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ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE AND DAVOS SKI-RUNNING

DOCTOR JOHN H. WATSON’S literary agent, a fellow named Arthur Conan Doyle, helped to make skiiing popular in Davos, Switzerland. Details are given in Harry Mount’s “How Conan Doyle Pioneered Skiing… in a Tweed Suit and 8ft-long Wooden Skis,” the Daily Mail, January 29, 2012. 

This was long before Davos became popular as a meeting place for the 0.01-percenters. Indeed, it was before skiiing was popular in other than Scandinavia. Back in Conan Doyles’ day, the clear mountain air of Davos was known to be beneficial for those suffering from tuberculosis.

Davos, Switzerland, 1908. Image from Conan Doyle Info.

Conan Doyle, his wife Louise, and their two kids traveled to Davos in 1893 at the advice of her doctor. Mount noted in the Daily Mail, “It was the mountain air, Conan Doyle maintained, that kept his wife alive until 1909—long after doctors had predicted she would survive. Year after year, until her death, the Conan Doyles returned to Davos; and it was in 1895 that he developed what he called ‘ski-running.’ ”

Conan Doyle and wife Louise. This and the following image from the Daily Mail, January 29, 2012.

Norwegian Skis. Mount wrote, “There is evidence of skiing going back to prehistoric times—in Norway, 5000-year-old carvings survive, showing a skier with a single ski. But the sport, as we now recognise it, was first developed in 1850 in the Telemark region of Norway, where the first light, thin, modern skis and flexible bindings attaching the foot to the ski were invented.”

Having observed skiing in Norway, Conan Doyle ordered an 8ft-long Scandinavian set and taught himself to ski. He later observed, “On any man suffering from too much dignity, a course of skis would have a fine moral effect.”

“You put them on,” Conan Doyle remarked, “and you turn with a smile to see whether your friends are looking at you. And then, the next moment, you are boring your head madly into a snow bank, and kicking frantically with both feet, and half-rising, only to butt viciously into that snow bank again, and your friends are getting more entertainment than they had ever thought you capable of giving.”

Acquired Proficiency. Conan Doyle was quite the athlete, an avid cricketeer, a football goalkeeper, a golfer playing off a handicap of 10. Before long, he was whizzing down the slopes: “You let yourself go,” he wrote, “gliding delightfully over the gentle slopes, flying down the steeper ones, taking an occasional cropper, but getting as near to flying as any earthbound man can.” 

A Ski Jaunt to Arosa. Davos and the neighboring town of Arosa are separated by the Maienfelder Furka, an 8000-ft. pass. “For generations,” Mount wrote, “the only way to get from one town to another had been by a long round-about route. Conan Doyle was to be the first to take the direct route across the pass using skis.” He accomplished this with “two gallant Switzers,” Tobias Brangger and his brother. 

They climbed to the pass, skis strapped to their backs. (No ski-lifts in those days.) Then, “for a third of a mile,” Conan Doyle said, “we shot along over gently dipping curves, skimming down into the valley without a motion of our feet.” 

Confronting a Black Run. “But then,” Mount wrote, “the three men came to a black run that was too steep for their primitive skis to negotiate, so the Swiss brothers came up with an ingenious solution. They took off their skis, tied them together and then sat, toboggan-style, on top of them. It worked like a dream, as they rocketed down the hill.”

Until Conan Doyle “took a cropper.” His skis slipped off from beneath him and Conan Doyle followed them, rolling over and over on the steep slope. 

He later recalled, “My tailor tells me that Harris tweed cannot wear out. This is a mere theory and will not stand a thorough scientific test. He will find samples of his wares on view from the Furka Pass to Arosa.”

The trio’s seven-hour journey was far shorter than avoiding the pass. They became famous with Arosa residents. “Even today,” Mount wrote, “few locals are happy to follow in Conan Doyle’s footsteps, so great is the risk of avalanche.”

Image from Google Maps. 

Checking In. Mount wrote,”That evening, Tobias Brangger signed Conan Doyle into their Arosa hotel. In the register, Brangger wrote the word ‘sportesmann’ for Conan Doyle’s profession. The writer was delighted at both the compliment and what he had done to create a new sport in Switzerland.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

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