It is a small detail, rarely omitted from the story. The brothers Branger, Tobias and Johann, ski pioneers in Davos c1890, conducted their experiments under cover of darkness in order to avoid the mockery of their fellow Davonians.
The Brangers’ nocturnal manoeuvres are part of history, along with Isaac Newton being hit on the head by an apple, Galileo dropping balls from the tower of Pisa and the infant Hercules strangling snakes.
I have noted and recycled the amusing detail without pausing to question or consider it …. but is it not in fact a bit odd? Why would there be such stigma attached to experimenting with a new way to explore and enjoy the hills in winter? Why would the brothers be so sensitive to the laughter of their friends? If it were a case of women wanting to join in some manly activity, or vice versa, secrecy might be more understandable. But it isn’t. Tobias Branger believed there was a future in guiding and teaching skiing and had a shop with skis for sale in the window. Why so shy about trying to use them? I don’t think we hear of early cyclists or tennis players practising at night. Or snowboarders for that matter.
“It was all very well for foreigners to indulge in blatant eccentricity,” explains Roland Huntford in Two Planks and a Passion, but ski-running was not the sort of thing locals should be messing with. What does this tell us about stifling Swiss society?
The strange case of the Brangers, as their ski pupil Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have described it, is not an isolated example. In his history of Swiss winter sports Snow, Sun and Stars, Michael Lütscher writes that around 1890 Christoph Iselin, a trader from Glarus, having read Nansen’s book about crossing Greenland “made himself some skis trying them out at night for fear of being mocked by his neighbours.” Johann Müller, a Pastor in Warth and a pioneer of skiing in the Arlberg, read an article about Norwegian skiers in winter 1894, ordered skis and taught himself to use them in the evenings “when the village was asleep, so nobody could see and laugh at him.” Local boys are said to have copied him in due course, but not immediately, it would seem: local boy Hannes Schneider of Stuben (b1890) saw skiers for the first time in 1900, “made his own skis out of barrel staves and practised by moonlight so as to avoid the taunts of other children.” (Peter Lunn, The Guinness Book of Skiing).
The similarity of the detail and wording is so striking, it is beginning to sound like a literary conceit. Could there have been other reasons for practising at night? Perhaps Iselin, Müller and the Brangers had work to do by day, and could only go out to play after dark. Schneider had school books to read, and his parents might well have disapproved of the boy’s all-consuming interest, as parents do. Maybe the night-skiing was an occasional thing, to celebrate the beauty of moonlight on snow, later embroidered by themselves or misinterpreted by others.
Or the mocking-neighbours story may be perfectly true. In so far as I understand the following (from www.jdav.de), it suggests the threat of being treated as the village idiot was real enough:
Die Anfänge des Skisports beschreibt Christoph Iselin im Jahre 1892 wie folgt: „Wehe dem, der sich damals erkühnt hätte, mit so sonderbaren Werkzeugen (den Skiern) Übungen abzuhalten – er wäre unfehlbar dem allgemeinen Gespötte und Hohngelächter anheimgefallen und hätte sicher riskiert, entweder als Tölpel dargestellt oder in der Fastnacht-Narrenzeitung publiziert zu werden“.
At Davos, the Brangers persisted and worked out a crude stick-riding technique they could safely deploy in daylight. It enabled them to make long mountain tours including the famous trip to Arosa with Conan Doyle in 1894. The limitations of their method became clear when two Englishmen, EC and CW Richardson, arrived in Davos in 1902 having learned to ski in Norway. “They made swings and turns to right and left like skaters on the ice,” Tobias Branger wrote later. “We realised that we knew nothing about ski-running!”
If they hadn’t insisted on learning in the dark, they might have made better progress.