Staying in Davos recently, I heard an interesting story about another visitor to the area – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes.
In 1894, while his wife was being treated for tuberculosis in the town, he decided to climb from Davos to Arosa crossing the Furka Pass. He had taught himself to ski, long before skiing was popular or there were even any lifts, by ordering a pair of 8ft skis from Norway.
Always up for an adventure, I decided that I would replicate his exact route from Davos to Arosa.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set off at 4am in his tweeds on a starlit night, with his lace-up ski boots slung around his neck and long wooden skis over his shoulder.
As the crow flies it’s about 13 miles from the hamlet of Frauenkirch to Arosa. My guide Walter and I had skins, but Conan Doyle would have found it much more arduous walking in deep snow just in boots.
In The Strand magazine he wrote about plodding up the hill and floundering “into and out of soft drifts up to our waists.” His companions were two brothers from Davos, the Brangers, who had once crossed the pass and were his inspiration. Ever the humourist, he is quoted as saying: “They are both men of considerable endurance, and even a long spell of my German did not appear to exhaust them.”
After an hour and a half of skinning we got to the hut at Chummeralp. It was the last building before the snow seemed to fold in on itself, in an endless vision of white.
It must have been where Doyle described a wooden cowhouse as “…. the last sign of man which we were to see until we reached Arosa.” It is also here I think, that he first put on his snowshoes.
He first came to Davos when his wife was prescribed high-altitude care. Fit and determined, he was a cricketer, a golfer and goalkeeper for Portmouth Association Football Club. He became obsessed with the idea of skiing long before it was an established sport.
To avoid ridicule from the locals, his first attempts to ski were in the dark. There were no lifts, and he seemed to amuse the Swiss with his relentless efforts. Climbing up Davos’s Jakhobshorn Mountain in his boots, carrying heavy skis on his back, then taking numerous falls on the way down. Once relatively comfortable on the Jakhobshorn he got the idea of the adventure to Arosa.
Two and a half hours into our climb, almost up to 2400 metres, the weather started to set in. The clouds enveloped us and it reminded me of the fog in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Lunch was a quick sandwich on skis.
I imagined how different this would have been in sunshine, when we’d be picnicking and putting on sun block. Indeed, Conan Doyle mentions spectacular views.
Eventually we reach the hut at the Maienfelder Furka Pass. There is no sign and Walter circumnavigates what looks like a solid mound of snow to find the small entrance.
We left the hut and crossed the Maienfelder Furka continuing briefly along a traverse to the Furka. The top of the pass is 2743 metres. It was time to take off the skins.
Ahead of us was a long, gentle gradient of deep untouched snow. With our goal, Arosa within reach, I make a few powder turns but my legs, tired from the climb, were a little shaky. After 30 minutes we arrived at the forest above Arosa, just making out the resort in the distance through the trees.
When we reached the lake, our final destination, it was with a real sense of achievement.
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his companions the Branger brothers reached the Furka Pass they made a makeshift toboggan with their skis, lashing the straps together. Only after navigating the last gully did they finish their descent to Arosa on skis, where Doyle said that his skis “flew away like a bow from an arrow.”
Conan Doyle managed the journey in seven hours. We were only a couple of hours quicker – which was probably down to the weather and our equipment.
“People back in those days were much fitter as they hiked much more on a daily basis. I am very impressed that they were able to do that with the equipment they had” said Walter.
Due to great foresight I had arranged to stay in the luxurious Tschuggen Grand Hotel. Arriving with no passport or luggage (which followed me by train) I checked in wearing ski gear and lay exhausted on my bed.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle no doubt arrived in more style, although with some considerable wear and tear. “My tailor tells me that Harris Tweed cannot wear out,” he wrote. But… “He will find samples of his wares on view from the Furka Pass to Arosa.”
All ski touring equipment and guide Walter Von Ballmoos were arranged by the Full Moons shop in Davos.