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Ski Resort Life

How the Author of Sherlock Holmes Turned Davos into a Ski Destination

The mystery of the Swiss ski hamlet is, well, elementary my dear Watson!

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The popularization of the Alps as a tourist destination likely would not have happened when it did if it weren’t for the confluence of a famous novelist, a bacterial disease that wiped out a significant chunk of Europe’s population during the 18th century, and a doctor who discovered a seemingly magical town that seemed to display immunity.

The disease now goes by the name tuberculosis, although it had various names going back to Ancient Greece before anyone had even known the concept of bacteria. Later known as “The White Plague” and “Consumption,” it killed seven million Europeans and Americans annually during its peak in the 1800s. In cities, it’s estimated that more than 25 percent of deaths in New York between 1810 and 1815 were caused by tuberculosis.

The doctor was a German refugee, Alexander Spengler, who arrived in Davos’s impoverished alpine Swiss village in 1853. He discovered that the people there seemed to have a natural resistance to tuberculosis, and created the forerunner to the TB sanatorium—a countryside retreat where fresh air, medical monitoring, and semi-isolation—that would later dot the North American and European landscape in the final decades of the century.

For the well-to-do who could afford it, Davos became a mecca of curative treatment, which, for the first time, enabled the town to thrive all year round rather than just the summer. A Dutch entrepreneur, Willem Jan Holsboer, visited Davos to cure his wife’s consumption in 1865. While his wife passed away, he saw a business opportunity, partnered with Spengler to open the town’s first big luxury hotel (the Hoelsboer-Spengler), and created a railway line.

The third key element was Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who came to Davos to cure his wife Louisa in 1893.

Doyle wasn’t just an author but a notorious sportsman: An avid boxer, cricketer, and golfer. His sense of adventure was also evident because he was one of the earliest motorists in Great Britain and even took part in a 1911 road race organized by a Prussian prince.

In Davos, Doyle took up skiing which had just been introduced to Switzerland a decade earlier (1883) from Norway. Although downhill skiing had taken place in Nordic countries and as a form of transportation in mining communities among the Rocky Mountains, the imagination of the Davos sportsmen didn’t consider skiing beyond the cross-country format.

However, Davos was a town of winter sports innovation. The world’s first artificial ice rink was created here in 1869. Davos was the home to the world’s first sledding competition (1883), luge track (1900), and European hockey competition (1916). Thus, it was fitting that in Davos, numerous endeavors would be undertaken to re-engineer the primitive Norweigan ski equipment for more sporting purposes.

One of those boot producers, Franz Heierling, founded a company that sells winter sports gear today. The biggest innovators, however, were brothers Tobias and Johann Branger, who taught themselves to trek long distances on skis.

In 1893, they managed to trek from Davos to the neighboring town of Arosa and back (approximately 41 km). Although this seems more like mountaineering than the recreational skiing we know today, this was an era of alpine skiing before ski lifts. Alpine skiing was differentiated from Nordic skiing simply by differences in elevation and the desire to push your body further.

Andrew Denning, the author of Skiing Into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History, wrote about how the Alps transformed skiing, “As skiing took root in the Alps, however, the practice of the sport changed to accord with the region’s steep terrain, which granted skiers the ecstasy of speed. The focus on the downhill increasingly differentiated Alpine skiing from Nordic skiing, which demanded climbs and lengthy, flat treks, along with occasional descents. The contemporary lust for speed quickly allowed Alpine skiing to supplant its Scandinavian progenitor in popular practice.“

Although Doyle engaged in tobogganing and ice skating between lectures and attending to his wife’s treatment, skiing captured his imagination. It wasn’t long before DoIt wasn’t long before he befriended the Branger brothers, who procured him a pair of skis.

It was said he amused the locals by dragging his equipment up Jakobshorn Mountain before flailing numerous times on the way down.

When the brothers announced they would repeat the trek to Arosa the following year, Doyle followed along.

The trio awoke at 4 in the morning and handled the most difficult part first as they ascended the 7,700-foot-high Jakobshorn, followed by the sweet descent. Doyle, 34 at the time, knew he was less fit than the Branger brothers, and though he could keep up, he instantly recognized the greater physical toll it was taking on his body. Although there were no major other peaks on the way to Arosa, the elevation peaked at nearly 9,000 feet and involved treacherous climbs.

Doyle described the little joys of descending in between with a sense of bliss: “But now we had a pleasure which boots can never give. For a third of a mile we shot along over gently dipping curves, skimming down into the valley without a motion of our feet. In that great untrodden waste, with snow-fields bounding our vision on every side and no marks of life save the tracks of chamois and of foxes, it was glorious to whizz along in this easy fashion.”

Doyle published the story of his journey in the Strand (from which the above passage is extracted). Ironically, it was also Doyle’s failure on some fronts that also endeared him to audiences.
As any modern skier can attest, dressing for the occasion is half the battle with skiing mastery, and Doyle’s use of formal wear for the endeavor proved disastrous. Still, it gave him the kind of humorous fodder that helped make his article a hit: “My tailor claims that Harris tweed does not wear. That is pure theory and does not stand up to through inspection. My tailor can now view many samples of his material between the Furgga Pass and Arosa.”

Doyle’s literary pedigree caused his article to be widely read and reprinted multiple times. He popularized skiing through the British Isles, and his effect on the Swiss tourist industry can’t be understated. Today a plaque in Davos honors the author for “bringing this new sport and the attractions of the Swiss Alps in winter to the world.”