Monday, December 13, 2010

Please Release Me: Hjalmar Hvam's 1939 Saf-Ski bindings change alpine skiing forever

Hjalmar Hvam's invention of releasable bindings made skiing safe for the masses.

Posted By on Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 5:20 PM

click to enlarge hjalmarhvam.jpg
Every time an alpine skier takes a spill and his or her bindings release on impact preventing either a leg fracture or something worse, they should thank Hjalmar Hvam.

An Oregonian by way of his native Norway and a short stay in Canada, Hvam came up with the idea of releasable bindings in 1939. His inspiration, as ski lore has it, came while on the operating table at a Portland hospital.

As surgeons repaired the leg he fractured on the same Mt. Hood slope in both 1937 and 1938, Hvam mentally worked on the concept of bindings that would release on impact. Legend further has it that he asked for pen and paper as he was wheeled into a recovery room where he roughed out a sketch of his bindings.

Before inventing the releasable binding, Hvam burst on the Mt. Hood ski scene in 1927 after moving to Portland. A year later, he founded the Cascade Ski Club and in 1931 was the first person to ski off the summit of Mt. Hood. This feat, considered a landmark in North American backcountry skiing, was done in the company of Swiss-born avalanche expert, and Aspen ski pioneer Andre Roch.

A cross country skier and ski jumper from childhood, Hvam won the 1932 U.S. National Nordic combined championship. Then he transitioned into the alpine events winning not only the 1933 Oregon State Championships in cross-country but also in slalom. Other accomplishments included winning a coveted 1934 four-way (x-c, jumping, slalom and downhill) title at a national meet on Mt. Baker and capturing the first two Golden Rose Ski Classic alpine ski races (1936 and 1937) on Mt. Hood.

As his reputation as a ski racer grew so too did the demand for his Saf-Ski releasable bindings, advertised as “steadier in slalom,” “safer in downhill” and “better in jumping.”

“Give your legs a break instead of a fracture” offered more Saf-Ski copy and by the 1950’s dozens of European manufacturers had followed Hvam’s lead and come to market with their own versions of releasable bindings.

Saf-Ski bindings were sold to retailers through distributors. Hvam himself also became a ski retailer operating shops in both Portland and at Mt Hood for many years.

He continued love for snow sports included coaching the U.S. Nordic Combined Team at the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympic Games and skiing recreationally well into his mid eighties.

Hvam, who died in 1996, was inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1967 and the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.


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