The cradle of modern skisport

Photo: Hamish Moore

Photo: Hamish Moore

Morgedal is a small valley with a big claim to fame – Telemark skiing was born here

When planning a trip to Norway, Morgedal isn’t a destination that often comes to mind. The name doesn’t sound as familiar to North American tourists as capital city Oslo, or coastal cities Bergen and Stavanger.

But Morgedal should be right up there with the big Norwegian tourist destinations. For skiers especially, a pilgrimage to Morgedal at least once in life is a must. As Telemark Skier Magazine once said, “Morgedal is Mecca.”

Why is Morgedal so important? This is where skiing legend Sondre Norheim was born and lived much of his life, and if his name doesn’t sound familiar, his invention of Telemark skiing should.  Norheim was the Norwegian ski pioneer who also invented the Kristiania turn.

Morgedal is a quiet valley located in Kviteseid, central Telemark, in southeast Norway; surrounded by pine-covered hills, with a lovely blue lake stretched out at the bottom of the valley, it is a beautiful retreat whether or not one is a ski enthusiast. Only 250 people live in this serene little valley, and local businesses thrive here: The Morgedal Hotell, Skare Farm, the Norwegian Ski Museum, and Morgedal Camping among them.

Morgedal is known by many as “the cradle of modern skisport,” and it is where Norheim, in addition to his distinctive Telemark style of skiing, made many important advancements in ski design. He designed the first ski with  bindings around the heel, as well as skis with slightly curved sides. These designs were soon popularized around the world.

Morgedal has long been known as a place with a strong skiing tradition. In addition to Sondre Norheim’s many contributions to skiing culture, other greats from the valley include Olav Bjaaland, a key member of Amundsen’s Norwegian team who were the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, himself a champion skier and designer of skis; brothers Mikkel and Torjus Hemmestveit, champion skiers and the founders of the world’s first ski school in Oslo; and Svein Sollid, the first man on record to have jumped over 100 feet on skis. The word “slalom” itself comes from Morgedal and West Telemark dialect: “sla” means sloping, uneven terrain, while “lom” means tracks or traces in the snow.

In 1952, Morgedal was recognized for all of this with the first ever Winter Olympics torch lit at Sondre Norheim’s birthplace, the small farm Øverbø in Morgedal. This same honor was extended to Morgedal for the 1960 and 1994 Winter Olympics, as well.

Today, Morgedal remains much the same as it was during Sondre Norheim’s day. This is no fancy-schmancy ski resort. You’ll not find chairlifts, designer sports stores, or helicopter pilots willing to take you to the top of the mountains. A dedicated group of local people take great care in keeping Morgedal’s slopes as close to the way they were in their heyday—ca. 1850—so modern ski and snowboard enthusiasts can get a taste for the what the original fathers of slalom skiing experienced.

The weekend of March 1-4, the Morgedal Winter Games 2012 will be held. This event invites Telemark skiers from around the world to come and spend a weekend skiing the slopes of their sport’s birthplace. From the event’s website, “The Morgedal Games is a small and intimate telemark gathering which will celebrate the unique heritage of this most graceful sport and will attract telemark skiers from around the globe who are wanting to connect with the soul of Tele and enjoy the simple things that this unique little valley has to offer.”

A festival pass to this event offers many access to many different events. The Morgedal Games features backcountry and twilight ski tours, live music and drinks at Skare Farm – the home of jumping legend Svein Sollid – dog sledding, a tour of Øverbø by torchlight, ski making and testing, and a guided tour of the ski museum.

The ski museum, “Norsk skieventyr” (“The Norwegian Ski Fairytale”) is located in a rustic log building within walking distance of a bus stop as well as cross-country ski trails, and features a film about the history of sking, a ski-making workshop, a wax factory, memorabilia from the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, and many other interesting exhibits. The gift shop inside is also worth checking out, with its Norwegian sweaters, ski apparel, and other Norwegian products and souvenirs. The Innsving Café, also located inside the museum, is a delicious place to spend lunchtime with some distinctly Norwegian cuisine. From the museum it is also possible to make the trek up to Øvrebø, the birthplace of Sondre Norheim.

Morgedal’s appeal is in the rugged beauty of its hills and mountains, its unspoiled rural serenity and the usurpassed uniqueness of its history. Its off-the-beaten-path location make it the perfect place to visit, summer or winter. If you are planning a trip to Norway – even if you are not necessarily a ski enthusiast – don’t forget to include Morgedal among your stops!

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This article originally appeared in the Mar. 2, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.