(originally published in the Edmonton Vue and the Valley.)
Once a year, on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day, I celebrate the Irish origins of skiing. Many do not know the Irish actually invented skiing. The Norse stole the sport on one of their frequent holidays (some called them coastal raids) to the Emerald Isle.
In a small monastery lies a delicate ancient parchment illustrated manuscript I have been granted complete freedom to study and copy. From this revered manuscript I have assembled the tales around the true roots of skiing.
Father James cared for a small parish in the heart of the mountains of Ireland (There were mountains in Ireland then, too. How they came to disappear no one knows for sure, but some blame the Norse on holidays for that loss too). It snowed for many days. On Sunday people struggled through drifts of snow to celebrate Mass. And struggled home after. On Monday, the snows abated with a few patches of blue sky. On Tuesday the skies cleared. The mountains stood sheathed in new snow set off by a brilliant bluebird sky. There was not a whisper of wind.
That morning, Father James stood outside his small stone church in awe and wonder at the beauty of the land in which he and his parishioners lived. He vowed to give thanks to the Lord on this wondrous day. Fretting at how he could best give thanks, he decided to climb to the top of the tallest mountain and pray his thanks to the Lord. He figured the closer he got to the Lord, the more likely the Lord would hear the prayers. At the top of the mountain, it would almost be whispering in the ear of the Lord.
So he started out. At times the snow reached his waist. He struggled on, knowing his task was holy. To whisper in the ear of the Lord. After much of a day he could finally see the summit of the mountain. He stopped and stared. It had been some time since he visited the summit, but he did not remember anything but rocks. Clearly, there was some structure or at least some sort of artificial assemblage on the top. He wondered who would have carried something to this height and left it on top of the mountain.
And then, putting the questions out of his mind, he put his head down and began his last struggling steps through the waist deep powder,
At long last he reached the summit. There he found two flat boards maybe ten or twelve feet long planted in the snow on very highest point of the mountain. One end of each board was pointed and bent up. When he pulled the boards out of the snow, he found the other end was square. One side was very smooth and had a groove the width and depth of his fore finger running down the middle. The other side was slightly peaked to the center. In the middle of that side was a leather loop.
Father James held one of these boards in his hands and turned it this way and that way wondering at how they arrived on the summit and what they could possibly be used for? He pulled them out of the snow and laid them flat on the snow with the grove side up. That looked odd. He flipped them over so the pointed end bent up and the leather strap cleared the snow and that looked pretty cool.
Standing looking at the boards sitting flat in the snow, Father James (a thinking and observant man) realized that the leather straps were just about the size of the toe of his boot. He wondered what would happen if he slid the toes of his boots under the straps. Being as curious as a cat, he slid his toes into the straps. As he stood there, he felt comfortable and safe.
A raven flew by squawking. He waved it off. The slight motion of the wave broke the connection of the boards to the snow and the boards, with the Father firmly attached, started sliding down the mountain pointed end first. At first this did not bother Father James. He was an athletic man having played rugby, football and surfed as a lad. And surfing in Ireland in those days was something harsh with real long boards of twenty foot or more and no wet suits in the monster waves of the North Atlantic. None of this warm water wimp surfing of the Hawaiians. So he managed to remain upright although not very gracefully, as the boards gradually accelerated down the mountain.
At this point, it is time to look a little closer at the mountain, just as Father James did at this point in the story. This was a massive peak. On three sides the slopes rose steeply but smoothly to the summit. On the fourth side, the mountain dropped vertically for over a thousand meters. As luck would have it, Father James, standing awkwardly on his newfound boards, accelerated toward this massive vertical drop. Warp speed and serious air time approached soon.
Father James realized he was about to meet his Maker. Wanting to get in one last prayer to set things right, he closed his eyes, lifted his arms to the heavens, called out “To the Maker” and dropped to one knee to pray. The boards swept into a turn and came to a stop. He opened his eyes. Stunned, standing, he looked around. He was still a couple hundred meters from the drop.
Another raven flew by squawking. Again he waved it off and again the boards started down the hill. Again right toward the drop. Calling out “To the Maker”, again he dropped to one knee to make his peace before leaving his world. Again the boards swept into a turn and came to a stop.
He thought about it for only a minute before realizing these boards were a gift the Lord left on the mountaintop for him. That in honoring the Maker with the prayer the Lord saved him from certain death. These must be holy boards.
Standing there he, gave a little push down the hill and started down on his own. Eyes wide open, he lifted his arms. Calling “To the Maker”, he tried paying on the other knee and found the boards turned the other direction. Without stopping, this time he stood, lifted his arms and prayed with the other knee. He turned the other direction.
Those were the first two linked turns in the history of skiing.
At the end of that day, the village looked up the mountain wondering if their priest had lost his mind as he swept down the mountain lifting his arms in praise, hollering “To the Maker” with each sweeping turn. They gathered and marveled as he told of leaving to become closer to the Lord. Of climbing the mountain and how the Lord placed these holy boards on the summit for him to find. How believing he was about to die, he dropped into prayer and the Lord taught him to turn and saved him one more time.
And that is the story of how skis were given to the Irish. Of course in time, with a lack of understanding of the thick brogue so many speak, the turn lost the original “To the Maker” and became simply a “telemark” turn. But it does not diminish the fact that every telemark turn is a manner of prayer and puts one closer to our Lord. And that is why all Tele skiers are just a little more holy that the rest.