The Club decided to adopt some specific tests for skiing ability, namely the First-, Second-, and Third-Class Tests of the British Ski Association (1911). A first-class skier was an international racer, while a third-class skier was still a very good skier. A Fourth-Class Test for beginners was devised by Dr. Walter Mosauer, one of the founders of the SMS. According to Joel Hildebrand, writing in the Bulletin in 1935, the purpose of this test was to give the new skier confidence that he or she could complete a tour "without having to be carried home." Essentially the same tests were used by the California Ski Association (now the Far West Ski Association) and the National Ski Patrol.
The low-level Fourth-Class Test covered such basic skills as kick-turning, herringboning, and snowplowing, while the Second-Class Test required the ability to make smoothly-linked turns on 30-degree slopes at high speeds, and jump turns "preferably in breakable crust." The tests specify performance, not style or equipment. It is remarkable how close the skills listed in these three historic tests are to the skills required for the three main levels of skiing we recognize today (intermediate, advanced, and expert). The intermediate skier can do basic maneuvers and simple turns with steering and pressure on easy snow. The advanced skier has acquired angulation and edge control. The expert skier is fully dynamic and can ski difficult and steep snow.
When the SMS was founded outside the Sierra Club in 1934, third-class skiing ability was required for membership, because the Ski Mountaineers was to be a club for better skiers only. This position was soon compromised by such factors as the need for cheap labor to build ski huts, not to mention the tendency to select friends of the opposite sex for qualities other than skiing ability. In February of 1939, the section voted to establish a new grade of associate membership for fourth-class skiers. The requirements for regular membership (now called "Big Badge") were raised to include the first-aid and rescue, avalanche safety, and snow-camping requirements of the new Ski Mountaineering Test, announced in the Bulletin in late 1937 as a qualification for future leaders. Only regular members could be leaders at that time. This rule was dropped in 1956.
The tests were administered by Sierra Club judges, appointed in Southern California by the SMS. Judges gave tests at places like the Keller Ski Hut and Clair Tappaan Lodge, and sent the results to San Francisco. Attractive badges were (and still are) available for those who passed the tests. But the system slowly fell apart as downhill skiing became commercialized, professional instruction became available, and the Sierra Club grew too large to administer the system. The Winter Sports Committee was disbanded around 1970. The tests no longer had an official home, although still part of the SMS membership requirements.
In 1980, the SMS Central Committee reviewed the test requirements, soliciting the comments of qualified outsiders, including those with experience in backcountry skiing on Nordic skis. We knew from decades of SMS experience that the tests worked; the only question was whether they needed improvement or clarification. It was agreed that the tests were still relevant. In particular, nobody felt that the tests were too stringent for people on Nordic skis. Off-track cross-country skiing in the California mountains is not the same as Nordic track skiing, which is a different sport using different equipment.
Slightly modified versions of the tests were put in the 1980 SMS safety policy. These were updated in 1998 to correspond to modern terminology and technique. See the discussion of the terms snowplow and wedge for the reasoning behind the update.
The names of the tests were also changed, because people had trouble understanding what the numbered classes meant. The Fourth-Class, Third-Class, and Second-Class Tests are now called the Qualifying, Advanced, and Expert Tests respectively. The tests are used by several sections to qualify leaders and participants.
The present method of judging and testing is less formal. Any leader qualified at a given level may act as a judge for that level, and the tests are passed by demonstrating the required skills on tour (the actual practice for many years). But even without a formal judging and examination system, the Sierra Club ski tests provide valuable standards by which people can judge their own ability, by which leaders can screen people for trips, and by which the SMS Central Committee can determine if someone is qualified to be a leader. Leaders must be qualified as in 1939, to the standards of the Ski Mountaineering Test. First-aid cards and navigation ability are required (Angeles Chapter I-rating). Avalanche knowledge is obtained by attending an approved seminar. Nowadays, most SMS members have extensive snow-camping experience.
These specific standards have helped correct the dangerous idea that "if you can walk, you can ski". The tests emphasize skiing ability as the cornerstone of safety. There is not much point in teaching avalanche safety to people who can't ski a slope steep enough to slide, especially if one mistakenly gives the impression that such training makes risking avalanche exposure any safer. As noted by Bob Brinton in the SMS minutes in 1938, "the best way to get out of one is to wait 'till the spring thaw."