Après-ski and skiing go hand in hand, naturally. After all, did you even take a ski trip if you didn’t après-ski? Après-ski is one of the preeminent skiing traditions, with each country and even region having their own ways of doing it. So with a new ski season upon us, it’s only fitting to explore the history of après-ski.
This begs the question, where did après-ski begin? It’s easy to credit French skiers with the birth of the après-ski culture we love so much today. After all, après-ski translates from French to “after skiing.” However, while the French may deserve credit for modern day celebrations after a day of skiing, the history of après-ski goes beyond the iconic French ski destinations like Chamonix.
The fact is that après-ski, albeit probably called something else and toasted with a “skol,” truly began when skiing began. That means it’s probable that après-ski began in Scandinavia. The earliest known reference to skiing harkins back to around 3,000-4,000 BC. Primitive carvings depict human figures walking on skis. One of the earliest carvings is at Rødøy in Norway’s Nordland, where a skier is holding a single pole while wearing skis of equal length.
Sweden’s “Kalvträskskidan” ski is dated to 3,300 BC, and Norway’s “Vefsn Nordland” ski are dated to 3,200 BC and don’t roll off the tongue as easily as Rossignol. More than 20 well-preserved skis or ski fragments have been found in drained bogs in Norway. These discoveries prove skis have been used in Norway since prehistoric times. Early written evidence includes Greek scholar Procopius’ description of Sami people (those living in Northern Norway, Finland, Sweden and Lapland) as “ski-running samis.” In fact, the very old Sami word for skiing, “čuoigat,” makes it clear Sami people have skied for thousands of years.
Arguably the most famous symbol of skiing is Ullr, famed in Norse mythology as the God of Snow, Patron Saint of Skiers, the son of Sif and stepson of Thor, the God of Thunder. Ullr (pronounced Oool-er) is said to be an expert skater, skier and hunter who would glide around the world and cover the land with snow. He is the very God we send our prayers to prior to our ski trips to ensure perfect snow conditions.
Today, Ullr is often toasted in après-ski celebrations, such as in Breckenridge, Colorado, as Viking-hatted skiers and snowboarders celebrate all things winter at the annual early December Ullr Fest. Locals and visitors of all ages join together to praise Ullr, in hopes of a powder-filled season. There’s a Main Street parade and then everyone takes part in the world’s longest “Shotski” – long lines of partiers placing several shot glasses equidistant on the deck of downhill skis and then downing them with a hearty “skol.” Looking for a “legendary” early season kick-off party? This is it.
Enter the modern era of après-ski
Thousands of years later, the modern day version of après-ski did indeed take off in France as commercial skiing became popular around the world in the 1950s. Oxford Living Dictionaries defines après-ski as “the social activities and entertainment following a day’s skiing.” Après-ski now provides an umbrella term for popular activities once the ski day is done. It translates to a good time.
Après-ski really has no rules or universal time, though it usually starts in late afternoon, about the time the lifts stop churning. However, beware of saying “the last run,” as that could bring on bad luck. Après can roll on past dinner and sometimes into the wee hours of the morning and sometimes, like in the Alps, well into the next day’s slope time.
As you may expect, there’s no real dress code either. After all, you’re heading for good times after rolling off the slopes. It’s common for your snow gear to double as après-ski attire, minus those clunky ski boots.
Après-ski customs vary across the alpine world
Après-ski customs vary from country to country and sometimes from resort to resort these days. Let’s start in the Alps, where today’s customs first took hold. Europe’s alpine ski towns have a feeling of elegance to them. But from Austria to France, the après-ski scene also has a genuinely wild side at times with cabaret, underground clubs, and late-night Europop dance parties and those ubiquitous patio decks with outdoor bars at or near the base of the lifts.
One of the more riotous scenes, many skiers agree, is in St. Anton, Austria where sing-alongs and 3 a.m. dance parties are pumped by giant beers and Jägermeister shots. Among the most famous après-ski spots in the Alps is MooserWirt, which is rumored to sell the most beer per square foot in Austria. Don’t miss the Krazy Kanguruh, known as the original home of après-ski in St Anton. Ishgl, Austria; Val d’Isère and Chamonix, France; Verbier, Switzerland and Cervinia, Italy are no slouches when the lifts close down.
The après-ski scene in the U.S. is as varied as the vibes at the resorts. Killington, Vt., for example, means partying up and down the access road from Route 4. Can’t miss après-ski bars include the Pickle Barrel. Heading to Park City, Utah? The scene here is the High West Saloon, the only ski-in/ski-out distillery in North America. The Old Town Cellars is the spot for wine across the pedestrian bridge from the resort base. Deer Valley’s sophisticated Apres Ski Lounge and Beach Club features champagne and caviar.
The Little Nell long has been the place to party after a day on Aspen Mountain, while the storied Mangy Moose is the hot spot in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Around Lake Tahoe, it’s all about Tamarack Lodge’s Unbuckle Parties at Heavenly and Northstar’s Töst, where skiers enjoy a complimentary glass of champagne off the East Ridge trail. Palisades-Tahoe’s Le Chamois (“The Chammy”) in Olympic Village is another Lake Tahoe hotspot. The Yodler at Mammoth Mountain brings a little taste of Europe to the Sierras with good brews and Bavarian food.
A sample of après-ski drinks
The top choices in the Alps (besides beer, of course) include mulled wine, a spiced wine known as vin chaud in France and Glühwein in Austria. In Italy there’s Bombardino (Italy), a warm winter cocktail made with eggnog and brandy and served hot with whipped cream and in Austria and Switzerland Jägermeister, which is a licorice liqueur. Or, go simple in the Alps with a classic Aperol Spritz, a wine-based cocktail prepared with Aperol, Prosecco and soda water.
Canada has the Caesar, their version of a Bloody Mary, and Kokanee, a British Columbia lager. Lone Tree Cider Company’s hard cider is a popular refreshing choice in parts of Canada..
U.S. skiers and riders often celebrate the end of the ski day (or start of the ski night) with Bloody Marys, craft beers and, in some of the more fancy-dance spots, a toast of French bubbly. But, pitchers of beer are often first choice.
Back to where it all began
So, let’s end this après ski adventure through history where it all began. In Scandinavia, of course. Not sure if Ullr will join you, but he’ll certainly be there in spirit at the The IHKU in Ruka, Finland — a great place to end your ski day on the heated terrace and it has the longest season in the country, so après-ski time seldom ends.
The top of Hafjell in Lillehammer, Norway (site of the 1994 Winter Olympics) is where you’ll find Gaiastova, a perfect après-ski spot filled with locals, cottage owners and guests with good music, drinks and fun.
Here’s to many days capped by après-ski. Skol.