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Ski Champion’s Invention Transformed The Sport

Skiers will descend on Mount Hood’s Timberline Lodge this weekend for the longest-running ski race in the country. The annual Golden Rose Ski Classic dates back to 1936 when a Norwegian immigrant dominated the race. Hjalmar Hvam (pronounced Yall-mer Vahm) was known as a ski champion, but he’s also responsible for an invention that changed the sport and drastically reduced skiing injuries.

Up until the 1940s, breaking a leg while skiing was pretty common. Back then, skis were a lot longer than they are now — like we’re talking 8 feet long! They were made of wood with metal bindings, nicknamed “bear traps.”

Nate Turner is the hard goods manager at Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort. (For all you non-skiers, hard goods basically boils down to equipment.) He says, “The old bear traps were just horrible. It was kind of a function of a locking vice that locked down on the lug of the boot. I don’t care how fun skiing is, I don’t think I could have gotten into it back in those days.”

Hjalmar Hvam in the Silver Skis race on Mt. Rainier in 1936. He won with a time of 5:38.

Hjalmar Hvam in the Silver Skis race on Mt. Rainier in 1936. He won with a time of 5:38.

courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

There’s probably a lot of natural born skiers like Nate who didn’t get into the sport back then. Skiing just wasn’t very popular prior to World War II. But the appeal of majestic, snow-covered Mount Hood just 55 miles from Portland was tempting for some adventurous Oregonians back in the day. Scandinavian immigrants who grew up skiing felt at home on Oregon’s highest mountain. One Norwegian in particular stood out — Hjalmar Hvam.

According to historian and Portland State University professor emeritus Bill Lang, Hvam was the best slalom racer, the best downhill racer, the best cross-country skier and the best jumper in the Northwest between 1931 and 1945.

Hjalmar and his brother Ingvald (pronounced Ing-vahl) left their hometown of Kongsberg in the 1920s when Norway was in a deep, post-war recession. The brothers landed in Oregon in 1927. Hjalmar found work at a local sawmill, but he quickly became known as an exceptional skier.

In 1931, Hjalmar was the first person ever to ski down from the summit of Mount Hood. He won something like 150 trophies in his career. But even a champ like Hjalmar wasn’t immune to broken bones.

In 1937, he won the Golden Rose Ski Classic at Mount Hood’s Timberline Lodge for the second year in a row. Afterwards, he and some friends decided to do a little ski jumping in the backcountry. He jumped off of a snowy crest and one of his long, wooden skis got stuck in a frozen rut. His leg twisted and broke. Despite all his athletic accomplishments, what happened next is actually what secured Hjalmar’s place in ski history.

“He would get a kind of elvish look on his face when he told [the story]. He had a broken leg, he was in the hospital, and in a painkiller-induced dream, he realized the principle he could use for this ski binding,” says Lang.

Hjalmar Hvam was a champion ski jumper as well as an inventor.

Hjalmar Hvam was a champion ski jumper as well as an inventor.

courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

That was the moment of the inspiration for the world’s first quick-release, safety ski binding.

Hvam told the story in a 1993 interview with KPTV in Portland when he was 90 years old. He said, “I just jumped and the guy in the next bed says, ‘Say! You just about jumped out of bed!’ ‘Oh is that right?’ I said. ‘I had a binding that I’ve been working on for three years and I just, just realized how I could build it.’ So, I drew up the sketch for the first release binding in the world.”

Hvam patented his design in 1939. He called it the Saf-Ski binding and he took out magazine ads with the slogan Hvoom with Hvam and have no fear! Just like his name, he spelled “voom” with a silent H.

The boom years following World War II were good for the ski industry and for the insurance business. Rental shop owners quickly discovered that they could lower their premiums by offering skis with Hjalmar Hvam’s “Safe Ski” bindings.

Hvam died in 1996. He was 93. And he skied well into his golden years. Thanks to his invention, skiing is safer and more appealing to a wide range of people. “I think the ski industry worldwide owes a little tip of the hat to him,” says Turner.

It’s all a part of Hvam’s skiing philosophy, which involved both safety and risk. He said, “If you have the guts to ski, you must ski so you fall down once in a while. It takes a little risk, but that’s what’s fun of it. That’s what skiing is all about.”

This piece first aired on Destination DIY. Visit their website for more photos of Hjalmar Hvam and his bindings. You can listen to an extended version here:

Funding for Destination DIY’s Oregon Inventors series comes from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

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