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.

The Kandahar Ski Club was founded at Mürren in 1924 to promote downhill racing, and in 1924 the Ski Club of Great Britain sent a memorandum to all the Ski Associations urging that downhill and slalom racing should take the place of the long-distance race as the appropriate test of Alpine skiing. There was so little interest in our proposals that we did not receive a single reply to this memorandum.

Our first convert on the Continent was the Swiss University Ski Club, and the Anglo-Swiss University Race is the oldest team race in downhill racing. In the United States the first group of skiers to adopt our rules were the skiers of Dartmouth College. Professor Proctor was a member of the Ski Club of Great Britain and he did a great work in propagating downhill racing.

In 1930 I attended the International Ski Congress in Oslo and succeeded in obtaining international recognition of the British rules for downhill and slalom racing. I had great opposition to overcome, for the Norwegians regarded the slalom as a kind of gymkhana event "suitable for ladies and untrained Englishmen." "It is beneath our dignity," a leading Norwegian skier had remarked, "even to discuss the slalom." Any apostle of these heresies would, in any event, have met with a cool reception in Oslo, but my offense was aggravated by the fact that I had been rash enough to remark, in the Year-Book of the Ski Club of Great Britain, that "the average standard of downhill skiing among visitors at Norwegian skiing centres was deplorably low." The words which I have italicized were omitted in quotation and I was generally believed to have asserted that the average standard of skiing among the Norwegians was deplorably low. No wonder I was unpopular. In 1930 a Norwegian was considered a good skier if he could cover long distances on undulating country in a short time and jump his 80 or 40 meters in good style. And judged by this type of skiing Norway led the world.

Eric Horn, who was assigned the task of looking after me during the Holmenkollen meeting, was a very fine straight runner, and having failed to impress me by the comparatively gentle downhill sections of the Holmenkollen race, dived down one of the few steep slopes in the Holmenkollen woods and just failed to stop without falling before a clump of bushes. I avoided a fall by a few cautious S turns. This was the first time, Horn told me when we met again in 1946, that he had seen four continuous downhill turns. "Your father," he explained to my son Peter, "did some slalom turns which were more economical"—that is, economical of falls, a delightful phrase which I must remember now that I have reached the "economical", phase of an aging skier's career. This demonstration of "economy" and some copies of the Year-Book of the Ski Club of Great Britain transformed Eric Horn into an ardent pioneer of Alpine skiing.

Of course, directly the Norwegians got down to the job of mastering downhill racing, they had no difficulty in becoming experts. In fact the Norwegians won the Men's and Ladies' Downhill Races at the Olympic Games of 1936, but they have not yet produced any Norwegian who has finished in the first three places in a World Championship in downhill racing.

The great sports, like the great cultures, have their prescribed cycles, and the springtime of a sport has the same charm as the first phase of a culture cycle. There was a spontaneity about Gothic skiing which one recalls with nostalgic regret. Indeed there could be no greater contrast than that between the first race for the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup, which is now the world's senior challenge cup for downhill racing, and the races at the Winter Olympics of 1948.

On a January day in 1911 some twenty competitors left Montana and climbed for eight hours to the Wildstrubel Hut on the Plaine Morte glacier. (Today every racer expects to be conveyed to the start in a ski lift.) After spending the night in the Hut, the competitors lined up and started when the oldest competitor gave the word to go. (Modern competitors start at minute intervals, a fact which robs the finish of dramatic interest.) The Kandahar competitors raced across the glacier and down 4000 vertical feet of snow shaped, by sun, frost, and wind. (The modern competitors race down a course which has been transformed either by skiers or by workmen into the regulation hard-beaten surface of a standard course. In an important race scores of workmen will be mobilized to stamp the course in the event of a disastrous fall of natural snow on the eve of the race.)

The overwhelming majority of these Kandahar competitors had never been over the course, and the race was therefore a fine test of picking the best line over unknown country. (No modern racer would start unless he had been over the course again and again.) The only flags on the Wildstrubel course were the finishing flags. (A modern race course is defined by direction and control flags.) The organization costs of the Roberts of Kandahar were nil, but the cost of preparing a modern race course, particularly the Slalom, for an Olympic event may, if there are heavy snowfalls, approach $5000. Every yard of a Slalom has to be stamped by foot day after day in order to ensure the bricklike surface which will remain virtually unaltered from the beginning to the end of the Slalom. Special "snow cement" is used still further to harden the snow.

I confess that as I refereed the Olympic Slalom with its elaborate system of artificial timing to permit more than one competitor being on the course at once and its large clock, the moving second hand of which kept the public informed as to the time which had elapsed since a competitor had started, my mind traveled back nostalgically to the primitive Slaloms at Mürren where the timekeeper watched for the drop of the starter's flag and timed the competitor on an ordinary wrist watch.

Sport, like other human activities, reflects the dominant philosophy of the age. The dogma "Sport has nothing to do with politics" is a survival of the age of laissez-faire Liberalism.

But it is essential for a dictator to prove that the prestige of the country is due to the regime, and sport must therefore contribute to ideological propaganda. The young Nazis were encouraged to believe that a ski race was a competition in which Germans raced to prove, not that they were better skiers than other people, but that Nazism was better than democracy. The thing that mattered, and the only thing that mattered, was victory, and all means which led to this end were justifiable. At the Olympic Games in Garmisch the course was closed to all competitors on the day before the race. The Nazis, we subsequently learned, practiced down the course at dawn.

When a German lost the so-called World Championship held during the war at Cortina, the Nazis protested against the marks for style awarded by the Swiss judge and sent the Acting President of the International Ski Federation (FIS) photographs of the German jumper, jumping in excellent style. Two photographs were submitted of the two jumps for the championship. Unfortunately he was wearing different colored socks in each photograph. The photographs were not taken during the Championship but during practice on different days, and the best from the point of view of style were selected from a series.

Before the Nazis came into power German skiers were decent friendly people who contributed their share to the building of a real freemasonry transcending national frontiers. But the Nazi ski teams were mobilized like ski troops. German competitors were not allowed to accept invitations as individuals. If the team was not invited the individual could not accept. The technique of making protests was developed as a fine art. If the Nazi flag was not displayed with sufficient prominence, a protest was promptly lodged. Any decision which could be challenged was challenged.

I am proud of the fact that the British have yet to lodge their first protest in international skiing; though on many occasions a protest would have been more than justified. As to the Union Jack, it is almost invariably upside down, chiefly because not one European in a thousand knows that there is a right and a wrong way to hang the Union Jack.

V-J Day succeeded V-E Day and once again skiers began to race each other down the Alpine snows. The war had done nothing to diminish the exaggerated nationalism which had spoiled international skiing. Nations which had been humiliated sought compensation for injured pride in the victories of sport. Our difficulties were aggravated by the commercial rivalries. The Alpine countries were competing fiercely for skiing tourists, and this competition was reflected in exaggerated claims for the virtues of the national ski schools. Now the dynamics of ski movements is a branch of science, and though the Russians may repudiate "bourgeois" science, we of the West are still reactionary enough to believe that science recognizes no frontiers whether of class or of nation. To me, at least, it seems as absurd to talk of French or Swiss ski schools as to talk of French or Swiss science. It is impossible to patent innovations in technique. Any new discovery spreads rapidly from one end of the skiing world to the other.

Unfortunately there are thousands of foolish people who deduce from the fact that a French skier has beaten a Swiss skier by a fraction of a second the conclusion that the French school is better than the Swiss. Consequently the tourist industries are commercially interested in Olympic and other victories. The resultant tensions aggravate the difficulties of those who believe that an International Race meeting should be a party rather than a battle, a reunion of the ski family rather than a rehearsal of the next great war.

The dreary pattern of totalitarian sport is repeating itself in the modern world. The Yugoslavs refused to start at Chamonix in 1947 until their government had given them permission to ignore the insult to their flag which, as I remember, had been accidentally hung too near the Italian flag. At St. Moritz all the teams from the Eastern states were housed together to avoid contamination with the plutocratic West. Their hotel, the Stahlbad, was christened Stalinbad by the Swiss.

Certainly the opening of the 1948 Winter Olympics was not auspicious. First there was the ice hockey controversy, in which Mr. Avery Brundage was ethically in the right and legally in the wrong. Then there was the legacy of the war in the shape of a protest against an Austrian skier who had been conscripted to drive the car of a Gestapo chief. It was my job to deal with such protests and I constituted myself into a miniature Nuremberg court, and read through police dossiers which seemed to me to tell wholly in favor of the accused. Anyhow I could not be expected to override the decision of the competent authorities in Austria who had cleared this young skier of any voluntary support of or active sympathy for the Nazi organizations.

My dismissal of the case produced loud protests from the representatives of the Satellites, who sobered down, however, when I pointed out that I was less interested in extinct terror organizations than in those which were still active in their respective countries. Tiger shooting is great fun, but there is not much to be said for shooting tigers that are both dead and skinned.

In spite of this inauspicious beginning the Olympic Games were a success. I was delighted with Gretchen Fraser's victory in the Slalom, for Gretchen is a product of American skiing, a daughter of Sun Valley, where I had seen her ski and had predicted in our Ski Year-Book that she would one day win a World Championship. There were, of course, unpleasant incidents and unsporting grumbles by defeated stars, but there was much to be said on the credit side of the account. The Italians, for instance, came to St. Moritz with justifiable hopes of success. Celina Seghi is certainly the best woman skier competing today, but one Silver Medal was all that the Italians won at St. Moritz. In spite of their disappointment they remained imperturbably good-humored and uncritical of the courses and officials.

And I remember with gratitude the sportsmanship of a French crowd at Charnonix who enthusiastically applauded the Italians who finished first and second in the AK Slalom, and the stoic courtesy with which Steve Knowlton of the U.S.A. accepted disqualification in the Downhill Race. He might well have finished among the first three in the combined but for an error for which an official was partly responsible. His only reaction was to go out of his way to thank one of the hardworking officials, a politeness which is all but unique in my experience of racing.

It is memories such as these which encourage me to hope that the brotherhood of skiing is not an empty phrase and that skiing chauvinists will fail in the future, as they failed in the past, to ruin a noble sport.