Hickory skiers mark centenary downhill

Teams turned out in style for the historic race in Crans Montana

Crans Montana saw an invasion of hickory, tweed and pipes on April 3 as ski fans paid homage to British winter sport pioneers in a popular centenary downhill race.

This content was published on April 4, 2011 minutes
Simon Bradley in Crans Montana,

Sporting long wooden vintage skis and period costumes, 250 skiers celebrated what is claimed to be the first-ever downhill alpine ski race, the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup, organised in 1911 by Sir Arnold Lunn.

The sound of laughter echoed from the top of the Plaine Morte ski lift (3,000 metres) in the Valais resort as groups of men and women strapped heavy leather boots into flimsy-looking leather bindings under the hot spring sun.

“My knees are trembling,” said one young woman. Yet her nervousness was well hidden beneath her long grey woollen skirt, wide-brimmed hat and classic oval glacier goggles.

“Don’t bang your skis too hard or they’ll break,” joked another participant.

Each team of three to five slowly shuffled forward to the starting line, where the authenticity of their dress, skis, boots and poles was checked by a judge.

Then they were off, sliding cautiously together down the icy Violettes piste.

The 60 teams were reliving the adventure of eleven pioneering skiers, mostly British, who on January 6, 1911 climbed for six and a half hours to the Plaine-Morte glacier above Crans Montana and spent the night in the Wildstrübel mountain hut.

The next morning the intrepid group launched themselves down the mountain. The eventual winner of the first-past-the-post race to below the village of Montana was awarded the legendary Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup, donated by British general and winter sports fan Lord Frederik Roberts of Kandahar.

This challenge, organised by ski pioneer Sir Arnold Lunn, has an important place in the development of downhill ski racing. The name Kandahar is still used to this day on the World Cup race circuit.

Centenary race organiser Marius Robyr is convinced of its historical importance.

“On January 7, 1911, Arnold Lunn created the first official downhill alpine race,” he told “I felt it was normal that one hundred years later we congratulate our ancestors and relive what happened.”

Downhill birthplace?

At the end of the 19th century skiing was developing rapidly in Scandinavia, North America and other parts of Europe, so some experts are cautious about granting Crans Montana this particular honour.

“It’s hard to say,” said Hans Bigler from Swiss Ski. “The Swiss Ski Federation was founded in 1904 and already there were a number of races. But it’s not really important if it was the first one or not.”

Vintage ski fan Jean-Marc Chabbey is sure Crans Montana was the birthplace of downhill racing, however.

“It’s true. There were races in Norway but they were more about endurance and not downhill as the Norwegians said skiing had to be an effort,” commented the president of the tiny Ayent branch of the Federation of Wooden Skiing.

What is certain is that the British played a seminal role in the development of alpine skiing. Arnold Lunn’s father, Henry, established the Lunn travel agency towards the end of the 19th century and worked with a number of Swiss hotels to offer winter holidays for wealthy British holidaymakers. In 1908 Lunn formed the Alpine Sports Club, which organised various winter events.

“The English were really influential in Crans Montana for golf [club started in 1906] and skiing,” said Carola Robyr, sporting a black-and-white period dress. “But it’s a bit less now as there are many more Italians.”

“Keep low”

After the tricky icy slope near the top, some teams streaked ahead, effortlessly telemarking their way through the spring snow, which was warming fast in the hot April sun.

But others found it heavy going and skied slowly or stopped off for some eau-de-vie from a hipflask.

“You have to keep your gravity very low with these skis and I can’t get to grips,” moaned one man.

“You just have to go for it and not be scared,” said his teammate.

Halfway down the course a welcome raclette awaited the teams and allowed them to regroup and swap stories about their exploits, bumps and bruises and broken skis.

“It’s fun to see how our ancestors used to ski,” said Philippe Clivaz. “You have to adapt as we ski on super high-performance carving skis and here we are on old bits of wood with bindings we are not sure are going to hold.”

True exploit

The participants acknowledged that the conditions were not easy – especially with the added risk of people on snowboards and carving skis flying by.

In 1911 the race was won by Cecil Hopkinson, who arrived just below the village of Montana in 61 minutes. Participants agreed with Marius Robyr that the centenary challenge had been a true exploit.

“It makes you realise the difficulties people had at the time and the sensations,” said Michel Berset.

The first team to shoot over the finish line in the anniversary race did so in just 45 minutes, but many did not finish until three or four hours later.

Speed was not the decisive factor, however, as look, skiing style and attitude also came into the equation.  And for that the “Tagwohl” [good day] team with their ancient hickory skis and bindings, dapper suits and caps and pipes were the obvious winners.

Skiing history

6300-5000 BC: oldest skis found in Russia near Lake Sindor northwest of Moscow.

5100 BC: oldest ski found in Norway

1810: skiers reported in Cumberland, England.
1841: first reported skier in Illinois, United States.

1843: first races held in Tromsø, Norway.
1854: skiing reported in Australia.

1860: skis first appeared in Switzerland at Sils Maria and Silvaplana.

1861: first reports of downhill ski racing for cash prizes in Northern Sierra gold camps, California.

1864: St Moritz started to be developed as a winter sports centre.

1870s : Norwegian ski pioneer Sondre Norheim developed telemark skiing.

1903: first package ski holidays took place to Adelboden, Switzerland.

1904: foundation of Swiss Ski Association in Olten.

1908: first purpose-built cable to pull skiers was set up at Schollach, Germany.

1908: Alpine Ski Club founded

1911: January 7: first Roberts of Kandahar Cup for downhill in Crans Montana, Switzerland.

1924: first Winter Olympic Games, Chamonix, France.

1924: Kandahar Ski Club founded to promote alpine racing.

1928: first Arlberg-Kandahar race held in St Anton, Austria.

1931: World Championships in Downhill and Slalom Racing, Mürren, Switzerland

1934: first aluminium skis, France.

1960: fibreglass skis successfully marketed in 1960 by Kneissl.

1964: all-plastic boots introduced by Lange in 1964.

(according to research by the International Ski Federation)

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