TIME photography

See Photos of Skiing’s Early Days as a Popular American Pastime

The sport exploded beginning in the mid-1950s

Skiing is somewhere in the vicinity of 22,000 years old—not as sport or recreation, but as a critical mode of transportation for early hunters. But skiing as Americans know it today, complete with high-speed chairlifts and cozy lodges selling overpriced French fries, only began to boom in the mid-1950s. With the advent of artificial snow and metal skis during that decade and plastic boots the next, more Americans took up the sport. Ski resorts, in turn, introduced new amenities to attract bigger crowds with each passing year.

LIFE photographer George Silk hit the slopes in 1957 to capture the building frenzy. A record 3.5 million skiers had made their ways down America’s mountains the previous year, and several of the resorts he visited in Vermont—Stowe, Mount Snow, Mad River Glen—were host to ever more luxurious lodges, high-end apparel and, most of all, epic crowds. “As the peak late-February season approached,” LIFE declared, “the question was where all the skiers would find room to ski.”

The more skiers there were, the more the businesses rose to meet their demands. Mount Snow served up almost 20,000 hot dogs in a single weekend. Equipment rentals, previously unavailable, now came with free lessons. At Mad River Glen, skiers at the end of a long run could shed their gear and slip into a Catholic Mass. The only ones who weren’t pleased were the “old-line ski addicts,” who viewed new adopters of their sport as “a nuisance that crowds the slopes and inns they once had to themselves.”

But the newcomers were there to stay. The record 3.5 million who hit the slopes in 1956 pale in comparison to statistics for the 2014-2015 winter season, during which 53.6 million people made tracks in the powdery white stuff.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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