First on the Hill

The story of modern skiing owes much to Quebec’s Laurentians

Image courtesy of John Fry

There can be a certain frustration involved in living next door to a large nation given over to immodest boasting. Americans, from time to time, inaccurately claim to have invented the jet airplane, the automobile, and television. The realm of sport is no different. Americans, for instance, cite a golf club established in 1888 in Yonkers, New York, as the first in North America, but the Royal Montreal Golf Club was founded fifteen years earlier.

When it comes to skiing, ignorance of Canada’s influence on the sport’s modern development is overdue for correction. Although you’d scarcely know it from US ski periodicals and histories, the multitude of ski schools, uphill lifts, and lodges now scattered across North America are descendants of a thriving community and ski industry that existed in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains during the first half of the twentieth century.

Quebec’s legacy includes the world’s first ski movies, filmed there in 1902. The Edison Manufacturing Co. made Skiing in Montreal and Skiing Scene in Quebec a dozen years or so after the company produced an apparatus for filming and projecting motion pictures (a genuine first for the United States). Americans view the Dartmouth Outing Club and Dartmouth Winter Carnival creator Fred Harris as trailblazers of US alpine skiing, but Harris got his idea for the Dartmouth Carnival after attending Montreal’s annual Winter Carnival in 1908. Five years later, McGill skiers invited Dartmouth skiers to the village of Shawbridge (today Prévost), Quebec, for North America’s first intercollegiate ski competition. My own Red Birds Ski Club, founded in Montreal in 1928, is North America’s oldest downhill club, and a Red Bird, George Jost, was the first North American to win a significant international alpine race in Europe.

Every year, upward of 10 million skiers and snowboarders throng to some 600 North American ski areas, giving rise to a multi-billion-dollar industry complete with titanium skis, sleek parkas, and $75 lift tickets. It was Laurentian pioneers who transformed skiing into the mass-participation sport it has become by finding ways to transport weekend warriors from town to the slopes, to convey them uphill in order to multiply the thrills of speeding downhill, and to teach them to ski properly. Along the way, they built the first North American concentration of ski inns.

weekend getaway

The logistical challenge of transporting people from town to the mountain turned out to be a no-brainer. As in Europe, the means was already there: trains. The Canadian Pacific Railway scheduled the first weekend service for skiers from Montreal to the Laurentians in the winter of 1927. Thousands of skiers bearing wooden skis piled onto trains headed north. Not until 1931 did the first US ski train run out of Boston, carrying skiers who’d likely travelled earlier on the Laurentian line.

Compared with driving or flying to reach a ski resort, the coal- and steam-driven train ride was an exotic voyage of camaraderie, booze, and seduction. No canned music emanated from hidden speakers; instead, revellers supplied their own rhythms, singing, “She’ll be skiing down the mountain when she skis” to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” and rounds of “Bonhomme, bonhomme, sais-tu jouer?

Arriving at a Laurentian village, skiers were greeted by horse-drawn sleighs waiting to transport them to second homes in the hills and on the shores of a hundred frozen lakes. As a child, I can recall boarding a sleigh and crawling into the heavy warm folds of a bear’s hide. “Allez,” cried the driver, the horses pawed the snowy ground, and the sleigh creaked into motion. Outside of Ste-Agathe, we glided onto Lac des Sables, the harness bells ringing with a faster tempo as the horses picked up the pace. Peering out from a childish aperture I’d fashioned in the bearskin blanket, I could glimpse an indigo arch of twinkling stars filling the clear northern sky.

more thrills

Early alpine skiers had to climb the mountain before they could enjoy the experience of speeding downhill. Hunched over their skis, they made wearisome, plodding steps that left a pattern in the snow resembling a giant herring’s skeleton. The climb was slow and arduous, limiting even the hardiest to three or four descents a day. Skiers wanted more thrills per hour.

In Europe, the problem had been solved by using summertime cog railways and funiculars to transport skiers to mountaintops. In North America, where no such infrastructure existed, the cheapest solution was to pull people uphill on a continuously running rope. It happened first in the Laurentians. In 1931 at Shawbridge, ski jumper Alex Foster of Montreal cobbled together a Rube Goldberg-style contraption: 730 metres of rope on pulleys attached to telephone poles and wound around the tireless wheel of a four-cylinder Dodge sedan mounted on cement blocks. Foster cranked the engine, the wheel spun, the rope moved, and the skier grabbed hold with mittened hands.

What happened next was akin to a tug-of-war. If you seized the rope too quickly, your body would be jerked ahead and you would be thrown to the ground. If you gradually eased your grip onto the rope and successfully began to slide uphill, it wasn’t long before your arms and shoulders so ached that you were tempted to let go before reaching the top. Ski historian Morten Lund has recalled that on milder days, when the rope was wet, it was like “holding onto a snake bent on escape.” Never mind, thousands mastered the skill of rope towing. Foster charged a nickel a ride, or a quarter for a day’s ticket.

Almost immediately other entrepreneurs copied Foster’s idea. Often, the guy who owned the rope-tow engine, or his bonne apple-cheeked voisine, opened a hot-dog stand at the bottom of the hill. The more considerate operator dug an outdoor two-holer to serve as a latrine. The arrangement—uphill conveyance, modest sustenance, and necessary amenities—was the embryo of the future ski resort.

The first US knock-off of Foster’s invention appeared in 1934 on a farmer’s hillside near Woodstock, Vermont. Fred Pabst, heir to an American beer fortune, once owned a chain of rope-tow areas, stretching from Quebec and New Hampshire westward to Wisconsin and Minnesota. In an early invasion of American financial capital into Canada, Pabst started his McDonald’s-like chain of tow areas in the Laurentians with three tows, on St-Sauveur’s hills 69, 70, and 71, which were named after European battlegrounds where Canadian troops fought in World War I. Pabst abandoned his tow-ops when they threatened to exhaust his beer-brewing inheritance.

fewer spills

For skiing to progress, someone had to teach weekend warriors the turning skills necessary to check their speed and change direction. The first North American pro to lead classes in scissor-like christies and telemark turns was a Swiss immigrant to Canada, Émile Cochand, in 1911. Cochand’s ski school in the Laurentians predated by eighteen years the first comparable US operation, at Peckett’s-on-Sugar-Hill in New Hampshire.

Until 1960, ski teaching around the world was pretty much divided into two camps: the conservative disciples of Austria’s Hannes Schneider, who applied the Arlberg method, which leads pupils through a progression of turns starting with the snowplow; and the French and Swiss disciples of charismatic 1937 and ’38 world champion Émile Allais, who taught novices to turn with their skis parallel, starting with sideslipping and traversing exercises.

While most North American ski schools were dominated by Schneider’s method, Swiss instructor Fritz Loosli was actively teaching the lesser-known Allais style to guests of the Château Frontenac. Wearied by the war’s devastation of his native France, Allais himself crossed the Atlantic in 1946 and arrived in Quebec City, where he immediately lent support to Loosli’s rebellious teaching method, like de Gaulle coming to aid the cause of separatism. So highly regarded was Allais that Life magazine featured him on its January 24, 1949, cover, with a story on the christiania léger turn. This parallel approach anticipated the future of ski technique far better than did the Arlberg method. After coaching Canada’s 1948 Olympic ski team, Allais left the country for Sun Valley, in Idaho, and then Squaw Valley, in California.

Swiss, Austrians, and Norwegians did most of the early ski teaching in the broken English they may have learned on the boat crossing the Atlantic. French Canadians also became skilled at teaching the predominantly anglophone clients (the verbiage used in ski-school classes would have sent a Bill 101 language enforcer into paroxysms). Réal Charette at Gray Rocks and Mont Tremblant’s Ernie McCulloch, who was from Trois Rivières, ran two of the best ski schools in North America, and Canadian ski instructors were far ahead of their American counterparts in setting standards for the teaching of skiing. The first national association of ski instructors outside of Europe was the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance, formed in 1938; its US counterpart wasn’t formed until 1961.

room at the top

The confluence of ski schools, ski trains, and rope tows in the Laurentians in turn gave rise to North America’s first concentration of inns designed to host skiers. The earliest of the ski inns, founded in 1914, was Chalet Cochand at Ste-Marguerite, its business bolstered by the proprietor’s ski school. At Shawbridge, next door to Foster’s rope-tow invention, was the Laurentian Lodge Club, essentially a noisy boarding house with a learn-to-ski program. Its anglophone Montreal members included the eminent neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. My own family also belonged, my mother reasoning that children should ski, not only for the physical benefits but also because skiing, like tennis and golf, fostered lifetime friendships.

In February of 1929, the year before I was born, New Hampshire writer Corey Ford wrote about the Laurentian Lodge for the New Yorker. Ford had scored an invitation to stay at the club and produced a hilarious account, in which he and his friends scarcely leave the club’s comfortable warm interior, consuming brandy and beer and merely contemplating the possibility of skiing.

If Ford’s story is to be believed, they missed out on something. Almost every day, the venerable Herman Smith “Jackrabbit” Johannsen led cross-country ski tours from the club into the surrounding woods. It was Johannsen who blazed and cut the Maple Leaf Trail from north to south through the heart of the Laurentians, the first popular mapped trail in North America that made it possible to ski from inn to inn. A party of Red Birds anticipated Johannsen’s masterpiece in 1931. After enjoying a heavy meal and cigars in Ste-Agathe, the lads skied southward, stopping in the village of Ste-Marguerite for a midnight beer before proceeding to their clubhouse in St-Sauveur des Monts—a hundred-kilometre journey.

Americans seeking a week’s ski vacation just before and after World War II (before the widespread introduction of snowmaking enabled their own ski resorts to offer reliable snow conditions) could choose from the soigné Far Hills Inn, the luxurious Hôtel le Chantecler, and the log-and-stone Alpine Inn. Gray Rocks at St-Jovite was filled with young singles, and a young woman escaping her Philadelphia beau could readily find a bronzed ski instructor to dance with. Nearby, Robert F. Kennedy of Brookline, Massachusetts, and Ethel Skakel of Chicago, Illinois, met on a ski vacation at Mont Tremblant, built by the American Joseph B. Ryan and North America’s second great ski resort after Sun Valley.

synthetics and luxe

Since the sport’s North American incubation in Quebec, skiing has become decidedly less rugged. Skiers today sip cocktails and dine on fettuccine alfredo in lavish base lodges utterly unlike the potbellied-stove-heated cabins where they once chug-a-lugged beers and forked beans out of a can. On the mountain, wide-open slopes have replaced narrow tortuous trails through the trees. Giant machines now groom the snow to a creamy smoothness, making it especially easy to turn. Clothing insulated with space-age materials has virtually eliminated frozen fingers and toes. Glistening fibreglass skis with an hourglass shape have replaced unwieldy 215-centimetre-long hickory boards.

The response to the increased ease of skiing has been curious. Or perhaps not so curious, in light of human nature. Younger skiers and snowboarders are seeking more difficult ways to descend mountains. Some are using replicas of old equipment to reprise the telemark turn. They’re abandoning groomed slopes for the challenge of off-piste skiing in untracked terrain, unknowingly replicating the exploits of early skiers like Jackrabbit Johannsen and his friends, who bushwhacked their way down Mont Tremblant. Ski resorts have responded by constructing terrain parks bristling with halfpipes, bumps, and jumps to hurl patrons into the air.

It’s good to see this reversion to adventure. The Laurentian pioneers—brush-cutting machetes and Molsons in hand—would have approved.

John Fry