The British thirst for desolate places. They fell in love with Arabia. And at the other end of the climatic scale they fell in love with the Alps. It was like the Lake District but more dramatic, and with more snow. The British invented climbing the Alps for fun in the late 19C, and skiing as a sport after WWI, although the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes started the business by inventing ski troops, zooming down mountains with guns. The Norwegians started competitive downhill racing (1843), cross country competition (1884), and ski jumping. A dangerous and rather pointless business, but you must grab what pleasure you can in the frozen north, in the land of Ibsen. Ibsen famously said: ‘Never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.’ And ski jumping, he might have added. The Norwegians displayed their traditional skis (very long and thin compared to today’s) at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, and they were snapped up (in the beginning skiers used only one pole, it wasn’t until the 1920s that two became the norm). The fun of rushing down a mountain at risk of breaking your neck caught on. In 1910 something happened that revolutionised the sport – the rope tow was invented (in 1936 in Idaho the first chair lift appeared).
I went skiing with Erna Low in the 50s. She was an Austrian javelin champion and passionate skier, who came to England with £10 in 1931. The next year she invented the package tour by advertising in the Morning Post: ‘Winter Sports – Austria, fortnight, £15 only, including rail and hotel’. A bargain. After war broke out she switched to neutral Switzerland. Which is where I first went with her. She led our group personally. I think we had a special train with a music carriage for entertainment. She started charter flights (£38 return inc) and to save on weight one had to wear one’s ski clothes and boots.
Boots were fearful things, like concrete, and doing them up with their myriad laces and tongues was so exhausting that we never took them off during the afternoon siesta under the duvet. Skis in those days needed constant waxing and were unwieldy. If you fell the ski came off and hurtled down the mountain if the binding broke during the accident (quite usual). Ski lifts were few and mostly we rose in the dark and put seal skins on our skis and climbed all day and then had one hairy run down (off-piste) to the nursery slopes. 6 hours climbing, 40 minutes down. Poor arithmetic when I look back. But by God was it thrilling, we thought we had invented speed. Being the first to make tracks in powder is never dull. And the Alpine resorts hadn’t learnt how to fleece the English. Glühwein was free with the fondu. In Zermatt the hotel picked us up at the station in a sledge, and put bear skin rugs over our knees. If you came a cropper the ‘blood wagon’ was free too. Now you have to show your insurance as you lie in the wet stuff. As Lord Mancroft said – ‘There are three things to learn in skiing: how to put on your skis, how to slide downhill, and how to walk along the hospital corridor.’