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A sporting exploit

While his wife’s health benefits from the climate of Davos, Arthur Conan Doyle gets interested in skiing, then not much practiced in Switzerland, let alone as a leisure pursuit.

Arthur Conan Doyle among a group of skiers

Arthur Conan Doyle (on the right) among a group of skiers ([1894]). (BCU-Lausanne, IS 4314/5/1/1)

Arthur Conan Doyle and his sister Lottie on skis

His little footsteps on the snow”
Arthur Conan Doyle and his sister Caroline (“Lottie”) ([1894]). (BCU-Lausanne, IS 4314/5/1/3)

“ There is nothing peculiarly malignant in the appearance of a pair of ‘ski’. […] No one to look at them would guess at the possibilities which lurk in them.

Arthur Conan Doyle, “An Alpine Pass on ‘Ski’”, The Strand Magazine, December 1894, p.657

Profession: sportsman

Despite being busy writing, Arthur Conan Doyle feels irresistibly the call of the fresh air and the snowy summits of Davos. He therefore develops an interest in skiing, an activity which, at that time, was still in its beginnings, more common in Norway than in Switzerland. The writer himself had been to Norway the previous year and had also read with interest the account of the crossing of Greenland on skis by the explorer Fridtjof Nansen in 1888.

Conan Doyle therefore gets in touch with Tobias and Johann Branger, owners of a shop selling sporting goods in Davos. The two brothers are themselves skiing pioneers, for in March of the previous year, they have travelled from Davos to Arosa through the Maienfeld pass, using Norwegian skis. After ordering a pair for himself, Conan Doyle starts to practise with the Brangers on the Jakobshorn hill. 

Their progress make them willing to repeat the trip to Arosa made the previous year by the two Swiss. Conan Doyle and the Brangers therefore leave, on the 23rd of March 1894 at about 4 AM, for Frauenkirch, a village south of Davos-Platz, from where they start the ascent of the Maienfeld pass. The crossing to Arosa, which they complete in about 7 hours, is not altogether a peaceful journey, and some precipices cause a few concerns to the British writer.

An incident

The final descent to Arosa is especially memorable for Arthur Conan Doyle : the slope being too steep for skiing, the Branger brothers take off their skis and, tying the straps together, use them as a sledge to overcome that difficult descent.

When he tries to imitate them, the writer’s skis escape him and rapidly slide down the slope. Having no other choice, he ends up by letting himself slide down on his back, until, covered in snow, he reaches the two Swiss below. Arthur Conan Doyle said that this experience allowed him to put to the test the resistance of his tweed clothes, said by his tailor to be indestructible. He implies that the theory did not successfully pass the trial of practical experiment.

An account in The Strand Magazine

In a letter written the following day, Arthur Conan Doyle tells his mother of his performance : “ Yesterday, I performed a small feat by crossing a chain of mountains on snow-shoes (Norwegian Ski) and coming down to Arosa. Two Swiss accompanied me. I am the first Englishman who has ever crossed an Alpine pass in winter on snow-shoes – at least I think so. We left at 4 in the morning and were in Arosa at 11.30. It has created quite a little excitement „. The author also gives a more complete account of his little exploit, including a description of his hazardous debut, in a humorous self-deprecating way in an article published in The Strand Magazine of December 1894. Entitled “ An Alpine Pass on ‘ski’ ”, it is illustrated with photographs, some of which show the writer and his sister Lottie. Thus Doyle certainly helped popularize skiing among the British. As for his pair of skis, it is now displayed in the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Lucens. 

Arthur Conan Doyle’s skis at the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Lucens

Arthur Conan Doyle among a group of skiers

Arthur Conan Doyle (on the right) among a group of skiers ([1894]). (BCU-Lausanne, IS 4314/5/1/2)

“ In that great untrodden waste, with snow-fields bounding our vision on every side and no marks of life save the track of chamois and of foxes, it was glorious to whizz along in this easy fashion. A short zig-zag at the bottom of the slope brought us, at half-past nine, into the mouth of the pass, and we could see the little toy hotels of Arosa away down among the fir woods, thousands of feet beneath us.

Arthur Conan Doyle, “An Alpine Pass on ‘Ski’”, The Strand Magazine, December 1894, p.660

Arthur Conan Doyle on skis

Turn again, Whittington”
Arthur Conan Doyle on skis ([1894]). (BCU-Lausanne, IS 4314/5/1/3)

Arthur Conan Doyle and two other men in the snow

Arthur Conan Doyle and two other men in the snow ([1894]). (BCU-Lausanne, IS 4314/5/1/3)

The “Coneydoil”

Caricature of Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest for skiing has not escaped E. T. Reed, who caricatures the writer thus in his book Mr. Punch’s animal land (London, Bradbury, Agnew & co., 1898).

Article "An Alpine Pass on 'Ski'" dans le Strand Magazine

An Alpine Pass on ‘Ski’” (The Strand Magazine, December 1894)
→ Read the article (pdf)

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