Downhill Racing

The inventor of the Slalom race looks back on fifty years of skiing.

Shortly before Christmas, 1898, the villagers of Chamonix were intrigued by the antics of half a dozen English visitors who were attempting to master the new sport of skiing on the nursery slopes. Among these visitors was the present writer, a small boy of ten who had been given a pair of children's skis by his father as a Christmas present. It has been my good fortune to see skiing sweep through Central Europe and evolve, in half a century, from the specialty of a few eccentrics into one of the world's most popular sports.

Skiing in the days of my youth meant ski touring and exploration. Every run was a new discovery. At the beginning of the century Hahnenmoos Pass and Faulhorn were as undisturbed in winter as the remoter glaciers half a century before. In summer the Alps had been forced to submit to the indignity of human invasion, but when the autumn snows had dusted the green cattle Alps with silver, and the last of the cows had jangled her way down to the valley, the mountains resumed their interrupted sovereignty and the skier who invaded these solitudes felt as though he were entering a country illegally.

In those days the climb was not regarded as a tedious prelude to a downhill run. The austere spell of the remote and lonely snows meant as much to us as the actual run. Skiing was a branch of exploration. A new chapter in the history of mountaineering was beginning. Little or nothing was known of the ever changing moods of winter snow. Summer routes, we knew, were sometimes dangerous even on the ascent, and useless to the skier planning his descent. We had to solve our own problems, with little help from guidebooks or guides, who knew no more than we did and with whom I usually dispensed.

The first serious raid into the High Alps on skis was the Oberland traverse by Paulke in 1897, and the first end-to-end traverse of the Oberland was carried out by me in January, 1908 (Kandersteg, Petersgrat, Lötschenlücke, Finsteraarhorn, Oberaarjoch, Meiringen). I was the only member of the party who possessed sealskins. On our first day we climbed fourteen hours to the Petersgrat and on our third day twelve hours to the Lötschenlücke. Today the skier leaves the Scheidegg after breakfast, takes the train to the Jungfraujoch station (11,400 feet above the sea), skis down over the Lötschenlücke, and returns to the Scheidegg the same night.

In those days there was no Jungfrau railway, and we knew that if any of us should break a leg near the Concordia (half an hour below the Jungfraujoch railway station today), the best part of twenty-four hours would pass before a guide dispatched for help would return with a stretcher.

Skiing as practiced by ski mountaineers is immeasurably different from skiing as it is understood by the overwhelming majority of modern skiers. In the early decades of this century a man was regarded as a good skier if he could find his way about the mountains in winter and in spring, if he knew enough about snowcraft to keep clear of avalanches and to plan a tour so as to get the maximum value out of the snow, and if he was both reasonably fast and steady while descending over unknown ground irrespective of the different varieties of snow which he might encounter. A modem skier can easily make an international reputation without knowing enough about mountaincraft to lead an easy expedition and without being able to run with speed and safety on any snow but the hard-beaten standard courses.

A few months after crossing the Oberland glaciers I came away with loose rock and fell a hundred feet in three bounds. My right leg was not merely broken but shattered; this and various other injuries made me feel that the charms of solitary climbing had been overrated. It was eighteen months before I could climb again, and even then I did not enjoy the experience, for my right leg was short and misshapen and my nerve was impaired. Ten years passed before the last fragment of splintered bone emerged from an open wound, and though I continued to climb in summer, I soon realized the advantage of skiing, in which most of the work could be done by my uninjured leg, over foot slogging, in which the injured leg had to do its fair share.

I also found that by postponing my expeditions till April or May I could climb all the ordinary peaks and ski most of the way down to the valley into the bargain. It was this injured leg which made me one of the pioneers of late spring skiing on the glaciers.

The Alps are never lovelier than in the late spring. I remember looking down on Grindelwald from the crest of the Eiger in May, the cherry blossoms showing as threads of silver, the buttercups adding a shimmer of gold. It is a wonderful experience to begin the day linking one's Christianias down the perfect spring snow of some glacier pass, to remove one's ski at the frontier between winter and spring, and to end the day strolling down through the scented pines past fields in all the polychrome glory of Alpine flowers to the valley echoing with the overture of spring.

Ski mountaineering was my first love but it would be ungracious of me to give the impression of wishing to belittle ski racing. All that I urge is that the ski racer, when his racing days are done, should launch out into ski mountaineering. A thing does not cease to be good because other things are better, and ski racing is undoubtedly one of the finest of sports, certainly one of the most exacting as a test of courage and skill. Races have been won at an average speed of 60 miles per hour; and no racer can approach the international class unless he can hold uneven ground at speeds approximating 60 miles per hour. Inevitably in practice he will fall at such speeds and take punishment as severe as that of the boxing ring.

Skiing was introduced into the Alps by the Norwegians. Most of the skiing country in Scandinavia is gentle and undulating. There are, of course, steep mountains, particularly in Norway, but a typical day's skiing for a Norwegian consists of a long hike over country where an occasional short climb is followed by an equally short descent. The traditional Scandinavian competition consists of a combined event: a long-distance race of about 12 miles and a jumping competition.

The Alpine peoples blindly copied the Scandinavian precedent and, instead of setting courses down from mountains, painfully flagged out long-distance courses around their valley floors. I was the first person to suggest in print that a downhill race was a better test of downhill skiing as practiced in the Alps than a long-distance race.

My first task was to convert my own countrymen, who, like the Swiss, were so overawed by the prestige of Norwegian skiing that they considered it impious to depart from Scandinavian precedents. The British were the first to award a championship on downhill racing, or rather on the combined result of a downhill race and a slalom race. The modern slalom is an invention of my own, and I am always sorry that I used the old Norwegian word slalom for a form of competition which has nothing in common with the Norwegian slalom. The German word Torlauf (gate race) is a far better word for a competition which consists in racing down a course defined by pairs of flags through which the racer must pass and which are so arranged as to test every variety of turn short and abrupt, long and sweeping.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In