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Ski Club history: 1903-1945

The early years of the Ski Club of Great Britain.

Although Great Britain has only a few ski resorts of its own in Scotland, the British are a nation of keen skiers and have had a significant influence on the development of alpine ski racing. They also have the biggest ski club in the world - the Ski Club of Great Britain - which has continued to adapt and evolve over more than a century, while retaining the core aims of those who set about founding the Ski Club in 1903.

Menu from the Cafe Royal 1903
Menu from the Cafe Royal 1903, signed by the founders of the Ski Club of Great Britain.

Arnold Lunn
Arnold Lunn, who had an important role in the evolution of alpine racing, stands on top of Mont Blanc in 1964.

How the Ski Club of Great Britain Began

Back in 1903, when ski lifts and safety bindings were unknown, 12 men sat down to dinner at a fashionable restaurant in London (Cafe Royal) and decided to form a ski club - the Ski Club of Great Britain. Their aim was to encourage other people to learn to ski, help members improve and take more enjoyment from their skiing while bringing together people interested in the sport.

Early Years

In 1905 the Ski Club began publishing the British Ski Year Book, effectively the club's magazine. The early year books are a fascinating record of the changes in equipment, clothes, the development of ski lifts, the technique of skiing, costs and holidays over the years.

There are references in early volumes to reaching resorts by horse drawn sleighs, pictures of ladies skiing in skirts and reports of races where competitors started at the same time racing down unprepared slopes.

Before World War I the Ski Club's focus was cross-country skiing, with the first official British ski championships in Saanenmoser, Switzerland consisting of cross-country combined with a jumping competition.

1920s

The post-war years saw important steps forward in the course of ski history. Other ski clubs, such as the Ladies Ski Club and Kandahar Ski Club, were formed with a focus on racing, and alpine skiing began to evolve.

The first British National Ski Championships to include downhill (Alpine) skiing took place in Wengen in 1921 and were organized by Arnold Lunn on behalf of the Ski Club of Great Britain. The Ski Club continued to influence changes in the Alps in 1921, as they encouraged the Swiss to open the railways in Zermatt, Wengen and Mürren during the winter – the first ski lifts. The next year Arnold Lunn set up the first modern slalom in Mürren. Competitors were judged on speed through pairs of gates. He got the idea from the Norwegians as they tested people skiing fast down amongst trees. The test was seen as a true test of skiing in natural conditions because racers were not allowed to study the course before the race.

E. C. Richardson
E. C. Richardson, one of the founders of the Ski Club of Great Britain.

Another famous skier of this time was Gerald Seligman (Ski Club President 1927-1929), who did much of the early research on the structure of snow crystals. His study was used as the basis of avalanche research because it differentiated between the crystals which knitted together as they fell, and those which turned into tiny glassy globules and formed unstable layers capable of producing dangerous slides.

During the mid 1920s the Ski Club began to develop services for members. They provided snow and weather reports to national newspapers for the first time, and the first Ski Club representatives were sent out to the Alps in 1928. The Ski Club was also making a concerted effort at this time to have downhill and slalom racing officially recognised. They circulated an appeal to all the national associations but not one of them replied. In 1928 there was a breakthrough as the International Ski Federation (FIS) provisionally approved the British rules for downhill and slalom at a congress meeting in Oslo. The rules were officially approved in 1930. The 1920s ended with the introduction of the Pery Medal, awarded for the most notable contributions to skiing.

1930s

The 1930s started with the first World Championships in downhill and slalom at Mürren. These were organized by the Ski Club of Great Britain. There was criticism from some members that the club was too race-orientated. However, those keen on racing accused it of being biased towards mountaineering, so maybe the balance was about right after all. Another milestone was achieved in 1936 when Arnold Lunn persuaded the International Olympic Committee to include downhill and slalom in the Winter Olympic Games held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. At this time Arnold Lunn remarked that it was as strange for a Briton to have so much influence on the sport of skiing, as it would be for an Eskimo to revolutionise the sport of cricket. It is no surprise, therefore, that he encountered some opposition from Alpine and Scandinavian countries.

The Ski Club and its leaders started to organise touring parties during the 1930s too. These were to teach people to ski and keep them entertained in the evenings. This still exists today, as the unique Ski Club Freshtracks holiday programme and the Ski Club Leader service.

During World War II the British Ski Year Book continued to be published. It found its way to Field marshal Montgomery in the desert and to prisoners of war in the dreaded Changi jail.

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