Most people will know Conan Doyle as the author of the infamous Sherlock Holmes series. However, he also pioneered skiing, introducing it as a popularised sport in the late 1800s in Britain, and introducing it to Switzerland altogether. In 1893, aged 34, he went to Davos with his two young children, Mary, four and Arthur, one, and his wife Louisa. Suffering from tuberculosis, she had been prescribed a high-altitude cure. It was the mountain air, Conan Doyle maintained, that kept his wife alive until 1906 — long after doctors had predicted she would survive.
In Norway, 5,000-year-old carvings survive showing a skier with a single ski, proving people skied in prehistoric times. However skiing as we now know it first developed in 1850 in the Telemark region of Norway, where the first light, thin, modern skis and flexible bindings attaching the foot to the ski were invented. Doyle was one of the first people to ski outside Scandinavia, as skiing only spread to the Alps in the 1890s. In 1895 he developed what he called ‘ski-running’.
By 1896, the modern basics of skiing — the snowplough braking manoeuvre and the parallel turn — were being taught in Austria. However it took until the 1900s for the popular idea of the skiing holiday in designated Alpine resorts really took off.
In 1894, he wrote an article in the Strand Magazine — where his Sherlock Holmes stories appeared — laughing off the dangers of skiing, and explaining the basics to a British audience. He wrote: ‘You have to shuffle along the level, to zigzag, or move crab fashion, up the hills, to slide down without losing your balance, and above all to turn with facility.’
Doyle had to climp to the top of a 7,700ft mountain called the Jacobshorn, carrying his skis on his back — there were no lifts then. Doyle was the first Englishman to document the thrill of skiing, and soon began embarking on more ambitious trips. He was also the first person to ever take a direct route across a pass between Davos and Arosa, using skis. Even today, few locals are happy to follow in Conan Doyle’s footsteps, so great is the risk of avalanche.
Doyle later wrote: ‘I am convinced that there will come a time when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the “skiing” season.’ And he could not have been more right!
Conan Doyle in the Alps in 1894