Amateur Photography and Ski History

Today skiing encompasses all kinds of snow sports: downhill skiing, slalom, snowboarding, even cross country. But that hasn’t always been the case.

Before World War II people skied as a form of transportation in countries and places where driving or riding by horseback was either impossible or proved imprudent. In Colorado a few unusual men and women skied downhill on the sides of mountains without lifts or groomed slopes.

They skied because they loved it.

Then the war came and the skiing that these men loved provided the backbone of one of the most famous divisions mustered in World War II.

The 10th Mountain Division was commissioned specifically to fight Germans the mountains of Europe.

10th Mountain Division (photograph: Staff Sgt. W. R. Allen)

The men drafted into the Tenth about division possessed a specific skill set necessary to fight Germans in the mountains of Europe. Skilled in cross-country skiing and downhill skiing these men were trained in hand-to-hand combat on skis in deep snow.

Germans fighting these men considered them some of the fiercest fighters they encountered during WW2.

When the war was over these young man returned with a renewed sense of vision regarding skiing as a leisure sport in the state of Colorado.

62 ski areas in the USA were started by 10th Mountain Division veterans.  

Even Vail and Aspen were started by 10th Mountain Division vets.

Skiing as a leisure sport exploded through the vision and hard work of these men.

What we now know of skiing came about through their efforts, including night skiing.

Colorado’s first ski area with night skiing was at Climax, Colorado. The Climax Molybdenum company built the ski area for its employees across Highway 91. Built in 1936, it had a t-bar and tow rope and night skiing.

My grandparents, aunts and father lived in Climax from 1948 through 1962 and skied frequently on that slope. I imagine they even skied at night.

I was thrilled to discover this photo in my grandfather’s extensive ski-related photo archive. I believe he took this photo sometime in 1948 or 1949.

Night skiing at Climax ski area, 1948-1949 (photograph: W. R. Allen)

Night skiers carrying lights ski down the slope in a helix-pattern.

I’ve previously discussed the importance of social history and family photographic archives. What might seem to us to be boring or worthless might have immense value to museums.

My grandfather took scores of photos of skiing activities in Colorado from the 1940s through the late 1950s and early 1960s. These amateur photos are immeasurably helpful to museums like the Colorado Snowsports Museum.

His photos document the emergence of skiing as leisure activity and also document areas that no longer exist like the Climax ski area.

I understand that your family photographic archive probably won’t have a lot of photos of skiing. But it probably will have photographs of very important events that your relative documented.

Buildings that used to be in your town or city and are no longer there or events such as parades or demonstrations or religious activities are all of interest to archives.

Understand of what’s happening in the photographs in terms of larger social trends.

Hundreds of thousands of amateur photographers around the world documented significant human events by holding a camera to their eye and pressing the exposure button.

1 Comment

  1. Climax is the place I was born. My father, Jack Gorsuch built the first rope tow on Chalk Mtn. With the help of a few other men. We had night skiing Wednesday and Friday nights Saturday and Sunday day skiing. The T-Bar lift was put in 1946 to replace the rope tow with better lights for night skiing. It was a great place to grow up. Dave Gorsuch


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