Peaks of Pleasure: Davos, Switzerland

Article in Condé Nast Traveler by Adam Ruck, February 2001
When skiers arrived on the Alpine scene at the turn of the century, the ice skaters and toboggan aces of St. Moritz gave them a glacial welcome. "Plank-hopping cannot be considered a sport," wrote the anonymous author of a 1901 winter guide. Although society beats a path there for jewelry auctions and polo tournaments on ice, the queen mother of Swiss winter resorts still takes the same de haut en bas view of skiing. The sparks of the new sport landed on more combustible ground at Davos, a neighbor of St. Moritz that developed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as a health resort for tuberculosis sufferers. Even here, the fire spluttered for more than twenty years before catching. The Winter Sports Museum in Davos has a pair of Lappish skis that a local doctor named Alexander Spengler is thought to have used as early as 1873. Dr. Spengler soon abandoned his experiments. A local mountain guide, Tobias Branger, saw skis at an exhibition in Paris in 1878 and, sensing the potential for winter guiding at Davos, ordered a pair from Norway. When they finally arrived in 1889, without instructions, he had no idea how to use them. Branger and his brother, Johannes, persevered, and made their first big ski tour in March 1893, over a high pass to Arosa, where people thought they had flown in from the sky. The following winter, the Brangers had the good fortune to be engaged as ski instructors and guides by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - then plain Dr. Doyle - who had been brought to Davos by his wife's tuberculosis but who spent more time indulging his passion for sport than doting on Mrs. Doyle. After six weeks of intensive training, the Brangers took the intrepid Dr. Doyle on a repeat of their ski tour to Arosa. His graphic account of this early adventure in Strand Magazine helped launch skiing as a fashionable winter sport - at least outside St. Moritz. A memorial in Davos salutes the creator of Sherlock Holmes "for bringing the new sport and the attractions of the Swiss Alps to the attention of the world."

There is no tribute to an equally influential ski duo, Steele and Danday, who set off for Arosa in March 1895, turned right when they should have gone straight, and, after a night in a shepherd's summer hut, found their way to a village below Klosters, where they caught a train back to Davos. The vast ski potential of the area now known as the Parsenn-Gotschna had been discovered by accident. This was the real breakthrough. The traffic to Arosa diminished to a trickle. On every fine winter morning, an army of ski enthusiasts would catch the train to Wolfgang - the highest point on the line between Davos and Klosters - and embark en masse on the 2,500-foot climb to Parsennfurka, the gateway to easy descents of six thousand feet to Klosters and its neighbors, Saas, Serneus, and Kublis. The north-facing flank of the Klosters valley is not steep, holds snow well, and brings skiers down to the railway for an easy journey back to base. It was a skier's paradise, and still is. With the construction in 1931 of the Parsennbahn railway from downtown Davos to Weissfluhjoch, a ridge high above the Parsenn, ski tours became an effortless pleasure. The railway remains integral to the enjoyment of skiing at Davos and Klosters. All morning you zoom across a wide playground of open pistes at high altitude, beneath a tangle of lift cables and pylons. This is a pleasant enough ski area, but, now as then, the magic of the Parsenn resides in the variety of long runs to the valley. Steep runs beneath the flight path of the Prince of Wales cable car at Klosters - Gotschawang and Drostobel - are notorious knee-tremblers. This was the sector where a group of skiers that included Prince Charles triggered a fatal avalanche in 1988. In the other direction, a small cable car spans the gap between the Parsenn and the little-used Strela-Schatzalp sector, a connoisseur's bolt-hole for uncrowded skiing away from the beaten track. Sitting in a time warp on its sunny balcony at the treeline, the Hotel Schatzalp is a reminder of the old days of the sanatorium business. Rug-wrapped guests recline on chaise longues in the glasshouse veranda, enjoying two more hours of direct sunlight than their counterparts on the valley floor. Or you can take the long cruise from Parsennfurka, stopping at the treeline for refreshment at one of the traditional Schwendi restaurants that welcome guests with poetry in Gothic script over the door. These leisurely ski rambles and the soporific train ride home give a rare taste of skiing as our grandparents once enjoyed it. Youth prefers the slopes on the opposite, north-facing side of Davos, where the world's first T-bar lift was installed on the Bolgen in 1934. The lower slopes are now a snow park for acrobatic boarders and freestyle skiers. Big sport takes place higher up this mountain, at Jakobshorn: bumps and open powder fields of sustained pitch for high-adrenaline skiing and riding, straight down the fall line. A narrow trail snakes down through the woods, collecting adventurers who emerge from steep forest chutes and land with a thump on the path. Keen skiers should not be put off by the boarder culture on Jakobshorn: The snow conditions are good, and there is the powder run of a lifetime to be done, off the back of the mountain and down to Teufi, in the tranquil Dischma Valley. At Teufi, downhill excitement meets sedate winter leisure in a rustic farmhouse restaurant, where sleigh horses wait at the rail to return everyone to Davos after the last schnapps - boarders and skiers together. In the warm afterglow of a fine day's sport and a good lunch, all conflicts are resolved at Davos, the Swiss headquarters of the sport that makes monotonous winter bearable. "What is it" - asks E. C. Richardson, founder of the Davos English Ski Club and the world's first ski patrol on the Parsenn, in Ski-Running (1905) - "that makes the votary of the slender plank count the shortening days and greet with boyish glee the slowly falling flakes? It is the memory of past delights and the impatience to taste them again. He sees himself at the top of the mountain . . . catching his breath after a long walk and savouring the anticipation of ten long minutes of pure, swooping liberation." Yes, but which mountain? Some skiers would opt for the Parsenn and the long cruise down to Kublis. I see myself at the top of Jakobshorn, skis pointing toward Teufi.

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