Meet the Men Who Founded Modern Skiing

Arnold Lunn and W James Riddell, both ski sportsmen and journalists, founded modern skiing and changed the way the sport of skiing is viewed today.

by Leslie Anthony

The village of Mürren perches, like an eagle on its nest, on a sunny terrace at the edge of a 2,600-foot cliff in the Jungfrau Region of Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland. At once, the town seems to be cradled by mountains and flying through them. In the lounge of historic Hotel Eiger, the eponymous peak stampedes through the floor-to-ceiling windows, so imposing that even if you’re alone amidst the room’s Victorian appointments, it feels like someone is sitting beside you. Someone important.

The panorama crowding the rest of that parlor is equally striking: To the Eiger’s right lean the Mönch and Jungfrau, a mountainous thumb and forefinger pinching the icy start of Europe’s longest glacier, the Aletsch. This monolithic troika gives way to the massive wall of the Schwarzmönch, and below it, the great gash of waterfall limned Trümmelbach Gorge. Gathering this all in through glass panes is like standing before a diorama in a museum of alpinism.

Mürren is as rich with human history as with geologic. It first appears in records in 1257 as Dorf auf der Mauer, “village on the wall.” Walsers — traces of whose culture can still be detected in the local buildings and dialect — had arrived from Lötschen in the Valais by squeezing through the then negotiable Wetterlücke gap. Over the centuries, the isolated settlement was variously known as Montem, Murren, Murron, Murn, Mürn, Murne, Myrrhen, and finally, Mürren, which stuck when the ever intrepid British discovered it as a summer destination in the 1840s. And boy, did they discover it.

For a few years, wealthy English pilgrims were fetched up rocky paths from the valley on sedan chairs, until Mürren’s popularity demanded that a cog railway be built. A Grand Palace Hotel was erected in 1847 (the Alpin Palace today), each room with spectacular views to the Eiger massif. It wasn’t until 1910, however, with the region entrenched as a climbing destination, that a British tour operator convinced the railway to open in winter, promising to deliver snow tourists. The gambit worked, spawning a spate of hotel construction to accommodate growing numbers who came to take the air, and slide around on sledges and newfangled objects called “skees.” The sportmad Brits believed the latter activity held huge promise to tourism, and the instruction and competitions that evolved here brought shape to the sport and a label to this nascent travel sector: the ski resort. There are other cradles of skiing — western China’s Altai, the Telemark region of Norway, and Austria (of course) — but here, where recreation, competition, and organization finally found footing together, is the birthplace of modern ski civilization.

Behind the Hotel Eiger, trams packed with skiers now rise first to Birg and then to the 9,650-foot Schilthorn, where a chic revolving restaurant caps the structure in which famous scenes from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were filmed. Directly in front of the hotel sits the cliff-hugging rail station that disgorges passengers who’ve taken a tram from Lauterbrunnen to ride the quaint, wooden train over from Gimmelwald. All in-town conveyance in Mürren is via horse-drawn sled or electric vehicle, so golf-cart taxis wait to whisk arrivals over snowy roads and past outdoor curling rinks to their lodging. The streets are never entirely cleared of snow, merely tamped down so that skiers can meander off the mountain and through the village to a favorite après bar without removing their gear, an alpine idyll that has lasted a century. Beside the train station stands the man most responsible for this. I’ve come a long way to see him, yet Sir Arnold Henry Moore Lunn — world’s most lyrical and prolific ski writer — says nothing when we meet.

Monuments can be like that.  The true skier … is not confined to a piste. He is an artist who creates a pattern of lovely lines from the virgin and uncorrupted snow. What marble is to the sculptor, so are the latent harmonies of ridge and hollow, powder and sun-softened crust to the true skier. … It is only in soft snow that the real artist can express himself.

The village of Mürren Switzerland
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