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Two Planks and a Passion, By Roland Huntford

Skiing and surprises from the Arctic to the Alps

When, in 1911, Amundsen became the first man to raise a flag over the South Pole, one might have expected him to celebrate, or at least express quiet satisfaction at beating Scott's British team. Instead, his first reflections were that "the skiing has been partly good, partly bad". As Roland Huntford reminds us in a history of skiing full of intriguing surprises, his team saw themselves not as explorers, but as skiers.

We are used to the commonplaces about why Amundsen beat Scott: that the Norwegians preferred huskies to ponies, took a better route, and were better led – this last an idea introduced by Huntford in his iconoclastic and influential biography of Scott. The idea that they got there first because they were better at skiing (the British apparently had a "defective technique") is a further humiliation, particularly now that as a nation we quite fancy ourselves on the slopes.

But Norway had been skiing for a few thousand more years than we had. The Lapps developed the skill for hunting, and not long before the race for the Pole, Nansen had shown you could cross Greenland on planks of wood wrapped with sealskin. It was only with its move to the Alps in the 19th century and consequent development as more of a downhill than cross-country sport that the British began to take an interest. To ski, explained The Field, was "to run down at a speed that a railway engine can hardly equal".

One of the first on to the curious "twin planks" was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a keen Alpinist already – he had just chosen to kill off Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach waterfall in Switzerland, and admired Nansen's achievement in crossing Greenland on skis. Helped by the locals, Conan Doyle took to the new sport fast, although when writing about it, he began the long British tradition of pretending that he had somehow taught himself without the indignity of lessons. He was "convinced that the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the 'ski'-ing'".

Turning on stiff, crusted snow was difficult, as skis had yet to be edged with steel, so Conan Doyle lashed his together over such surfaces and used them as a toboggan. Unfortunately, he failed to lash himself to the skis and they took off down the slope of their own accord, leaving their owner with a long walk back to the village.

Huntford is more relaxed here than in some of his hard-hitting biographies, and with his belt loosened holds forth over the après-ski schnapps with some fine anecdotes and speculation. Did tribes in Siberia think of the Milky Way as a ski-track left by the gods? Was the Viking Harald Hardrade more concerned about his reputation as a skier than about invading Britain? And did the Finns repel the far larger Russian army in 1939 because they had elite skiing troops who could swoop in on the Red Army as it plodded through the snow?

Only a slender last chapter is given to the development of skiing after 1945, as the invention of the bonded synthetic ski and safety bindings allowed a mass market to open – a market that low-cost flights have now expanded to saturation point. It is clear that Huntford's sympathies lie more with the exploring pioneers; he takes pleasure in the renaissance of telemark skiing, with its slogan "free the heel, free the mind", and its rejection of mechanised resorts for long-distance touring.

This fine, erudite history of the sport returns continually to two central points: that skiing is older than the wheel and was used by the first migrating tribes across the Arctic as the only way to cover distance; and that, short of jumping off a cliff, this is still about the fastest way a man can travel under his own steam.

As for Amundsen, his disappointment that the South Pole had not proved the perfect skiing resort was relieved during the return journey, when the Norwegians hit some good powder descending the Antarctic plateau: "We tore down like a rushing wind. A wonderful sport." Nor did his team have to worry about lift queues on the way back.

Hugh Thomson's 'Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico' will be published next month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson