St Moritz in winter: too good to be true?

Winter sports is a competitive business, and rivalry has been a powerful spur to its development.

In the early days of alpinism the arch rivals were Chamonix and Zermatt.  “The Matterhorn after all is not so fine a thing as the Aiguille Dru nor as any of the aiguilles of Chamonix,” wrote John Ruskin in 1849.   More recently, all objections to Zermatt’s bold project of the Klein Matterhorn cable-car were brushed aside when it was explained that the new lift would knock Chamonix’s Aiguille du Midi off its perch as Europe’s highest.

Further examples are legion.  By no coincidence, Saas Fee’s sub-glacier train surfaced 1 metre higher than the Jungfraujoch railway.  No prizes for guessing which side of the Arlberg thought up the line about taking your wife to Lech and your skis to St Anton.  Courchevel 1850 got its misleading name because the promoters did not want to be seen to be lower than Val d’Isère.    

When Edward Whymper climbed the Aiguille Verte with two Swiss guides, Chamonix erupted in fury and accused them of lying.  A few weeks later, chance dictated that the lead guide of the first party to climb the Matterhorn was Chamonix’s Michel Croz, with two Zermatt men, Peter Taugwalder father and son, bringing up the rear.  When Hadow slipped on the way down and fell 4000 feet to his death pulling Croz and two others with him, “Old Peter rent the air with exclamations of ‘Chamounix!—oh, what will Chamounix say?’” (Whymper).

To which the answer was, Chamonix led the chorus of those who accused the Zermatt man of cutting the rope to save himself.

As Whymper’s description makes clear, the Matterhorn expedition was itself a competition, at national and personal levels.  Now we have a flurry of competitive 150th anniversary celebrations.  Zermatt is already counting down to celebrate the triumph-cum-tragedy of July 14th 1865 which spread the name of Zermatt around the world and, in Arnold Lunn’s words, ‘closed the golden age of mountaineering’.

In a rather feeble and mean-spirited attempt not to be outdone, Chamonix has announced a spoiler celebration of its own – ‘150 years since the start of the golden age of mountaineering, which began with the Victorians around 1865.’   This golden age is hard to pin down.

Johannes Badrutt.  A betting man?

Johannes Badrutt. A betting man?

Meanwhile Switzerland is reminding us that winter sports started at St Moritz 150 years ago with far-sighted Johannes Badrutt’s famous bet, usually dated September 1864, whereby four departing British summer visitors were persuaded to return for the winter season and suspend their disbelief about the champagne climate.

Last night in a vaulted hall near London Bridge, an assembled company of media, tour operators and other friends of Swiss winter sports were given several versions of this story, although there can’t have been many in the room who were unfamiliar with it. Has anyone written about St Moritz in winter without mentioning the bet?  Brenda Zimmerman of the Hotel Kulm showed an old picture of the hotel terrace, “the very place where the parties shook hands on this historic wager.”  Some sources recall that whisky was consumed at those very tables, at that very moment, as the sun went down.  Something peaty, from Islay, as was their custom.

According to Ms Zimmerman, the terms of the bet were as follows: the Brits were invited to stay as Badrutt’s guests for as long as they liked.  And if they didn’t like, Badrutt would pay for them to travel home. First class, with drinks and lounge access.

Call that a bet?   The Swiss are hospitable people, but such generosity strains credibility.

“What were the names of the four British visitors?” asked one diligent reporter.

Early sledging below the Kulm

Already a competition.  Delivering the milk to the Kulm, St Moritz, with parallel sledging on the side

Neither Ms Zimmerman nor anyone else could answer this question, although the president of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club obligingly promised to find out.  It will be interesting to know what names he comes up with.  How about Rupert Bear, Dennis The Menace, Holmes and Watson?  According to the author of a new history of Swiss winter sports, which was handed out to attendees of yesterday’s promotional event, the famous bet is a good story which sits firmly on the bookshelf dedicated to fiction.    

Zurich journalist Michael Lütscher reports that the story of the bet “was first unearthed” in 1956 in an audio book by a St Moritz writer and architect, Hermann Roth, who placed it in 1866.  In 1964 Johannes Badrutt’s grandson Anton included the story in his memoirs, pushed the date back a couple of years and St Moritz celebrated its centenary the same year on the strength of it.

stmoritzbook“There are no documents or references proving the story in Johannes Badrutt’s many notes or the archives of the Kulm or Palace hotels,” writes Lütscher.  “No members of the extensive Badrutt family have any written proof of its occurrence, and neither do newspapers or written sources.”  The first winter guests were probably consumptives who stayed on at the suggestion of Badrutt’s brother-in-law the spa doctor, there was no sudden influx of winter visitors, the Kulm did not open in winter until 1869, and winter sports did not really get going until the 1880s.

In The Alpine Winter Cure (1884) A T Wise writes:   “Since the development of Davos Platz into an Alpine winter resort … other places have sprung up with strong claims to be considered equal if not superior to that well known but rather well filled little town. St Moritz revives an ancient effort to attract people in winter, this time with some success, the Kulm Hotel having more than a hundred and fifty guests living there during the past season.”

Lütscher suspects that the story of the bet may have its origin in one-upmanship: a marketing wheeze dreamed up to justify a headline-grabbing centenary and put one over the old rival Davos, which dates its beginnings as a winter resort to February 1865.   I bet he’s right.

Snow, Sun and Stars by Michael Lütscher (Neue Zurcher Zeitung Publications) 


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