’d get snowed in and somehow turn the massive inconvenience of no electricity or heat or access to the outside world into an adventure. In this pre-weather-satellite era, we never knew what the weather was going to be, so we’d just take our chances and head for the hills.

…and skiing now…

What Was it Like to go Skiing 50 Years Ago?

…AND NOW Skiers taking a breather on Heavenly’s Nevada side, 2016. PHOTO CREDIT: Heavenly Mountain Resort

Fast-forward to 2016: Although I really miss the ambience and the pre-litigious era of truly adventurous skiing (when did green runs turn into blue runs?!), I have to say that the numerous changes over the decades have greatly enhanced my 21st-century skiing experience (and enabled a lot of skiers in my generation to keep skiing): detachable quads, snowmaking, meticulously groomed ski terrain, expert ski instructors, comfortable state-of-the art ski apparel that actually keeps you warm, gourmet food and drinks at base lodges, and luxury mid-mountain condos you can ski right up to.

One thing remains a constant though, whatever the decade: standing at the top of a mountain on a crisp, clear, blue-sky day; the air sparkling from the cold; the smell of pines; and an endless view of snow-covered mountains surrounding you on all sides is still one of the most visceral experiences a skier or boarder could ever wish for. May all of us have many of those moments in our future!

Rose Marie Cleese is a correspondent for SeniorsSkiing.com,
an e-magazine devoted to winter sports enthusiasts aged 50 and up.

NOTE: To learn more about skiing’s past, check out the website of the International Skiing History Association, https://www.skiinghistory.org, where you’ll find information about the association’s magazine, Skiing History (formerly Skiing Heritage), plus indexes to past issues of all the major U.S. ski-related magazines, timelines, a video library, and much more.

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