Swiss Winter Sports in 1925

Skijoring on the lake at St Moritz 1925

Although I have been skiing for over 50 years, I don’t have a great sense of it changing much since I first tumbled down a Scottish mountain. OK, we did wear some uncool ski outfits back then, nobody snowboarded and there were a higher proportion of surface lifts. But I don’t remember it being so different. Largely the same resorts and the same vibe in them.

Track back another 50 years, and what was often called ski running involved very long wooden skis, one stick and a pair of stout leather ski boots. And it was by no means the major attraction for people visiting the Alps in winter.

I’ve been reading “Things Seen in Switzerland in Winter”, written by Charles Domville-Fife in 1925. He writes that interest in visiting Switzerland was divided between those for whom it was termed “The Playground of Europe”, and those who went hoping to recover from tubercolosis.

Until 1946 there was no effective medication to treat tubercolosis, a disease that killed as many as one in four people in England in the 19th Century. Swiss mountain air and sunshine achieved a remarkable recovery rate in the clinics that sprung up in hitherto sleepy hamlets like Davos and Arosa in the late nineteenth century. And the therapeutic benefits were enjoyed as much, or even more, in the winter.

St Moritz had also become a popular destination for its winter sun and the many diversions organised in the sophisticated hotels there – the hotelier Badrutt taking a lot of credit for popularising winter holidays in the Engadine. In 1873 for the first time St Moritz recorded more winter visitors than summer ones.

One English visitor to Switzerland in the late nineteenth century was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who stayed in Davos where his wife was recuperating from tuberculosis. Ever impatient to be doing something, he imported some skis from Norway (where skiing had long been a practical means of transport) and became the first person to ski from Davos to Arosa – still a popular back country route. In 1893 he wrote an article in the English press of his experiences and helped popularise what was to diverge from Norwegian ski techniques to become what we now know as the sport of downhill skiing.

Skiing was by no means the only winter sport that became popular in Switzerland. Domville-Fife records that skating was introduced as a winter sport in 1876 (from England), curling (from Scotland) in 1882, tobogganing (from Canada) in 1884, ice hockey (also from Canada) in 1992 and the quaint sport of skijoring (from Scandinavia) in 1906.

In the second half of the nineteenth century Switzerland benefitted from a growing electrified rail system, opening up destinations such as the new sanatoria in Montana and Leysin, and new winter sports destinations like Klosters, Celerina, Grindelwald, Wengen, Murren, Gstaad, Villars, Engelberg and Andermatt. Adelboden later emerged as both a health centre and a ski destination, with the world’s first winter sports holiday package organised by Sir Henry Lunn in 1903. Outside of Switzerland, Chamonix and St Anton – both with rail links – were early adopters of sport skiing, St Anton claiming to have founded the first ski club in 1901.

Skiers demonstrate Telemark, Jump Turn and Christiana in St Moritz 1925

Most of the new winter sports were introduced by the British, but soon became popular with the Swiss and visiting Germans. The opening of the cog railways in winter in Grindelwald, Wengen and Villars are attributed to British requests that they be available outside the summer timetable.

It’s noteworthy that, at this time, British tourists tended to come over only in December and January, and what we now largely associate with the peak winter sports period was left to the locals. Domville-Fife declares that “at nearly all the best known resorts the predominance of British people during Christmas and New Year festivities is usually so great that even the Swiss themselves are scarcely seen. It is during this period and for about five weeks afterwards that a sojourn at any of the winter sports centres becomes one of the most delightful experiences of life”.

Domville-Fife, writing in 1925, doesn’t mention a single ski destination in the canton of Valais, now probably the pre-eminent ski region in the world. Champéry, in the Portes du Soleil did not have its first lift access to the slopes until 1939, Verbier’s first lift arrived in 1946, Saas-Fee a popular summer spa destination did not have road access until 1950 and Zermatt, although it has had the Gornergrat cog railway since 1898, was primarily known as a summer destination for climbers, and did not open the railway to the summit during the winter season until 1941. Only Montana (later Crans-Montana), had adopted skiing by 1925, following the opening of the funicular railway in 1911. However the village was still mostly popular for its sanatoria and, from 1906, for golfing.

Skijoring, meanwhile, has its adherents but has achieved only a limited popularity. Although my Swiss mother-in-law recalls skiing to school on skis, I don’t think it looks anything like this today at Aiglon College!

Switzerland - school in the sun 1925.
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End of Ski Season review

Phew! What a season it has been for skiing and snowboarding. I was fortunate to get some good skiing in before Christmas, but in general it has been a dismal season for everyone.

The Swiss lift operators association (Seilbahnen Schweiz/Remontées Mécaniques Suisses) has published its analysis of the season up until the end of March – which for all but a handful of resorts is end of season.

The lift operators report a grim picture. By the end of March, lift usage and turnover in Switzerland had fallen by 24% in total, compared to the 2018/19 winter season. Large resorts, dependent on international visitors, have suffered most, but the closure of bars and restaurants has also deterred local winter sports enthusiasts. Additionally, ski camps and club and business trips have not taken place. Ski lifts in the Prealps and in areas close to towns, which cater more for day tourists, have not done quite as badly. Ticino has actually done quite well compared to 2018/19, but that was a season where the canton suffered from a lack of adequate snow – something that cannot be said of this season, where the snow conditions remain very good in those resorts still open.

On the whole comparison with the 2018/19 season is more meaningful than for 2019/20, because Covid-19 had an impact on the latter part of the 2019/20 season. It was hard to forecast a year ago we would be where we are now, and it is only with some optimism that we can look forward to next year being without some restrictions. None the less, overseas visitors are booking in advance for next season like never before, with many winter tour operators reporting bumper bookings.

The long-term impact on the lift operators is hard to gauge. Despite running at a considerable loss this season, lift operators have seen themselves as providing a public service and largely remained open. If the ski lifts had closed, mountain regions would have faced a shutdown of even more tourist activities, resulting in greater economic damage than has anyway been inflicted. Government support, the lift operators association says, is needed to avoid systemic damage to tourism.

The impact on the whole winter sports infrastructure is devastating. Some businesses will not return, others will cancel plans for expansion or investment. Many resorts were already worried about the long-term impact of climate change, and Covid-19 is hardly likely to positively impact their thinking. Additionally, with ski resorts being amongst the Covid-19 hotspots at the start of the pandemic, the image of winter sports has suffered.

I think the ski industry will recover strongly, although the level of growth will likely be lower than in previous years. From a sustainability perspective and in light of the impact of climate change, that is probably not a bad thing.

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Ski and Snowboard Playlist

Crans-Montana, November 2020

In the absence of the opportunity to ski and snowboard so far this year I put together a list of songs with some vague association with winter sports.

The top 10 are:

  • Doors: Riders on the Storm
  • Moby: Extreme Ways
  • David Bowie: Station to Station
  • Cream: White Room
  • Foreigner: Cold as Ice
  • Led Zeppelin: Misty Mountain Hop
  • Scooter: J’Adore Hardcore (soundtrack to great ski video)
  • Of Monsters and Men: Mountain Sound
  • Fleet Foxes: White Winter Hymnal
  • Sufer Koe and the Surfaris: Wipe Out

The spotify playlist is here.

Other songs that could have made it but didn’t include:

Kanye West: Coldest Winter
John Denver: Rocky Mountain High
Janes Addiction: Mountain Song
Moutain: Nantucket Sleighride
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow
Wham: Last Christmas
Nina: Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”
Darlene Love: Winter Wonderland

The Nina song is a bit twee but did feature in James Bond’s OHMSS, which also featured the ski chase off the Schilthorn above Mürren. The video for the Wham song was filmed in Saas-Fee. Rocky Mountain High is the official state song of Colorado which, as both the cannabis capital of the world and the home of some of the world’s most awesome skiing is pretty appropriate. My most recent US ski trip is featured here.

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Verbier in renewed Covid scare

Verbier seen from the gondola to Les Ruinettes 8th December 2020.
Verbier today.

Verbier, along with Ischgl, is widely cited as one of the super-spreader centres from the early stages of the Covid pandemic. And it is getting bad press again. Tages Anzeiger published this picture of a melee at the Le Châble valley station on Saturday.

Pandemonium at Le Châble, 5th December 2020.
Melee on Saturday. Photo: Twitter

Verbier has been open at the weekend for most of November but with very limited skiing. Half of the town was still closed when I visited a few weeks ago. Moving into December, a lot of terrain was opened up for the first weekend of the month, and the resort kept open 30km of piste on weekdays ahead of the full opening of the resort next weekend. I think the resort was simply unprepared for the demand, and I’m pleased to say that on my visit today, there was an orderly, fast-moving and relatively well social-distanced queue.

Much improved Covid control at Le Châble, 8th December 2020.
More orderly queues today with stewards reminding people of the 1.5m distance rule.

Normally I would expect mid-week skiing this time of the year to be relatively light, but I think two things are contributing to the high volumes, based on conversations I have had in the queues and on the lifts.

Firstly, French and Italian visitors are significantly up. There are a number of high altitude French and Italian resorts that would normally be open, so I guess that is part of why there is this increase. All trains between Italy and Switzerland are due to be cancelled indefinitely, but the people I spoke to had all driven.

The Tages Anzeiger article is in German and behind a paywall, but it says that there were over 20,000 tourists in town at the weekend with traffic jams normally only associated with high season. As many as half of the total of 50,000 guest beds in town are likely to have been occupied, an unheard of situation at this time of the year. The paper quotes Ami Oreiller from Hotel Les Chamois who says: “Last Thursday our hotel was still half empty, on Friday the phone rang non-stop , and on Saturday the house was full. It is mainly French who come.”

The second major reason for the uptick is that there is a fear that resorts will get closed down sooner or later, and some people are making the most of the opportunity to ski while they can. This is true of both locals from the Lake Geneva and Rhone valley regions, and foreigners, particularly those with chalets in Verbier.

The British make up a large proportion of the tourist trade in Verbier – at least one in five skiers is likely to be British in peak season. Tages Anzeiger estimates that the resident Brits have virtually doubled from the 8,000 who would normally be in Verbier at this time of year. Christmas and New Year bookings are as vibrant as ever. I spoke to some Brits over for a ski instructor training course and they were keen to get the training in while they could.

What hangs over everything is the uncertainty around how the season will develop. Germany, Italy and France had hoped Switzerland would fall in line with their approach and close their resorts until next year, but the Swiss resisted. In theory, the Swiss resorts are supposed to be open only to Swiss residents over the holiday season, but that is unlikely to be policed. Switzerland is also a federal republic and cantons are following different rules. Although Valais and Vaud have closed restaurants, the Bernese Oberland hasn’t. Graubünden is planning to perform mass testing of its residents to protect the ski industry in places like St Moritz and Davos, but to date other cantons only test people who show Covid symptoms.

The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.
The run from Attelas down to Les Ruinettes.

As for the skiing at this time, it is pretty good. On the slopes there are no appreciable queues and the slopes are busy but not excessively so. Today is Immaculate Conception Day in Valais, a public holiday, so that certainly made it busier than it will be tomorrow. Runs were open below Chassure, Attelas and Fontalet down to Les Ruinettes, and although runs below Les Ruinettes to Verbier weren’t technically open, there was sufficient snow cover for people to ski back down to Verbier. The snow depth was good on piste and, following recent snowfall, off-piste wasn’t too tracked out. The Lac des Vaux runs are a lot nicer than they were when they were the only runs open a month ago. Being December, much of the skiing is in shadow. Some mountain restaurants and bars are open for take-away, including alcoholic beverages, but there is no seating. That is due to change next week when Valais relaxes its rules for bars and restaurants.

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