How Ski Resorts Work

It isn't hard to imagine why the ski-resort industry didn't start to take off until it figured out how to offer easy rides to the mountaintop. See pictures of winter sports.

The idea of strapping two slender boards to your feet and zipping across an expanse of snow is hardly a new one. According to some sources, the earliest skis found to date are between 7,000 and 8,300 years old [source: International Ski Federation]. Made out of hard wood, these skis were crafted in Russia some 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) from Moscow. Other ancient samples of skis discarded over the intervening millennia have been found in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and lots of other locales. Ancient people even painted depictions of skiers on rocks.

Now done largely for entertainment and sport rather than utility and survival, downhill skiing enjoys steady favor among people in snowy climes and otherwise. These days, skiers usually hit the slopes at ski resorts -- ski areas that also provide lodgings -- to satisfy their cravings for outdoor excitement and physical challenge.

In the 1930s, lift systems designed to lug lots of skiers up snowy summits started to enter the mainstream, signaling the birth of the modern skiing era. Rope tows, J-bars and T-bars popped up around North America and Europe, and in 1936, the first chairlift was installed in Sun Valley, a ski resort in Idaho [source: Union Pacific Railroad]. The inspiration for the chairlift came from the banana industry, but instead of hauling bunches of bananas onto boats, the system featured chairs to transport people quickly and comfortably up vast mountains.

It's hard to imagine ski resorts today without picturing the sight of chair lifts -- and even in some cases a gondola or two -- cruising slowly up the mountainsides. Once there, whether your skill level enables you to take elegantly tight turns while whizzing down a black diamond, or to just lock your skis dead ahead and hope to survive a green circle, skiing can be an invigorating experience.

On the next page, we'll delve deeper into the world of ski resorts, popular with locals and tourists alike.