Peter Lunn: 'I was furious if I didn't fall'
Peter Lunn shares the ups and downs of his long life in skiing with Adam Ruck
Saturday 16 January 2010
Had you been skiing in the small Swiss resort of Mürren during the latter stages of the First World War, you might have had a small boy for company.
"I remember endlessly walking up the practice slope, skiing over a large bump and falling over," says Peter Lunn, who – aged 95 – is back on his skis in Mürren after a broken hip kept him away for 18 months. "My mother picked me up and said, 'Lean forward' – rather good advice."
Mürren was an internment camp for British and Canadian combatants who were moved from Germany to Switzerland. It offered a more benign regime than many people experienced in the conflict. The interns were permitted to live with their families. Many of them rebuilt their strength on ski manoeuvres led by Lunn's father, Arnold, who was the son of the great Alpine holiday pioneer, Sir Henry Lunn – founder of the Lunn Poly travel agency, now Thomson. In a very British way, Arnold Lunn devised rules and competitions and led an international campaign to recognise Alpine ski racing. "Not all the interns were receptive to the idea," says Peter. "One communist demanded to know what skiing had to offer the British working man."
Arnold Lunn's reply is not recorded, but his son is a shining example of what skiing has to offer senior citizens: liberation from the prison of old age. Peter's eyesight is not what it was, and he walks in careful little steps, but with skis on his feet he is a man unbound. After a cautious first run, he picks up the pace and relaxes into the swing of the slopes. It's as though he has never been away. Relief and pure joy light up his crumpled countenance.
The history of Alpine skiing is written in the battered frame of this indomitable man, who has seen the sport evolve from careering down the mountain on long planks of hickory, using the stick as a brake, to free-riding on easy-turn carving skis.
Lunn won his first skiing prize soon after his father set the first modern slalom at Mürren in 1922. "The first leg of the race on soft snow, the second on hard," he recalls. The next year he skied with the mountaineer Andrew Irvine, who described it as: "The day when to all intents and purposes I was born. I don't think anyone has lived until they have been on skis."
Lunn remembers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle coming to tea to discuss skiing and spiritualism, and he recalls the foundation of Mürren's British ski racing club, the Kandahar, in 1924. But he was away at boarding school in January 1928 when 18 of the club's skiers pioneered the Inferno, a 10-mile up-and-downhill marathon whose 67th edition Mürren will host next Saturday, with 1,800 recreational racers lining up beneath the Schilthorn.
In the early days, Lunn and his fellow racers used the graceful Telemark turn. Technique changed with the introduction of the spring-heeled Amstutz binding in 1931. Yet the luxury of mechanical uphill transport was still some way off. The Austrians were the first to use metal ski edges, stealing an advantage for a time.
Arnold Lunn's campaigning bore fruit with the inclusion of downhill and slalom racing at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Bavaria, where his son captained the British team. But the Olympic downhill is not a memory he treasures. "I was overawed by the event and skied too carefully," he says. "It was the only major international downhill race in which I failed to fall."
After the Second World War, he made a career of "government service", a euphemism for spying, and toured the key stations – Berlin, Bonn, Bern, Vienna, Beirut – skiing everywhere he went. Middle age and family responsibilities did nothing to cramp his style. "We had four weeks in Mürren every Christmas," says Lunn's son Stephen. "He skied every day from 8.30am to 4.30pm, and he was furious if he went a day without a big fall, because that meant he was not trying hard enough."
Although Lunn now tries not to fall and has trimmed his day to a few runs, he remains as fervent about skiing as ever. He has no time for the people who moan about how the fun has gone from the sport, with too many lifts serving overcrowded and over-manicured pistes. Those who crave adventure and challenge can ski off-piste, which is as natural as ever.
"When you are skiing, you need to adapt your style and your movements to the landscape," he says. "It is a very intimate communion with nature that doesn't change with age. When I ski, I am part of the mountain. Or is it part of me? I'm not sure."
There are no prizes for style in the Lunn book of skiing, and he laments the proliferation of Olympic events. "I see no need for any event that can't be decided by a stopwatch or tape measure," he says emphatically. "Marks for style open the door to corruption and nationalistic voting."
When Peter's wife died in 1976, the Hotel Eiger (00 41 33 856 54 54; hotel eiger.com) offered him a room. From his lunch table he overlooks a memorial to his father's contribution to the glory of Mürren and the gaiety of nations. "For as long as I can remember, Peter has been here from the first day of the season to the last," says the hotel's Adrian Stahli. "Last year, Mürren seemed empty without him."
Lunn prefers to look forward rather than back. After racing the Inferno aged 80, his first words were "I'll do it at 90". He was as good as his word, but fell seven times, beat only six other skiers, and retired from racing. This year's ambition is to ski the long black run that drops steeply from the Schilthorn, high above Mürren. "He has talked about skiing it with the family when he's 100," says Stephen Lunn.
Don't bet against him.
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