Skiing’s Literary Locations

Davos is the reading-man’s ski resort. How many times have I packed and started its set text The Magic Mountain, and nodded off on the train?   In the last third of the 19th century arty consumptive types beat a path to this high valley in eastern Switzerland, lured by the clever marketing of Dr Spengler of Mannheim and other proponents of heliotherapy.

Davos, by Ernst Ludwig KIrchner 1925

Davos, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1925

Spengler had noticed that Davos counted no TB sufferers among its residents, decided the dry sunny climate was the explanation, and launched Davos as a health resort.  Spengler’s method, which combined extensive sleep on the sun terrace with Veltliner wine, has since been discredited but it has always worked for me.   

davos heliotherapy1

                                        Heliotherapy in Leysin

The Magic Mountain’s inspiration was Thomas Mann’s visit to his sick wife in 1912, two decades after a Dr Doyle, later to be better known as Sir Arthur Conan of that ilk, made an extended stay for the same reason.   Conan Doyle went tobogganing, took up skiing and pioneered ski travel journalism with his article ‘An Alpine Pass on Ski’ for the Strand Magazine in 1894.  For summer recreation Conan Doyle tried to make a golf course in Davos but was thwarted in this noble endeavour by the local cows, which devoured flags faster than he could run them up.

Other local sickies included Katherine Mansfield and Robert Louis Stevenson, who found the white winter landscape insufferably dull.  “A mountain valley, an Alpine winter, and an invalid’s weakness make up among them a prison of the most effective kind.”

hesse mannThomas Mann’s contemporary and friend Hermann Hesse came for the skiing after he took Swiss nationality in 1924. A local school of Expressionist painters led by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner completed the high cultural scene.

But Davos has no monopoly of literary pedigree.  Chamonix had Shelley and Ruskin to bear witness in their differing styles and media.  ‘The immensity of these aeriel summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of extatic wonder, not unallied to madness,’ wrote Percy BS.

Ruskin fashioned his words in a manner not unallied to sculpture and I imagine him reading them out in a  loud voice from a pulpit or a lectern in Oxford.  “The steep river flashed and leaped along the valley; but the mighty pyramids stood calmly – in the very heart of the high heaven – a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold – filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God.”

Saas Fee features as a symbolic escape from reality and the constraints of conventional morality in André Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs, as many would suggest skiing and ski resorts still do.

On arrival at Zermatt recently I found in one of its many glossy magazines an article devoted to Tolkien and Zermatt’s influence on The Lord of The Rings.  In 1911, the 19 year old JRR walked over the mountains from Grindelwald, narrowly escaping death by landslide.   Out it all came later in Frodo’s quest, with the Lauterbrunnen valley recast as Rivendell and the Matterhorn – of course – as Mount Doom.     Needless to say there are many competing theories about this, furiously debated by Tolkien enthusiasts, and common sense counsels against a too literal twinning of fictional episodes and physical places. An opportunity to thrash this out would be an In The Footsteps Of Tolkien holiday offered by in October.

My own mission was less arduous: to sleep, or at least spend the night, on the mountain at Gornergrat and Riffelberg.   “If you’re going to Riffelberg you’ll be taking Mark Twain with you I suppose,” said a local friend.  I was grateful for the tip and at the Riffelberg Hotel found a copy of the op cit.  It kept me excellent company through a surprisingly good supper.

The essay is chapters 37 to 39 of A Tramp Abroad, a brilliant and illuminating travelogue from start to finish.  Twain toured Switzerland in August 1878 travelling from Lucerne to Interlaken, Kandersteg and Zermatt, which he found in the grip of mountaineering fever.

“There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp,” he opined. “But it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it.”

All the stirring accounts of High Alpine derring-do, mostly by Whymper, prompted Twain to compose a parody, closer in style to Craig Brown than Jonathan Swift.

“After I had finished my readings, I was no longer myself; I was tranced, uplifted, intoxicated, by the almost incredible perils and adventures I had been following my authors through …. I turned to Harris and said: My mind is made up.  I will ascend the Riffelberg.”

Twain and his friend Harris assembled an impressive convoy of 198 persons, including the mules; or 205, including the cows… plus a chaplain, a barber, 4 pastry cooks and a confectionery artist.  Their supplies included 2000 cigars, 97 ice axes, 2 miles of rope, 2 mosquito nets, 22 forty-foot ladders and 154 umbrellas.

All Zermatt turned out to cheer them off from the Monte Rosa Hotel, in single file, roped together, twelve feet apart; “my reading had taught me that many serious accidents had happened in the Alps simply from not having the people tied up soon enough.”

Twain and Harris were ‘in the post of danger’ at the back, on small donkeys.  “In time of peril we could straighten our legs and stand up, and let the donkey walk from under.” 


Many adventures and obstacles lay in wait for the brave mountaineers, who took a full week to reach Riffelberg.   They cut down trees with ice axes to bridge a chasm, boiled thermometers and barometers and blew up a chalet by mistake, consoling the owner that what he had lost in view he had gained in cellar.

After a triumphant entry into the dining room at Riffelberg, Twain pressed on to Gornergrat and had the prophetic idea of descending to the Gorner glacier by the most direct route:  “what is an umbrella but a parachute?”  Having read about the movement of glaciers in Baedeker, “I resolved to take passage for Zermatt on the great Gorner glacier.”

The speed of this mode of transport – one inch per year – came as a disappointment. Estimated distance to Zermatt: three and one-eighteenth miles. Time required to go by glacier ……  ‘The passenger part of this glacier – the central part, the lightning-express part, so to speak – was not due in Zermatt till the summer of 2378.’

A rollicking good read, in fact.  Only when Twain starts describing the mountains did I find myself wondering if he was making fun of excess purple in prose, or having his own go at it.

Here he is at Gornergrat.  “All the circling horizon was piled high with a mighty tumult of snowy crests, but lonely conspicuous and superb rose that wonderful upright wedge the Matterhorn.  Its precipitous sides were powdered over with snow and the upper half hidden in thick clouds which now and then dissolved to cobweb films and gave brief glimpses of the imposing tower as through a veil.

“The whole bulk of this stately piece of rock, this sky-cleaving monolith, is above the line of eternal snow. Yet while all its giant neighbours have the look of being built of solid snow, from their waists up, the Matterhorn stands black and naked and forbidding, the year round. Its august isolation and its majestic unkinship with its own kind, make it – so to speak – the Napoleon of the mountain world. ‘Grand, gloomy, and peculiar,’ is a phrase which fits it as aptly as it fitted the great captain.”

Mountains issue a challenge to the writer as they do to the climber.  It is a challenge I am content to decline, and whenever a mountain guide raises his ski stick in preparation for a lengthy pointing out and naming of peaks, I think of Conan Doyle, whose approach to Alpine landscape description I like best.

“They are useful things, the ski; we soon converted ours into a very comfortable bench, from which we enjoyed the view of a whole panorama of mountains, the names of which my readers will be relieved to hear I have completely forgotten.”

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