Chapter 27: The Heyday of British Amateur Skiing
For most of the war years I had been working as my own master. This meant constant assessing of problems, choosing a solution and then setting to work. Had I just arrived at Cambridge from school I would have sought a leader to follow. As it was I was looking for an activity to develop. In the new University year I was now Captain of Skiing and in the next two years skiing provided the outlet for thought and constructive action. In the event we were approaching the end of an era. The Ski Club of Great Britain had been formed in 1903 and fifty years later much of the climbing of ski slopes was still done without mechanical aid; the preparation of racecourses, if done at all, involved stamping by competitors. The financial opportunities related to drag and chair lifts and the development of equipment and clothing had yet to feed an important industry. Piste machines to prepare whole areas for comfortable skiing would not start to arrive for a decade or more.
Travel agents were rare. One travelled with a continental rail timetable in one’s baggage and worked out, with the help of a concierge with local knowledge, the waits and changes along the way to a new destination.
My Oxford counterpart and I had to work out our plans together. Claus Huitfeldt was a Norwegian we knew well from the 1948 competitions. With a father working in England during the war he was one of the few from his country educated at Eton and Balliol. It was through Claus that we became involved in the most spectacular event ever to involve University skiers. He rang me to say that the Norwegian Ambassador had contacted him with a proposal. ‘Twenty-five of Norway’s top ranking ski-jumpers will challenge British ski experts to a contest on Hampstead Heath. It would be appreciated if Oxford and Cambridge would take part in their own event after the main competition was over.’ What were my reactions? There were no British ski-jumpers capable of competing with the Norwegians, so we would enjoy a demonstration of great skill. There were no ski-jumpers at all at Oxford and Cambridge, but downhill racers are accustomed to being airborne over moderate distances and we would do the best that we could. We should pursue the invitation and hope not to chicken out. On the basis that ‘I will do it if you will’ we went ahead. It turned out that the local Ski Association in Oslo had been running a summer competition of the kind with imported snow for some years and this was an extension of their experience. A 60ft runway tower much enhanced the natural slope of the Hampstead hill. It was built of steel scaffolding giving appropriate launching speed, take off and run-out for the skiers. Forty-five tons of snow was shipped to London in insulated containers and chemically mixed for survival before being laid. No snow was available for a run-out, so a liberal stack of hay was spread to check speed safely for the competitors. Those who sat down before this braking point stopped comfortably. Those who tried to stand had an unplanned roll in the hay, much to the enjoyment of spectators.
A crowd of 52,000 was there to watch the beautiful demonstration by top performers, though it was not encouraging for us to see that Bjornstadt, the World Champion, had a fall on his second jump.
Everyone remained to watch our less professional performance that followed. With borrowed jumping skis and without any chance of a practice jump I found myself poised at the top of the run-in with a narrow carpet of snow visible and then the take-off; beyond that was grass, or there would have been but for the 50,000 spectators. 100,000 eyes focussed on each small figure in turn as we prepared for launching, each of us looking, and perhaps feeling, like someone contemplating suicide at the top of a multi-storey building. As in any race the discharge of adrenaline and excitement takes over when the start is made. As a comparison between the experts and the beginners the best jump was a little over 90 feet, whereas my modest contribution was two jumps of over 60 feet. This was a memorable day.
For the future of our University races in the Alps we looked back with pleasure on our entertainment in Cortina and the suggestion of another race against the Italian Ski Club 18 made us choose Sestrière for our meetings over Christmas in 1948 and 1949. With initiative from the Fiat motor company Sestrière had been developed very well before the war against the concept of what a modern ski resort would require. To be sure of snow so early in the season it was important for us to go high and Sestrière stood at 6000 feet. Traditionally we would set off after supporting our team at the Varsity match at Twickenham.
We wanted to take a substantial mixed party. This alarmed a Don who foresaw glaring licentious headlines about Oxbridge behaviour in the Daily Mirror. He need not have worried. The travel and holiday industry that exists today had yet to be formed. We took on the arrangements including the channel crossing and overnight rail journey to Modane, with buses to drive us up the mountain. We did not know if any previous University enterprise of this sort had been tried, but our support was immense with a group of 300 taking part, a third of them providing feminine support. This was a success for the resort, for the whole party and for financial support for the team who would thereby be able to remain in the Alps, despite currency problems, for further races.
As the buses climbed their way from the main line station there was no sign of snow. This was a bad year, though Sestrière was better served than most places. Snow started to fall as we arrived and skiing was always possible, though courses for our races were shorter than we would have liked. The Fiat Car Company ran an outing to Turin that was popular for the non-racers and all in all it was an exuberant and enjoyable holiday.
As the main party went home it was time for the teams to move on to St Moritz for the Anglo Swiss races. Before the war Andrea Badrutt of the Palace Hotel had been supporting this event between the British Universities Ski Club and the SAS, our Swiss equivalent, and this was to be a great reunion to restart the event. We were the guests of the Badrutts in this, one of the world’s top hotels. We were ushered to the Vieux Gril, a spacious room with nursery murals that was to be our dormitory. For the rest we were full guests amongst the glitterati and genuine celebrities of the world, many of whom we could recognise. At a fancy dress evening there was an astonishing display, led by hotel guests from the great Parisian fashion houses.
Snow was short here too. Herr Kasser told us that the behaviour of the Alpine choughs told him that there would be snow. The birds were right, but what they did not say was that gales would then blow most of it away again. We practised as best we could. Races on shortened courses were eventually run and the meeting with the Swiss greatly enjoyed. St Moritz looked after us well over many years. One hotel ran a winter holiday scheme for members of the Army Ski Association and in 1997 the resort staged a brilliantly organised 50th Anniversary celebration of the Association. Aged 80, this was the last time I put on skis. We ran our Inter Service Championships there, often with a celebrity of our own. I remember Field Marshal Auchinleck there being entertained in the Mayor’s Parlour. With a smoking candle in his hand he was hoisted high to sign his name on the ceiling.
Our next move was to Grindelwald for the British Championships, where, once again, there was a shortage of snow and the course shortened. There was breakable crust for much of the surface and we each showed our individuality by stamping out the line that we proposed to take. These conditions suited me and I won the downhill with sufficient time in hand to make up for my moderate slalom experience. I was British Champion and collected a further fine cup as Army, Navy and Air Force Champion. This Cup dated from before the First World War.
It was sensibly realised at the time that the holiday skiers from countries without great mountains could never compete on equal terms with those who lived in good skiing areas. The term ‘Lowlanders’ was invented to cover the likes of the British, Dutch and those of mountain countries who lived and worked in the plains. There were several events in this category. We went to Mürren for the Duke of Kent Cup. The snow was good but this time there was fog. The fog experts amongst who were favoured in these conditions. The general rule about racing in the conditions of the day still seemed to apply. Our last racing before returning to Cambridge was at Arosa for a Lowlander International that brought together men and women’s teams from Britain, Belgium and Holland. These were most enjoyable encounters and there was high-class competition from our opponents.
There is nothing new to tell about the following season except to explain how it came about that amongst many better skiers I again won the British Downhill Championship and thus, with Malcolm’s help, getting the Horsfield name on the cup in the three years in which we competed. I can only put it down to the fact that much of our skiing had been off the piste and in all conditions of snow. There were two other tips that we followed. The first related to choice of line and its preparation. Do not follow the obvious line. On one occasion I remember a short cut which involved dropping down through a hedge onto a beaten track. The second preparation was to pick out the points where the surface was bumpy or the snow bad and to arrange our descent so that turns would be taken before or after bad passages and never on them, thereby reducing the chance of a trip.