Sondre in the History of Skiing

It’s said about Norwegians that they are born with skis on. And for centuries, people’s lives in this country have been closely related to skiing – first as means of transportation – then, from the last part of the 19th century, as a leisure and sports activity. Later Norwegian students and emigrants introduced skiing at the European continent, the USA and in other countries. Skiing is Norway’s national sport.

The word “ski” is a Norwegian word which comes from the Old Norse word “skid”, a split length of wood. And we know that skis have been used in Norway for more than 4,000 years. Rock carvings from Northern Norway confirm this.

Skiing In Norway

In a country with long distances between the small, isolated communities and hard, snowy winters, skiing became important as means of keeping in social contact with each other. Also the use of skis was important for the hunter and the farmer, who spent mornings going far into the forests, returning with game and firewood in the afternoons.

There are reports about the use of skis among soldiers as far back in time as the Middle Ages. Companies of ski troops were formed around 1750. And the very first skiing competitions were held in the military in 1767.

Skiing As Recreation

March 21, 1843, the world’s first public announced, non-military skiing competition was held in Tromsø, Northern Norway. In the years to come, the interest in using skis as a recreation activity excelled. Skiing competitions were held in different parts of the country, among them Trondheim and Trysil.

One area where skiing became a real popular leisure activity, was the district of Telemark, Southern Norway. In the small rural communities, many of them located in deep valleys, conditions were excellent for having fun on skis.

Morgedal

The valley of Morgedal, with its steep hillsides, was great for challenging skiing. A popular activity on Sundays, was to come together and have a joyful time on the slopes and hills. Some were eager to surpass each other in the most spectacular skiing acrobatics – like jumping from the roofs.

In addition to excellent skiers, this community also had many craftsmen, fully capable of making skis and skiing related equipment. This explains why Morgedal became a place where people experimented with new types of skis and bindings, and where new ways of using the skis were developed. The skis and the bindings were crucial to innovation of new techniques.

The style and the technique which developed here from the 1850’s, and later was introduced in the capital Christiania (now Oslo), has become known all over the world as Telemark skiing. Also slalom originated in Telemark.

Sondre

Among the eminent skiers from Morgedal, Sondre was the best of the lot. Sondre was a brilliant skier, he was a true ski artist and a great inspiration in his own community. He was fearless on the crazy man’s slopes down the steep hillsides – and he was a master in jumping. Sondre also was an outstanding craftsman who made skis for himself and others. His achievements as a skier would soon become known all over Telemark and later all over Norway.

In 1866, Sondre was invited to participate in what has been described as the world’s first ski jumping competition with prizes, held at Ofte, Høydalsmo (15 kilometres west of Morgedal). There he won 1st prize, and also received an extra award for spectacular performance. This was the first competition where an audience outside Morgedal recognized Sondre’s skills as a skier.

From Morgedal to the Nation’s Capital

In 1868 he impressed and surprised the audience and his competitors when he participated in the first national skiing competition in Norway, held in the capital Christiania (now Oslo). People in Christiania had heard about this extraordinary skier, and Sondre was invited. He and his two fellow skiers arrived in the capital after a three-day walk on skis from Morgedal, a distance of 200 kilometres.

At Iversløkken Sondre demonstrated – for the first time outside Telemark – the Telemark turn and the turn which later (from 1901) has been called the Christiania turn. Sondre was using heel bindings, and he had shorter skis with curved sides. Other participants used the common toe bindings.

Sondre’s Breakthrough

Skiers from different parts of Norway participated. The 42-year-old Sondre won with brilliance. He was a revelation to everyone present. Newspaper reports said about Sondre, “It was the winner of the 1st prize who excelled over all the other competitors. He had such a remarkable style of skiing that one would think he had been born to it, and that it was his natural way of moving around.”

The performance at Iversløkken was a major breakthrough for Sondre and the new style of skiing. People were overwhelmed by this middle-aged man, the poor cotter from the countryside, demonstrating for everyone what an innovative ski artist he was – representing something totally new.

An Inventor?

Sondre has been credited for – in person – having invented the curved skis, the bindings with stiff heel bands made of willow, the Telemark turn and the Christiania turn. In fact we don’t know if Sondre really was the very first person who carried out a Telemark turn.

And when it comes to the bindings, there are reports about the use of willow heel bands many years before Sondre. But this was not frequently used among people in general. Normally the skis were connected to the foot by use of simple toe bindings, eventually also heel bands made of leather.

Teaching Others

After the 1868 breakthrough in Christiania, Sondre participated in further competitions in the capital, and he continued to help the children of Morgedal in their efforts to become excellent skiers. In 1884 he immigrated to the United States. There are few reports about his ski activity there.

Other skiers from Morgedal, such as the Mikkel and Torjus Hemmestveit brothers, continued to make the ski equipment and the Telemark style better known through competitions and by teaching people in the capital. In 1881, Mikkel and Torjus ran the world’s first ski school in Christiania. The heel bindings, the shorter, curved skis and the new turning techniques became accepted and more commonly used.

Ski Historians About Sondre

Even if people were skiing all over the country and local skiing competitions were held in several cities and villages, it’s recognized by ski historians that Sondre along with the rich ski environment in Morgedal has had a crucial impact on the development of skiing.During the late 19th century, as skiing changed its character from a method of transportation into an enjoyable pastime and as a sports activity, the skiers who came in to the capital from the countryside of Telemark, played a key role.

Sondre was the pioneer with regard to ski equipment and skills, he was the one who really inspired people in the capital and elsewhere, as skiing as a sport became better organized with ski clubs and regular competitions.The competition held at Iversløkken, Christiania in 1868 is regarded as a turning point and the beginning of a new era – it was a breakthrough for skiing as a sport in the capital of Norway, and because of that, a breakthrough that had an effect in the whole nation as well as outside Norway.

The Father Of Modern Skiing

Thanks to a creative use of equipment, a unique interest in doing things differently, his talent and playfulness, Sondre contributed to a new and different way of using the skis. This is why he has been called the Father of Modern Skiing. “Modern” is referring to the use of skis as a recreation activity and in sports. 

Sondre’s contribution – in short – can be expressed this way:

  • He introduced skis and bindings which were new to most people at that time – he introduced the Telemark turn/Telemark style and the Christiania turn/slalom. By doing this in the capital, it received a lot of attention, and became crucial to further work of organizing skiing as a sport, along with the development and production of skis, both in Norway and abroad.
  • Sondre demonstrated to people the joy of skiing, he played an important role in changing skiing from utility into enjoyment and sports.

Telemark To The World

The 17-year-old Fritz Huitfeldt was in the audience when Sondre, in 1868, impressed the citizens of the capital. In 1896 he developed a ski model inspired by the one Sondre and other skiers from Telemark used. Huitfeldt’s Telemark ski came to be sold worldwide, and became the standard model for the growing ski industry.

The Hemmestveit brothers were among the many people from Telemark who immigrated to the United States by the late 19th century. They ran ski schools and won several competitions in their new homeland. In this way they made a major contribution in bringing the ski spirit from Morgedal to the world.

Nansen About The Skiers From Telemark

In 1888, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his fellows became the first men to cross Greenland on skis. The book from this expedition was translated into several languages, and played an important role in promoting skiing as a sport across Europe. In his book Nansen describes skiing as “the sport of sports”.

Two years earlier, Nansen wrote the following about the skiers from Telemark, “Telemark is the rightful home of skiing. The people of Telemark are unquestionably our country’s best skiers, and if they are the best in our country, I can doubtless say, without fear of exaggeration, that they are also the world’s best.” “They have taught the townspeople a completely new way of skiing, and have thereby raised the art of skiing to the heights it has achieved in recent years. Telemark skiers truly deserve our respect and thanks”, Nansen wrote.

Alpine Skiing

Around 1900 Telemark skiing and slalom were introduced in Central Europe. Norwegian skiers, many of them students, were invited to teach people in the Alp countries, and people from these countries were later used as alpine skiing teachers in the USA.

But the main focus, also when rules were made and competitions organized, was on slalom, downhill, cross-country and jumping. Telemark skiing was not a part of this, and for years the Telemark style was practised by a relatively small group of enthusiasts.

The Telemark Skiing Renaissance

In the 1970’s something happened in the USA – the interest in the Telemark style increased. The people behind this development were inspired by Norwegian ski star and Olympic champion from the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo, Stein Eriksen. After the games he moved to the States and had great success as a ski instructor.

Stein Eriksen was born in Telemark, and in his book “Come ski with me” he also mentioned the Telemark turn and showed a picture of his father, Marius, demonstrating this way of turning.

Telemark Style Re-born, and Brought Home

Skiing the Telemark way gained popularity, first in the United States and later in Central Europe, Sweden and Norway. In the early 80’s, the re-born Telemark technique came home to the country where it originated.

Today Telemark skiing is popular both in Europe, USA and in other parts of the world. There are Telemark clubs in several countries. People take courses to learn the Telemark style – they are attracted by the opportunity to leave the crowded, prepared slopes, and run down a hillside in deep powder snow.

Free Heel

With slalom skis on, the entire foot is attached to the ski. When using Telemark skis and bindings, the heel is free. One ski is placed a little in front of the other, and this makes it easier to manoeuvre the skis in challenging mountain terrain. In some countries the Telemark technique is called free-heel skiing.

People find this way of skiing not only fun but filled with an exhilarating sense of freedom – just as Sondre did when he introduced the Telemark technique in the 1860’s. The skis have curved sides and the turning technique is the same as back then. But there is a big difference – the skis are not handmade of pine and the bindings are not made of willow...

Organized Telemark Skiing

There is organized Telemark skiing in about 20 countries, and the national teams compete in the World Cup and the World Championship. The International Olympic Committee is now considering including Telemark as a part of the Olympic Games program.

Sondre in History

No doubt – the poor cotter from Morgedal, Telemark earned a golden name in the history of skiing. His name is respected all over the ski-interested world. People travel to Morgedal to see his birthplace – a spot which also has been chosen as the site for lighting of the Olympic Torch three times.  He is honoured with memorials both in Morgedal and the United States. Sondre’s traces in the snow will always be visible…

The Alpine Ski Vs. The Telemark Ski

During the 1990’s, the shape of the alpine skis has changed. Now known as “carving skis”, these skis have sidecuts too, just like Telemark skis, and are the most commonly used alpine skis today. Now it’s not only the Telemark skiers who benefit from the equipment Sondre introduced so many years ago. Downhill and slalom skiers have also recognized how much easier it is to turn when the skis are narrow in the middle and wider at the tip and tail.

So by now, the only real difference between Telemark skiing and alpine skiing is the bindings and the way you turn. And – both turns originated in Telemark.

Skis – Bindings – Telemark Turn – Christiania Turn – Slalom

This is a brief description of the equipment and skiing techniques introduced by Sondre and his fellow skiers from Telemark.

The Skis

The skis were shorter (about 2 m 40 cm) than other skis used at that time, and narrower in the middle than at the ends. The sidecut made it easier to turn. These skis, made of pine, were called Telemark skis.

Skis made by Sondre in 1870
Photo by Eivind Molde
Courtesy of the Norwegian Ski Museum Morgedal

Bindings made by Sondre in 1870
Photo by Eivind Molde
Courtesy of the Norwegian Ski Museum Morgedal

The Bindings

The bindings were made of twisted willow from birch-roots, and had both toe-bands and bands around the heel. These sturdy heel bands made it easier to control the ski when turning and jumping. The bindings commonly used at that time had just toe-bands. 

The Turns

The Telemark turn: this is the turn used in Telemark skiing.
When initiating a turn, the outer ski is placed a little ahead of the other one, as it is moved in the direction you want to turn. The heel of the inner (uphill) ski is lifted, as the knee is bent.

Telemark turn – Telemarker Pia C. Robertsen

Photo by Jon Vidar Bull
Courtesy of Halddetoppen Telemarkslaug, Alta, Norway

Christiania turn - Norwegian junior skier Markus Nilsen
Courtesy of the Norwegian Ski Assn.

The Christiania turn: this is the turn used in alpine skiing and when a ski jumper is making his stop. When turning, the skis are held in a parallel position, with the inner ski a little in front of the outer ski. The turn has been called the Christiania turn, or just Christi, since 1901 (when a set of rules for skiing was made) – it was so called because it was introduced in Christiana (now Oslo) in 1868.

Slalom

The word slalom (in Norwegian “slalåm”) originated in Telemark as a mix of two local dialect words. “Sla” means slanting terrain and “låm” means traces in the snow.

In Norway the word is still written “slalåm”, but internationally “slalom” is used because the letter “å” only exists in Scandinavia.

The word slalåm was printed for the first time in 1879. The first slalom competition was held in the Telemark village of Seljord, 18 kilometres east of Morgedal, in 1886.

Timeline

  • 1825, June 10: Sondre is born at Øverbø, a cotter’s farm in Morgedal, Telemark.
  • 1854, January 15: Sondre (28) marries Rannei Åmundsdotter (29) from Øyfjell in Telemark.
  • 1850-1870: The heyday in Morgedal – a rich ski environment with Sondre as a pioneer in experimenting with new ski equipment and a new style of skiing.
  • 1866, February 11: Sondre is invited to participate in what has been described as the world’s first ski jumping competition with prizes, held at Ofte, Høydalsmo (15 kilometres west of Morgedal). Sondre is number one. In addition he receives an extra prize for spectacular performance. This is the first time Sondre participates in a skiing competition outside Morgedal.
  • 1868, February 9: Sondre (42) participates in the very first national skiing competition in Norway. It’s his first time competing outside Telemark, and after a three day walk on skis from Morgedal – about 200 kilometres – he arrives in the nation’s capital, Christiania (now Oslo). At Iversløkken he demonstrates (for the first time outside Telemark) the Telemark turn and the turn later known as the Christiania turn (since 1901). Sondre uses heel bindings, and he uses shorter skis which are narrower in the middle than at the ends. As the undisputed winner, Sondre impresses everyone. His name becomes familiar all over the country. His performance had a significant impact on the development of skiing as a sport.
  • 1884, May 30: Sondre (59) and his family immigrate to USA (Minnesota).
  • 1886: The world’s first slalom competition is held in the Telemark village of Seljord, 18 kilometres east of Morgedal.
  • 1887: Aslak Bergland, a clergyman and poet from Morgedal, is publishing a book with poems – “Lauvduskar” (“Garland of Leaves”) – which describes Sondre’s skills as a brilliant skier.
  • 1888, May 5: Sondre becomes a citizen of the United States.
  • 1891, November 20: The Sondre family becomes owners of their own 160 acre farm near Denbigh, located in McHenry County of North Dakota. The exact location is Township 155N, Range 77W, Section 35.
  • 1897, March 9: Sondre dies in North Dakota, 71 years old.
  • 1897: A memorial ceremony is held in Morgedal.
  • 1898: Sondre is buried about eight kilometres west of his farm in an unmarked grave.
  • 1898, May 11: The Dakota farm is sold to John Brooten, and Rannei moves to Portland, Oregon.
  • 1925, June 10: A memorial stone is erected in Morgedal, 100 years after Sondre’s birth.
  • 1929: Rannei dies at age 104, and is buried in Gladstone, Oregon.
  • 1947: The first book about Sondre and Morgedal’s role in the history of skiing is published – Torjus Loupedalen: “Morgedal, skisportens vogge” (Torjus Loupedalen: “Morgedal, the Cradle of Skiing”).
  • 1949: Morgedal Sports Club and the Association for the Promotion of Skiing, located in Oslo, assume responsibility for Øverbø and change the former cotter’s farm into a museum.
  • 1952, February 13: The Olympic Torch is lit at Øverbø, and brought to the Olympic Winter Games in Oslo, Norway.
  • 1955, March 27: HRH Crown Prince Olav visits Øverbø.
  • 1960, January 31: The Olympic Torch is lit at Øverbø, and brought to the Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, USA. The fire from Morgedal is still burning in Squaw Valley.
  • 1965, July: Sondre’s grave is identified at Norway Lutheran Church Cemetery south of Denbigh, North Dakota, after a search initiated by Dorothy Lyon, a great grandchild of Sondre.
  • 1966, June 12: A stone with a memorial plaque is dedicated at the grave at the Norway Lutheran Church Cemetery.
  • 1966: The 100th anniversary for the skiing competition at Ofte,
    Høydalsmo is celebrated not only at Høydalsmo, but also in Morgedal, Rjukan and Skien, as well as the World Championship in Holmenkollen, Oslo.
    Holmenkollen is a famous ski jumping, cross-country and biathlon arena, where the Ski Museum – the world’s oldest of its kind – is also located.
    The first major ski arena in Oslo was Iversløkken, followed by the larger Huseby Arena and then Holmenkollen.
  • 1971, April 17 and 24: The 75-minute Sondre movie, directed by Johan Vestly, is broadcast in two parts on national TV in Norway. Later the movie is re-edited into a 49-minute version, called “Sondre fra Morgedal – frikaren på ski”, with both Norwegian and English commentary.
  • 1974: Sondre is inducted into the US National Ski Hall of Fame.
  • 1975: Sondre is the subject of commemorative stamps marking the 150th anniversary of his birth.
  • 1983: Princess Astrid, who is a guest at the Norsk Høstfest in Minot, North Dakota, visits Sondre’s grave south of Denbigh.
  • 1984, October 19: Sondre is inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame at the Norsk Høstfest in Minot.
  • 1987, October 16: A statue of Sondre, created by sculptor Knut Skinnarland of Rauland, Telemark, is unveiled in the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot.
  • 1988, January 16: An identical Sondre statue is unveiled in Morgedal by HM King Olav.
  • 1991, October 17: The first annual wreath-laying ceremony is held at Sondre’s gravesite near Denbigh – from now on, this is a regular part of the programme during the Norsk Høstfest in Minot.
  • 1993, November 26: The Norwegian Ski Museum Morgedal (Norsk Skieventyr) opens in Morgedal. It offers visitors information, souvenirs and a journey through the history of skiing.
  • 1993, November 27: The Olympic Torch is lit at Øverbø, and brought to the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Before leaving Morgedal, a flame is lit from the torch at a special cairn in Lake Morgedal where the fire is still burning.
  • 1993, December 3: A ceremony is held at Sondre’s grave south of Denbigh, North Dakota, where a branch of the Morgedal fire is presented after being transported from Telemark to Minot by North Dakota Governor Edward Schafer.
  • 1993, December 4: The Sondre Norheim Eternal Flame is lit in the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot. As in Morgedal, the flame in Minot is still burning.

The Skiing Pioneer of Telemark
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