100 years of Swiss winter sports

“Revelers gathered in the Bernese Oberland town of Mürren Sunday to mark what many view as the birth of modern Swiss winter sports – 100 years since a British businessman opened a funicular to bring tourists to the slopes.”  (www.swissinfo.ch)

I’m not sure the gay young things – lords and ladies, nobs and nabobs, jeunesse dorée – who played long and hard in Murren through its pre-War golden age would have recognised me as a reveller, as I sat on a hard plastic classroom chair in the Sports Centre, listening to long speeches in German honouring a century of Anglo Swiss friendship.  But it was a fine event in the spirit of the place, with musical accompaniment from a costumed alpenhorn-blower, a kilted piper and a noisy terrier, before we moved outside to watch lissom skaters in approximate period dress twirling prettily in light snowfall.

A local brass band played national anthems,  Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards unveiled a commemorative fountain without falling over, and the Palace Hotel loomed in the background, hulking and empty but for its memories; a large brown elephant in the room.  All made their way up the hill by the centennial funicular for gluhwein and hot dogs, with tubing, ski bungy, skier-cross and other ‘modern Swiss winter sports’ to enjoy.

As Britain has lurched from one financial crisis to another, and the flow of skiers has ebbed, the Murrenites may have wondered if they were wise to commit so many of their eggs to our basket.  Business has suffered from their attachment to us, but it is profound and sincere; their loyalty to us and the qualities they see in us, heart-warming and humbling.

“The British dressed for dinner and taught us style,” said one of the speakers.  There was more to it than style, but the point is well taken.  They like our style, and our approach – as they perceive it – to sport.  An earlier British generation gave Murren its sporting reputation and its place in skiing history.  As a skiing nation we may have forgotten it, but Murren remains grateful.

Many familiar stories were repeated, making it easier for the less accomplished linguist to follow.  The King of the Belgians regretting that his daughter could not dance at the Palace Hotel on account of not having attended a British Public School got more laughs than Arnold Lunn inviting the Norwegians – or was it the Eskimos? – to rewrite the rules of cricket and reduce the number of draws. The Swiss didn’t quite get the cricket joke, and we English were anxiously checking our phones for an update from Nagpur, where our boys were fighting the good fight for a triumphant draw.

But what of the date itself and its significance as a birth moment for ‘modern Swiss winter sports?’   By ‘modern’, they may mean ‘lift served’: December 16th 1912 saw the opening of Murren’s ‘first ski lift’, the Allmendhubel funicular, which runs from the village centre at 1650m to a wonderful viewpoint at an altitude of 1912m, a number perhaps selected for its historical resonance.  Presumably the ‘British businessman’ was Sir Henry Lunn.

Only it wasn’t a ski lift: it was a sleigh lift.  A beautiful advertising poster revived for the event makes this clear: the glorious new Bob Run snakes down the sunny flanks of the Allmendhubel to the centre of the village and its busy ice rink.  A solitary skier stands in shadow, overlooking Murren and contemplating the Eiger and the Jungfrau in all their glory from a vantage point somewhere in the Blumental.  In 1912 skiing was still marginal, the junior partner among winter sports.  According to the history department of the Hotel Eiger, early skiers rejected the idea of going uphill by lift as too lazy by half. They would soon come round to it.

 

“But for the Allmendhubel, Murren might still be a farming village,” the Tourist Office Director told us.   With respect, methinks the pudding a trifle over-egged.  Murren had cast aside its pitchforks and was marching purposefully down the primrose path of tourism by the turn of the century, its grand hotels attracting visitors from far and wide.  If there was a game change, it came when Henry Lunn persuaded the hotels and the railway company to open for the winter season of 1910/11. Perhaps Murren forgot to celebrate that centenary.

Murren made its ice rink and founded its curling club in 1910/11, and a group of locals – not English visitors – founded the Murren Ski Club the next year, after a night out on the mountain at christmas 1911.

Much was made at Murren of this small village being ‘a cradle’. Of what, exactly?  Not winter sports, surely.  By 1912 St Moritz, queen of Alpine winter sports resorts,  was preparing for its fiftieth birthday celebrations.  Nor skiing, which got going earlier in other places: think of Conan Doyle’s adventures in Davos, written up in The Strand magazine in 1894 and celebrated as a birth moment for Swiss ski tourism.  Some of those present in Murren cast their minds back nearly two years to the centenary celebrations for the first Roberts of Kandahar race at Montana (January 1911) – ‘… a race of heroes which revolutionised snow sport,’ we were told, as I recall.   So many revolutionary moments, birthdays and turning points make the head spin.

Is it nitpicky to object that the Allmendhubel was not the first lift of its kind?  The Schatzalp at Davos (1899) covered a similar distance  (300 vertical metres) and also served a toboggan run down to the resort; the difference being that the Schatzalp had a TB sanatorium at the top.

Who cares? When flagging business needs a boost, any date will do.  Roll on 2019, when Murren will celebrate 50 years of the Schilthorn cable car, with Lazenby, Rigg and Savalas rounded up and pressed into service yet again.  Let’s hope the Bond brand is still fashionable then.  When the summit’s revolving restaurant opened in 1969 the Kandahar put up a plaque commemorating Murren’s sixtieth ski season.  Yet another date of birth to toy with: 1909.

Murren’s Bob Run was a great success, and an important addition to the resort’s winter appeal.   As a new book about the Allmendhubel records, visitors flocked to Murren for the thrills of the icy chute throughout the ‘twenties, but demand fell away after a serious accident, and the run was closed, at least in its iced and banked form.  In 1935 the chalet at the bottom of the run was moved up the mountain to become a refuge, the Schilthorn Hut.

Murren’s skiers soon overcame any resistance they may have felt to using the new train, which was a handy starting point, then as now, for runs back down Murren or Winteregg (‘Half Way House’) and for more ambitious ski treks to the Engetal (‘Happy Valley’) and Schilthorn.  But when Murren’s skiers of the Kandahar racing club challenged their Wengen rivals in 1925, and Wengen cast around for a club name that would define its skiing in opposition and superiority to Murren’s, the name they came up with was Downhill Only: in Wengen you could do your climbing by train.  That suggests they did not think much of the Allmendhubel, as a ski lift.  Peter Lunn writes of a visitor from Davos in the early 1930s complaining loudly about Murren’s lack of uphill transport.  This was rectified only with the installation of the Schiltgrat T-bar in 1936.

By this time Arnold Lunn had made Murren the ‘spot of spots’ for ‘the sport of sports’ – Alpine ski racing.  Call it the cradle, the crucible, or the engine room …  Murren was a ferment of new ideas, furious argument and rapid competitive progress in technique and equipment.  All visitors – including Canadians and even a few sceptical Norwegians – were amazed at the skill, speed and daring of the Kandahar ski aces.  In the 1920s, Murren was The Place.

 ‘The rapture of the finest motion known to man’ (Skier: Christopher Mackintosh)  

 

How had this come about?  Challenging terrain may have had something to do with it, and co-operative hoteliers who were happy to let the British take over the village and tolerated their behaviour with conspicuous long suffering.

Primarily, however, it happened by accident: a climbing accident that transformed Arnold Lunn from a passionate mountaineer with his sights set on Everest, into a skier.

In pain and with one leg shorter than the other, Lunn found that it was easier to go up mountains in winter, on skis, than in summer.  The race he organised at Montana in 1911 was intended to promote winter mountaineering.  Having been unenthusiastic about skiing as a boy, he came round to it first as a way to reach the summits, then for its own sake – for the thrill of the downhill rush.  As he wrote in The Alps (1914)   “ …. to the joy of renewing old memories of the mountains in an unspoiled setting is added the rapture of the finest motion known to man.”

The accident kept Arnold Lunn out of the War, and in Murren instead, organising the 800-strong community of British POWs who were sent there in 1916 to recuperate.  Some of them stayed on after the War, and so did Arnold Lunn. From his HQ in Room 4 of the Palace Hotel, he wrote books, articles, letters, constitutions; arguing, lobbying, codifying and putting on record a version of the story of skiing occasionally referred to (although not in Murren) as the Lunn-varnished truth.

Given Arnold Lunn’s genius for sports administration, it was an accident with momentous consequences for Murren and sport.  Former Kandahar president Beat Hodler invited his audience at the Sports Centre to imagine the Winter Olympics without Alpine skiing.

So if I was organising an event to commemorate the centenary of Murren’s game-changing, cradle-making revolutionary moment, I would stage it on a mountain some five miles from my family home in North Wales, in August 2009.  What a shame I failed to think of it.

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