In search of... Conan Doyle in the Swiss Alps

Did you know, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was also a pioneer of skiing? Minty Clinch follows in his tracks in Switzerland
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Conan Doyle? On skis? I thought he'd be a pipe and slippers man

Even in the world of eminent Victorians, Dr Arthur Conan Doyle stood out as a Renaissance man, a natural extrovert with diverse talents fuelled by huge reserves of energy, enthusiasm and wit. Less well charted is his flirtation with skiing, an intensive two-year fling that established him as a winter sports prophet and pioneer. The affair reached its zenith on 23 March 1894, when the creator of Sherlock Holmes became the first Englishman to cross the 2,440m Maienfelder Furka pass above Davos and ski down to Arosa on the other side. Rising before 4am, he headed for the village of Frauenkirch, accompanied by his guides, Tobias and Johannes Branger, making the trip for a second time.

That's quite an achievement

Indeed. Picture the three men trudging down the road "under a great pale moon in a violet sky", each carrying a pair of 8ft "Norwegian snowshoes" over their shoulders, leather ski boots slung around their necks. Conan Doyle, then 35, was snugly dressed in Harris tweed, guaranteed "impossible to wear out" by his London tailor. Events that day would prove the tailor a liar, but for the next few hours all was calm as the trio walked through the forest. When they emerged into the open snowfields below the pass, they strapped on their snowshoes with rudimentary leather bindings and zig-zagged on, reaching the top at 9.30am.

Not exactly elementary, my dear Watson

That's what I thought more than 100 years later when our guide talked us through the day's programme. After breakfast, we took the bus to Frauenkirch and climbed on light touring skis fitted with skins to prevent them from slipping back. Conan Doyle had to make do with string nets. We wore state-of-the-art clothing and, in theory at least, we knew how to ski.

So what got him into skiing?

Conan Doyle arrived in Davos in October 1893 with his wife, Touie, who was gravely ill with tuberculosis. He financed the last-chance cure in one of Davos's celebrated sanatoriums by selling their house and furniture, sending their two small children to live with their grandmother, abandoning his new celebrity and killing off the golden goose, Sherlock Holmes.Touie's health improved after two months and her hyperactive husband was left with time on his hands. Intrigued by the Brangers' advertisement in the local paper, he went to their saddlery shop to investigate the first Norwegian snowshoes to reach Davos. Once the brothers had devised rudimentary leather bindings, they set about learning to ski.

So was Conan Doyle a quick learner?

"The skis are the most capricious things upon earth," he wrote in The Strand Magazine. "One day you cannot go wrong with them. On another, with the same weather and the same snow, you cannot go right. You stand on the crown of the slope and you adjust your body for a rapid slide, but your skis stick motionless, and over you go upon your face ... For a man who suffers from too much dignity a course of Norwegian snow-shoes would have a fine moral effect."

Tell me more about his epic crossing

Struggling in his footsteps up the Furka wasn't easy. But four hours later we were there, 900m above Frauenkirch. Like Conan Doyle, we could see "the little toy hotels of Arosa away down among the fir trees, thousands of feet beneath us". For both groups, the next challenge was to arrive alive. Conan Doyle had a much harder time of it than we did. "In that great untrodden waste," he enthused, "... it was glorious to whizz along. It seemed that we had only stand on our skis and let them carry us. But... the slope grew steeper and steeper, until it suddenly fell away into what was little short of being pure precipice."

So what happened to the tweed?

At this point, the trio took off their skis, tied them into improvised toboggans and launched themselves down the mountain, using heels and sticks as brakes. The results were mixed, with the tweed falling short of its billing. "My tailor will find samples of his ware on view from the Furka Pass to Arosa, and for the remainder of the day, I was happiest when nearest to the wall." Or enjoying a "comfortable luncheon" in the Seehof Hotel before returning to Davos by post in time for tea.

And us? We skied down without incident. Arriving at the lake at the bottom, we looked around for Arosa railway station. "Up there," said the guide, pointing high above us. No lunch at the Seehof either. Forty minutes later, we grabbed a beer in the station buffet before the three-hour journey back to Davos.

And he skied happily ever after?

Conan Doyle skied for one more season, crossing from Davos to the Engadine in March 1895, but the flame was already dying and he never returned. "I am convinced," he wrote, "that the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the skiing season. I believe I may be the first, save only two Switzers, to do any mountain work, but I am certain I will not by many thousands be the last."

So how do I get there?

The Conan Doyle Classic from Davos to Arosa is snow and weather dependent, with the most suitable conditions usually found from mid-February to late March. The Swiss Ski School (00 41 81 416 2454; www.ssd.ch) in Davos Dorf will arrange a guide for the trip priced at £215 for up to three people. For further information, contact the Davos Tourist Office (00 41 81 415 2121; www.davos.ch).

Inghams (020 8790 4444; www.inghams.co.uk) offers seven night' half-board at the Hotel National from £575 in February and March, including return flights and transfers.

Chalet Eugenia, in the linked resort of Klosters, provides the perfect base for such an expedition, offering Victorian splendour on a scale that would have been familiar to Conan Doyle - blazing log fires, bearskin rugs, linen sheets and gargantuan gourmet meals. The property sleeps 12 and is available from £13,750 per week on an all-inclusive basis. For more details contact Descent International (020-7384 3854; www.descent.co.uk).

Comments