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 Movies – Part One

With most people unable to go skiing this season, what is there better to do than curl up with a good ski movie. Or a bad one. Or even one that features a few scenes in a ski resort.

Here are some suggestions:

Slalom (2021) – French

The Guardian film critic asks “Is this a tale of abuse, or forbidden love? Or is there something insidious in asking that question, suggesting an ambiguity that will err leniently on the side of love?” Well, that’s for you to find out in this well regarded French movie from Charlène Favier, who drew on her own experiences in Val-d’Isère in the making of her debut feature.

Nordwand (2008) – German

This film is about mountaineering rather than skiing, but it all takes place on the North face of the Eiger in 1936, above Grindelwald, and is compelling viewing – which is more than can be said for some of the movies I’m going to review that feature a lot more slope-side action.

Chalet Girl (2011)

This story of a working class girl becoming a snowboard champion in St Anton is entertainingly watchable dross. It has Bill Nighy in it. Do you need to know anything more?

Claim (2008)

Full movie

The press release says: “CLAIM, The Greatest Ski Movie… EVER!” A truly epic film shot in the most amazing locations, featuring the best and boldest skiers in the world today: Mark Abma, Jon Olsson, Shane McConkey, Eric Hjorleifson and more. I would add it only takes an astonishingly awesome 2 minutes before the film features “The Final Countdown”.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Trailer

This is one of my favourite Bond films, despite starring the relatively unpopular George Lazenby. A whole bunch of the action takes place on the Schilthorn, above Mürren in Switzerland, including a memorable ski chase.

There’s five to start with. If nothing takes your fancy here, I will be adding a couple of dozen more in upcoming posts.

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Skiing Injury Insurance Payouts

#Verbier

The Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund (Suva) has recently provided an analysis of the extent and costs of winter sports accidents from an insurers perspective.

Typically around 90,000 winter sports accidents are reported every year in Switzerland. For the last full year for which there is data, unsurprisingly downhill skiing comes top of the list of incidents with a total of 52,320. For other winter sports the figures are: snowboarding: 11,060, tobogganing: 6460, cross-country skiing : 5440, ice hockey: 5010, skating and figure skating: 3780, and ski touring: 970.

The cost of these accidents in terms of insurance payments for skiing alone comes out at 610 million Swiss francs (snowboarding: SFr 74 million). The breakdown for skiers by seriousness of injury is: light injuries: SFr 100 million, moderately serious injuries: SFr 182 million, serious injuries: SFr 235 million, disability: SFr 49 million and death: SFr 44 million.

The sums are some 70% higher than they were fifteen years. The increase is reckoned by Suva to be caused by higher performance equipment, the advent of ski carving, the preparation of slopes, artificial snow, and the increasing average age of skiers – with the most affected category being that of 40-59 years old.

For alpine skiing, the most commonly affected body parts are the knee: 30.9% (snowboarding: 15.2%), shoulder and upper arm: 24.1% (snowboarding: 23.4%), lower legs and ankles: 13.8% (snowboarding: 13.1%), trunk: 13.7% (snowboarding: 19%), wrist, hand, fingers: 11.8 % (snowboarding: 13, 1%).
Suva estimates the average cost of a broken leg at SFr 22,500 in total.

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