Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Ski Pioneer

How Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s decision to kill Sherlock Holmes led to the birth of Switzerland’s ski tourism.

In the summer of 1893 a group of English clergymen and a Scottish doctor were contemplating the meaning of life, existence, and divinity during a holiday in the Swiss Alps, when suddenly the discussion switched to murder. This sinister shift was no random debate about the concept of taking a life. This was a cold-blooded, premeditated, homicidal strategy session with a very specific target. “I have made up my mind to kill Sherlock Holmes,” the doctor confessed. “He is becoming such a burden to me that it makes my life unbearable.”

The doctor in question was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – ski pioneer and one of the most famous authors of the 19th century. A global celebrity with an audience of millions in an era before radio, television, and the internet, Conan Doyle’s printed words were more than entertainment; they were the windows through which his readers saw the world. Oddly, his plot to “murder” Holmes had a profound effect on the evolution of alpine ski tourism in Switzerland.

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, and by the early 1890s had made Conan Doyle a wealthy man thanks to the serialization of the detective’s short stories in The Strand Magazine, a popular periodical. Fame and fortune were no match for frustration and boredom however, as Conan Doyle — an avid adventurer — had tired of writing about literature’s first and most famous whodunnit detective. As the author told his mother in a letter detailing his desire to kill off Holmes: “He takes my mind from better things.”

Better things included the care of his wife, Lady Louise Conan Doyle, who was suffering with tuberculosis. If Holmes was a “burden” before Louise’s illness, the character had now become an impediment in the way of her cure. And so it was that his famous detective’s literary fate was sealed. In December 1893, much to the chagrin of Baker Street fans, Holmes was murdered in a Strand story called The Final Problem.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle skiing

“His plot to “murder” Holmes had a profound effect on the evolution of alpine ski tourism in Switzerland.”

By then, the Conan Doyles had relocated to Davos, a town high up in the Swiss Alps with an abundance of sanatoriums, fresh air, white peaks, blue skies, and sunshine — a tuberculosis patient’s best chance for a cure in the days before antibiotics. It worked. Lady Conan Doyle’s health improved in the snowy mountains of Davos. Free of Sherlock Holmes and buoyed by improvement in his wife’s health, the author, always a keen sportsman, turned his attention again to “better things.” Namely, tobogganing, ice-hockey, and skiing.

Ski-running, as it was known in the late 19th century, had been on Conan Doyle’s mind since reading of the exploits of Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian ski champion who’d crossed Greenland on skis and wrote about the sport with unmatched enthusiasm. In Davos, the author was even more captivated by stories of Tobias and Johannes Branger, brothers who, only one year earlier, skied the 14-mile Maienfelder Furka Pass separating Davos and Arosa. Enthralled by the duo’s marvelous feat, Conan Doyle became determined to embark on his own epic ski adventure.

He purchased a pair of eight-foot Norwegian wooden boards, recruited Tobias Branger as an instructor, and learned to ski. He wrote about the experience in The Strand: “There is nothing peculiarly malignant in the appearance of a pair of ski (sic),” Conan Doyle told his readers. “No one to look at them would guess at the possibilities which lurk in them. But you put them on and you turn with a smile to see whether your friends are looking at you, and then the next moment you are boring your head madly into a snowbank.”

Smitten by the sport, Conan Doyle soon convinced the Branger brothers to repeat their Maienfelder Furka adventure, this time with the author in tow. The three set off from Davos at 4:30 a.m. on March 23, 1894. They trudged to the top of an 8,000-foot peak on snowshoes, switched to skis, and rode down into the town of Arosa. “We shot along over gently dipping curves,” Conan Doyle wrote, “skimming down into the valley without a motion of our feet … it was glorious to whiz along in this easy fashion.” At one point during a particularly steep section, the Brangers tied their skis into a makeshift sledge and slid down. When Conan Doyle tried the same, his skis slipped away and the adventurer bumped down the pitch on his tush. “For the remainder of the day,” he wrote, “I was happiest when nearest the wall.”

Style points aside, Conan Doyle made it to Arosa in one piece. When he arrived at the local hotel for an overnight stay and, perhaps, an après-ski drink, he was registered as a “sportesmann” (sic) rather than a world famous author. As Roland Huntford wrote in Two Planks and a Passion: The Dramatic History of Skiing: It was “the first guided ski tour in the Alps, with Conan Doyle the first client.”

Experts now say Conan Doyle’s experience was pivotal in the making of skiing as a popular sport. He wrote of his Maienfelder Furka Pass adventure in an article titled An Alpine Pass on Ski (sic) for an 1894 edition of The Strand — a piece read by thousands of future skiers. “His story created an interest in skiing among the English middle classes,” says Vincent Delay, curator of the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Lucens, Switzerland. “He played a big role in popularizing ski tourism in the Swiss Alps and surely the rest of the world.”

Today there is a bronze plaque in Davos dedicated to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It reads: “In tribute to Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle 1859-1930. English author — creator of Sherlock Holmes — and sportsman, who on March 23, 1894, crossed the Maienfelder Furka from Davos to Arosa on skis, thereby bringing this new sport and the attractions of the Swiss Alps in winter to the world. The perfect pattern of a gentleman.”



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