A piste of history

On this day one hundred years ago, January 7th 1921, the British Ski Championship was decided on a Swiss mountainside in the shadow of the Eiger.  As its organiser Arnold Lunn never tired of reminding posterity, this was the first national championship to include a downhill race.

15 skiers lined up for a mass start, a snowball’s throw from the hut out of which the world’s bravest athletes launch themselves for the longest, fastest and most beautiful downhill race on the World Cup circuit: the Lauberhorn. Next stop – for those who survive the horrors of the Hundschopf jump, Canadian Corner and the Austrian Hole – Mary’s Café at Inner Wengen.  The pioneers, who included at least one woman and a beginner, set off in the other direction, on a shorter and less perilous course which had its pitfalls none the less.    

The event had been advertised in November, in the British Ski Year Book.  ‘Important Notice: the first British ski meet under the auspices of the Federal Council of British Ski Clubs will be held at Wengen from the 3rd to the 9th of January 1921.  The British ski championship and the British ski jumping championship will be decided.  There will also be style competitions, competitions for novices and for ladies and other events.’ 

Despite this invitation to skiers of every stripe, there wasn’t exactly a stampede to take part, the field mainly consisting of skiers based locally. Threadbare snow cover may have had something to do with this.   The two strongest contenders were R B McConnell, a 16 year old Canadian geology student at Lausanne; and 19 year old Leonard Dobbs, who grew up in Swiss mountain resorts where his father looked after the clients of Sir Henry Lunn’s tour operation, the Public Schools Alpine Sports Club.       

After a Novices’ race on January 5th, the Cross-Country Championship, as it was termed, was to be decided on the combined result of a style test and a downhill race.  A complicated scoring system converted the racers’ times into points to be added to those awarded in the style test, with a bias in favour of the winner of the race ‘because although control is important, dash and speed are more important.’      

For the style test at Wengernalp on January 6th, ten ‘candidates’ performed a set of manoeuvres under the scrutiny of four judges: Vivian Caulfeild, ski teacher, advocate of stickless skiing and author of the seminal work on technique, ‘How to Ski … And How Not To’ (1912); Kenneth Swan, secretary of the Federal Council; Arnold Lunn, President of the Federal Council and Co-Editor of the British Ski Year Book; and Capt R du B Evans, the most accomplished of Lunn’s skiing companions when interned at Mürren from 1916 -18 under an international PoW exchange scheme.

Vivian Caulfeild and Arnold Lunn

Each candidate was required to make two series of four linked telemarks, four linked stemming turns, four jump turns to connect downhill traverses, and four stop-christianias to left and right.  The judges awarded a maximum of 3 marks for each turn and added an extra mark to the candidate who did best in each section, making a maximum of 25 marks per section and a maximum total of 100.   The snow condition was not ideal for stemming turns; even when stamped and beaten down ‘it was nothing like so effective a test as a steep slope of sunburnt marble crust.’

Leonard Dobbs won the telemark and stop-christiania sections, but McConnell outscored him at stemming and jump turns. At the end of the first leg of the championship, Dobbs held a narrow lead with 82.3 marks to McConnell’s 79.9.

Most of the candidates made sure of their turns at slow speed: ‘there was not that suggestion of easy, effortless dash which should mark the turns of a good runner.’ Only Major Wingfield and Harper Orr, Ski Club of Great Britain members who had come from Davos, went at the turns with any real gusto.  ‘If Wingfield’s control had been equal to his dash, he would have scored top marks,’ wrote Arnold Lunn.  As it was, he came 7th out of 10.

Harper Orr was no good at stemming or telemarks but finished in 3rd place with 66.7 marks having done well at christies and jump turns – although he had never executed the latter manoeuvre until the day before the championship.  

Miss Olga Major (60.5 marks) won the stemming section and did well with her christies but scored low marks for her jumps ‘through lack of practice’. At least she attempted them, unlike Mrs Caulfeild, who suffered acutely from nerves, and Dame Katharine Furse who was feeling the effects of a very nasty fall and only entered to show sisterly support for Miss Major and Mrs Caulfeild.  Jump turns were evidently not a ladylike thing to do.  Leonard Dobbs’s brother Patrick scored low marks all round and finished the day in 8th place.

The organisers had still greater difficulty setting a course for the next day’s race; scanty snow below 5,500ft (1675m) ruled out a challenging course of the desired length.  Instead ‘a very careful course was picked out, with flags indicating dangerous rocks, and certainly not up to championship standard for difficulty.’ The start was 500ft below the Lauberhorn and the finish 1600ft below that, roughly at the bottom of the present Arven chair lift.  The exact route taken between these two points is not known.  

100 years ago, the first British Ski Championship

At least half a dozen of the fifteen starters had not taken part in the style test and were thus not in the running for the championship. The tactical interest of the race diminished when McConnell was knocked over from behind in the scramble at the start, ‘a piece of bad luck that deprived him of all chance of winning,’ noted Arnold Lunn, ‘Still, part of the art of racing consists in getting clear of the crowd and not allowing yourself to be fouled.’ Lunn felt he needed to add that ‘needless to say, fouls are unintentional.’  

Setting off with the gusto he had displayed in the style test, Major Wingfield led from the start, but fell at the first flag, severely winding himself.  A photograph (above) of the skiers strung out after the start shows several of them ‘stick-riding’ – sitting or leaning on their sticks in order to control their speed. This was the most efficient way for inexpert skiers to get down a slope without falling – and, for race organisers like Lunn, whose idea was that the downhill race should be a test of skiing ability as well as nerve, it was an awkward fact that the stick-rider usually got down faster than the man who came down in curves.   

Patrick Dobbs and Harper Orr shared the lead as they passed Kleine Scheidegg, but took a bad line and crashed into a fence. That gave Leonard Dobbs the lead, and he went on to win ‘pretty easily’ in 8 minutes 50 seconds, 43 seconds ahead of his brother, who was followed 25 seconds later by McConnell.  Miss Major came a creditable 5th having passed the Scheidegg ‘skiing beautifully …. her carriage and expression suggesting a good runner out for a pleasant afternoon’s run.’ As the best lady, and perhaps the only representative of her sex to complete both parts of the championship, ‘she may be considered the Lady Cross Country Champion for the year’. Paul Furse, Dame Katharine’s 16 year old son, finished 6th: good going for a beginner of only 10 days’ skiing experience.

Leonard Dobbs (above) shared rooms at Cambridge with Malcolm Muggeridge, who married Leonard’s sister Kitty (British Ladies’ Ski Champion, 1924)

The first British Cross-Country Ski Champion was apparently known for his eccentric taste in ski headwear

Paul Furse continued his good form to win a beginners’ race on January 8th. The promised jumping competition took place on January 12th, but poor snow made it impossible to build a big jump and the championship was not awarded. Leonard Dobbs jumped 12 metres, well short of the required championship minimum of 20 metres. He was thus deprived of the chance to declare himself the British Ski Champion, and had to be satisfied with the title of Cross-Country Champion.      

The championship gave Arnold Lunn plenty to think about. On the one hand, the style test was unsatisfactory. Combining marks for style and speed was problematic; Lunn recalled fervently hoping that the same skier would win both parts of the championship, as Leonard Dobbs obligingly did.    

On the other hand, as Lunn rather ungraciously wrote, Patrick Dobbs’s performance in coming second in the race was ‘a vindication of some other method of deciding the championship excepting by a pure race’.   He had just failed his qualifying test for 2nd class, yet he beat RB McConnell whose skiing was ‘all but up to first class standard’ in the race – an ’absurd result’. Lunn put forward the idea that future courses might include sections where no use of the sticks was allowed.   

On his first visit to the Alps, EA Fawcett rode his sticks to victory in the Golden Ski downhill race at Wengen on Jan 18, 1922

Another solution would present itself the following year: a turning race around flags, with no prescribed turns and no marks for style: the slalom.  

Note: the factual information and much of the wording in this post, not only the remarks in quotes, are from Arnold Lunn’s reports in the British Ski Year Book for 1921 and the Public Schools Alpine Sports Club Year Book for 1922. I’m sorry if that’s a rather sloppy approach, but it’s only a blog.

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