In the 1890s few people in the Swiss Alps had ever heard of the sport they called "skiing" far to the north in Scandinavia. It was not surprising then that the arrival of three men on—or, rather, just off—long Norwegian runners caused something of a sensation among the tourists and natives in the small Swiss mountain village of Arosa late one morning in 1894.
Two of the men, Tobias and Fritz Branger, were themselves Swiss—the proprietors of a sporting-goods shop in Davos, a village on the far side of the Furka Pass. The other was a 34-year-old Briton, a physician and part-time short-story writer who had recently triggered a campaign of bitter vilification against himself throughout the English-speaking world by deliberately killing off one of the best-loved characters ever created in English fiction: Sherlock Holmes. The traveler to Arosa had killed Holmes simply because he was sick and tired of him, but his readers were not. And that, possibly, is why his friend Tobias Branger identified Dr. Doyle in the local hotel register not as physician or as author but as D. Conan Doyle, Sportesmann (sic).
It was an accurate description. Glad to be free of Holmes and his burbling sidekick, Watson, and sure that the clean mountain air was having a restorative effect on the tubercular lungs of his beloved wife Louise, Dr. Doyle, a rugged 6-footer, was having a fine time in Switzerland exploring the possibilities of a relatively unknown sport. Neither he nor his two friends had ever laced on a ski up to a few weeks before, and their perilous cross-country run over the 9,000-foot-high pass from Davos, where Doyle's wife was recuperating, to Arosa marked the first time anyone had crossed the pass in wintertime by any means. It was an important first in the establishment of skiing as a sport in Switzerland and it made a significant pioneer of Doyle himself.
A sports enthusiast of many dimensions, the famed author, who was forced by popular demand to revive his dead detective some years later, admitted wit Flout undue modesty in his autobiography, Memories and Adventures: "There is one form of sport in which I have, I think, been able to do some practical good, for I can claim to have been the first to introduce skis into the Grisons division of Switzerland, or at least to demonstrate their practical utility as a means of getting across in winter from one valley to another.
"It was in 1894 that I read Nansen's [Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer] account of his crossing of Greenland, and thus became interested in the subject of skiing."
Doyle became acquainted with the Branger brothers in Davos, and he told them about this new sport. Both brothers knew something in theory about skiing and were interested in trying it out. Skis, of course, were not obtainable in Switzerland and the trio had to order three pairs from Norway.
The skis of that era tended to be over-long and somewhat heavy, with no steel edges to hold them true. The bindings were far different from those of today. They consisted for the most part of iron or hard leather flanges linked by straps that supported the toe of a boot and some form of leather thong that held the heel.
When the skis arrived, Doyle and his two friends tried them out on some minor hills around Davos. In Doyle's recollections these early efforts "afforded innocent amusement to a large number of people who watched our awkward movements and complex tumbles."
The Brangers learned much faster than Doyle, but the Englishman was an all-round good athlete and soon became almost as adept as his friends.
After several weeks of practice the three novices felt they had acquired enough expertise to tackle something more difficult: a climb and descent of the Jacobshorn, a fairly high eminence close to the Davos hotel where the Doyle family was residing.