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Skiing was once seen as a burdensome way of getting from A to B in the snow but now is one of the most popular winter sports worldwide, appealing to people of all ages, levels of experience and ability.

It may come as no surprise to hear that Alpine skiing actually originates in Austria. It is here that steep slopes were first negotiated on skis and the first ski schools were founded. Stem turns and wedeling are Austrian inventions, and Austria is home to one of the world's most challenging ski events.

Intrigued? Come with us on a trip through the snowy annals of Austrian winter sport.
Ski pioneer Mathias Zdarsky © Zarsky-Ski-Museum Ski pioneer Mathias Zdarsky © Zarsky-Ski-Museum

First Moves to International Acclaim

The history of skiing began with Mathias Zdarsky in the early 20th century. This Austrian became the first person to slide down steep mountain slopes on wooden planks, using a long pole to change direction. It wasn't long before the first ski races were conducted. Several years later, however, things really took off when Hannes Schneider and Toni Seelos developed the ground-breaking stem turn and the parallel turn. Countless ski schools were founded, including the very first Skiing Academy set up by Hannes Schneider in St. Anton am Arlberg, and highly skilled professional Austrian ski instructors quickly became well regarded around the world.

Austria quickly became the epicentre of the skiing world. The “Austrian Way of Skiing” even spread as far as Japan and the USA – and was revolutionised again in the 1950s when a sports teacher named Stephan Kruckenhauser developed the wedel technique, which allows skiers to sail down the piste with short elegant turns while keeping their feet close together. The most widespread skiing technique today is carving – turning in a large radius on the edges of the skis.

1951: historic cable car at Stubnerkogel, Gastein © ONB 1951: historic cable car at Stubnerkogel, Gastein © ONB

From Wooden Seats to Heated Lifts

Lift technology has developed beyond recognition. Older skiers might still remember chairlifts with wooden seats and an iron chain or metal bar for safety and stomach-churning stops over Alpine ravines which left passengers either shivering with cold or perhaps with fear at the prospect of falling into the abyss. It took considerably longer to ride up the mountain than it did to ski down, so these primitive lifts offered absolutely no protection from the elements.

Freezing on the lifts is now a thing of the past, and nowadays skiers glide to the top of the mountains in panoramic gondolas and heated chairlifts protected from the wind and weather. Moreover, Austria's modern and sophisticated ski infrastructure belongs to some of the world's best. Receiving significant investment each year, its winter guests continuously receive an increased offer, variety and choice every year. Just one example is Sölden's powerful new Giggijoch Mountain Gondola transports up to 4,500 people per hour; the highest capacity of any lift in the world.

Skier in 1911 © Archiv Winter!Sport!Museum! Mürzzuschlag Skier in 1911 © Archiv Winter!Sport!Museum! Mürzzuschlag

Woolen Jackets and Waterproof Anoraks

Today's skiwear is chic and practical, with a wealth of stylish wind- and waterproof trousers and anoraks on offer. This certainly wasn't the case in the past. Mathias Zdarsky, the godfather of Alpine skiing, wore an ordinary loden wool jacket complete with hat and tie for his downhill runs. In the 1920s, the ski show became a fashion show and woollen skirts, puttees and mink caps were all considered appropriate clothing for ladies on skis.

In the 1950s icons like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergmann helped skiwear infiltrate mainstream fashion, turning windcheaters and stretch trousers made of smooth, water-repellent fabrics into must-have items for ski enthusiasts. During the seventies and eighties, neon-coloured overalls were all the rage, and skin-tight salopettes with braces were frequently sported on the slopes. Style-conscious skiers also wore jackets with bat-wing sleeves and shoulder pads.

Hahnenkamm race in Kitzbühel © KSC / HKR Hahnenkamm race in Kitzbühel © KSC / HKR

Spectacular Racing

Towering 1,710 metres above Kitzbühel, the legendary Streif is one of the most challenging and dangerous ski runs in the world, and subject of the behind-the-scenes film "Streif - One Hell of a Ride". Every year in mid-January the world's skiing greats pit themselves against its heady mixture of twists, turns and 80-metre jumps. 45,000 spectators, including VIPs and celebrities from all over the world, watch in awe as the skiers reach speeds of up to 150km/hr and conquer slopes of a giddy 85% gradient. The winners of this legendary race have their names engraved on the Hahnenkamm lift's gondolas; a worthy achievement for those who have risked life and limb for the ultimate sporting challenge.

It wasn't always like this, however. The Streif has undergone some impressive development since the first international “Downhill Only” race was held almost 90 years ago. Back then, the fastest skiers reached an average speed of “just” 22.5 km/h. Today, it boasts an impressive length of 3,312 metres, and has a number of alternative routes down the steep slopes.

The Early Days of Alpine Skiing

  • Hannes Schneider © Archiv Winter!Sport!Museum! Mürzzuschlag Hannes Schneider © Archiv Winter!Sport!Museum! Mürzzuschlag
  • The beginning of teaching parallel turns © Archiv Winter!Sport!Museum! Mürzzuschlag The beginning of teaching parallel turns © Archiv Winter!Sport!Museum! Mürzzuschlag
  • Ski pioneer Mathias Zdarsky © Zarsky-Ski-Museum Ski pioneer Mathias Zdarsky © Zarsky-Ski-Museum
  • Skiers at the beginning of the 20th century © Zdarsky-Ski-Museum Skiers at the beginning of the 20th century © Zdarsky-Ski-Museum
  • Mathias Zdarsky from Lilienfeld, inventor of alpine skiing © Zdarsky-Ski-Museum Mathias Zdarsky from Lilienfeld, inventor of alpine skiing © Zdarsky-Ski-Museum
  • Skier in 1911 © Archiv Winter!Sport!Museum! Mürzzuschlag Skier in 1911 © Archiv Winter!Sport!Museum! Mürzzuschlag
  • Ski fashion in the 70s © ONB Ski fashion in the 70s © ONB

Want to Know More?

Follow the path of the Skiing Legends

In the charming Nockberge region in Carinthia, a popular hiking region, the Alpine Leistungszentrum Innerkrems trains Austria's skiing superstars on championship-level slopes. Come here to learn more about the history of skiing in Austria and about the people who pioneered this winter sport on the Path of the Skiing Legends".

www.erlebniswegenockberge.at
 

More champion-level slopes

The Streif isn't the only Austrian race course looking back on a long history that gets competitors' hearts racing. Attempt to conquer some of these if you dare...

The Night Race on the Planai in Schladming, Styria.

World Cup courses:
Flachau
St. Anton am Arlberg
Hinterstoder

 

More Winter Legends

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