In the beginning there was a bet

The beginnings of winter sports

by Heini Hofmann

Winter sports are taken for granted today – from skiing and ski jumping or ice skating and ice hockey to bobsleigh and skeleton to curling and skijoring.  But the beginnings sound like a fairy tale!

It is no longer possible to find out exactly how it all began. But there is an equally amusing and plausible legend circulating about the alleged birth of winter sports in Switzerland. The promoters of this novelty were English tourists.

Farewell party with consequences

It was 1864 and the summer season in the remote high valley of the Upper Engadine was drawing to a close; most of the guests had already left. Only a group of Englishmen were still sitting in the cosy Engadin parlour of the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz on a gloomy late autumn evening, celebrating the last day of their holiday together with the bearded hotelier Johannes Badrutt. One word led to another, and the whisky bottle became increasingly dry.
  Such humid, happy and wistful farewell parties were held again and again at the end of summer holidays that often lasted weeks and months. But this farewell drink was to be a very special one, with enormous repercussions right up to the present day, a great moment for St. Moritz, a milestone in the history of the Engadine and the entire Alpine world! This short end to summer holidays that had become routine became the long beginning of a new, dynamic winter tourism.
  “Well,” Johannes Badrutt interrupted the merry round of British gentlemen, “you are now returning to the foggy grey, drizzly English winter routine.” Then he stroked his beard and said mischievously, “Are you aware that here in winter, during the sunny hours, one can stroll without a hat and coat, even without a smock, and this, in contrast to England, without the danger of catching bronchial catarrh or even pneumonia? On the contrary, fresh Alpine air, powder snow and pure winter sun are a blessing for mind and body!”

Bet that – even back then!

Hotelier Badrutt paused for a moment, as if he were concocting something. With a brief flash in his eyes, he continued, “Why don't you put it to the test and see for yourselves? You'll be my guests in winter; I bet you won't regret it!” And he added: “If I don't keep my promise, I'll pay your travel expenses; otherwise you'll be free guests in my house.” The English were very fond of betting, and they did not hesitate; the die was cast.
  Shortly before Christmas, the four gentlemen, accompanied by members of their families, travelled back to St. Moritz, because the British don't give up on betting. But they secretly enjoyed the anticipation and schadenfreude of tricking the good Badrutt. In Chur, they hired a horse-drawn sleigh and crossed the snow-covered Julier Pass in glistening sunlight. But instead of thick coats, they would have been better off taking sunglasses; for they reached St. Moritz sweating and almost snow-blind…
  This was not how they had imagined the mountain winter, but cold and foggy and dark grey. But now the sun was shining brighter than in summer, and the snow shone like a glittering carpet. Badrutt, who received the stunned guests in shirt sleeves, had clearly won the bet! He kept his promise and granted the four gentlemen hospitality until Easter. His concession was to pay off: These Englishmen came every winter from then on, accompanied by dozens of relatives and acquaintances.

The birth of winter sports

November 1864 was the actual birth of winter tourism. Year after year, more and more Britons came to the sunny Engadine winter, and it was not long before the size of the winter season far outstripped that of the summer season. The famous bet, intended as a little joke between friends, had triggered an avalanche that transformed and dynamised tourism and made Johannes Badrutt the competition king for life.
  But those who receive guests have to show themselves from their best side, in other words: beautify the place. St. Moritz needed an instrument for this, so a commission was formed whose first task was to renovate the cemetery near the Leaning Tower, where the gravestones were toppling over due to the mountain pressure. Ten years later, this became the “St. Moritzer Curverein”, later the “Verkehrsverein” and finally the “Kur- und Verkehrsverein”.
  A complaints book was kept in its information office, where dissatisfied guests could express themselves and to which the association tried to react continuously – according to the proven principle “The guest is king”. So the beginnings of the St. Moritz winter spa business were marked by Badrutt's wager and the beautification attempts of a cemetery commission… Did anyone dare to dream of the grandiose dimensions that this Engadine winter spa business would one day experience?

Sport-loving Englishmen

These first British winter tourists did not come as passive spa guests and whisky drinkers, but as enthusiastic sports fans, and they brought the know-how in some disciplines with them. Sledging and ice skating were the first winter sports to become popular. Every winter, several toboggan runs were provided, for example on the edge of the Badstrasse from the village to the baths or from the Kulm Hotel across the meadows down to the frozen lake. Twenty ice rinks were available for ice-skating fun, where fantastic ice festivals were also celebrated. Ice hockey was on the rise, replacing its predecessor, bandy, which was played with a stick bent at the bottom.
  And another ice sport caused a furore: curling, which found its way from Scotland to St. Moritz in 1880. Yes, even tennis was played in winter, on shovelled courts surrounded by walls of snow. The daredevil bobsleigh pilots and skeleton riders were particularly admired. 1885 was the opening of the Cresta Run. Because bobsleighing had to be banned on the road from St. Moritz to Celerina for safety reasons, bobsleigh runs were built, the first of which in 1903. However, the world's first bobsleigh run had already been built in St. Moritz in the winter of 1895/96, and the St. Moritz Bobsleigh Club was founded a year later.

Skiing in all its facets

However, the winter discipline with the greatest potential was skiing. Beginners gained their first experience on the long boards on gently sloping meadows. Those who climbed up to Salastrains or even Corviglia to plunge into the downhill were sure to be admired. The real gladiators, however, were the ski jumpers. The Julierschanze was built for them in 1906. Ski races and ski jumping were organised by the Alpina Ski Club, founded in 1903, and in 1929 the St. Moritz Ski School was founded – nota bene the first in Switzerland.
  Since the English were horse-lovers and horses were the main means of transport at the time, equestrian sports, which were suitable for all-year-round use, also began to boom. Skijoring was popular in winter, with the first race taking place in 1906. Here, too, safety reasons forced people to leave the roads for the frozen lake. The founding of a riding club was not long in coming, and flat, trotting and hurdle races followed as early as 1907. The sport of polo had been introduced earlier by English cavalry officers, as the polo field had already been prepared in St. Moritz Bad in 1898.

More guests – more wishes

The journey to the Upper Engadine was still adventurous in those days. From 1850 onwards, six postal services ran weekly from Chur over the Julier Pass to Samedan in an eleven-hour bumpy journey. All goods were also transported by oat engines. No wonder there were often up to 400 (!) horses in St. Moritz.
  But the more spa guests, the more activities and the greater the demands. The tasks in the up-and-coming health resort grew. The streets had to be extended and paved. And because the spa guests could not be expected to carry a lantern on their way out in the evening, electric street lighting was introduced. Incidentally, the very first electric arc lamps in Switzerland were lit in the dining room of the Engadin Kulm Hotel at Christmas 1878; the proactive Badrutt had discovered them at the World Exhibition in Paris - and immediately set up a small hydroelectric power station.
  But mundane problems such as waste disposal and sewage regimes were also waiting to be solved; it was no longer acceptable to discharge sewage into the lake without an upstream septic tank. And because there was a desire for a convenient connection from the village to the baths, it was decided to build a tramway: in 1896, the “Tramway électrique” went into operation. In short, what began with a simple bet by the hotelier and competition king Johannes Badrutt caused the then sleepy mountain village of St. Moritz to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and become one of the world's most famous glamour tourist destinations.  •

From winter to summer sports

hh. The English did not only initiate winter sports. They also gave the impetus for the development of tourism in the Alps in general. Animated by the works of painters and poets such as William Turner and Lord Byron, they flocked to the Alps. One of the first female Alpine Superiors was the English alpinist, writer and photographer Elisabeth Maine, a regular guest at the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz from 1884. On 31 January 1898, together with an Engadine mountain guide, she completed the daring first winter ascent of Piz Morteratsch (3754 m).

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