Accomplishments and Records

How Arthur’s Secret Obsession Changed the World

If it was little known and uncommon, there was a good chance that Arthur would be drawn to it. His curious mind naturally gravitated toward things that polite society shunned. It was for that reason that his latest fling with the uncommon had to be done under the cover of darkness.

You can’t blame him for looking for something to keep himself occupied. His wife, Louise, had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Given just a few months to live, Arthur and Louise moved to Davos, Switzerland, in the hope that the fresh air would be good for her. If nothing else, the beautiful mountains would provide a welcome distraction from her grim diagnosis.

Finding himself in a new home, far from his friends, and worried about Louise’s health, Arthur was desperate for something to take his mind off his problems. That’s when he remembered a peculiar activity he had witnessed years earlier.

He cautiously put out feelers to see if any of his neighbors might share his interests. Unsurprisingly, his inquiries were met with blank stares or wide-eyed shock that anyone would even ask such questions. Someone said, “We haven’t heard of anyone who would even think of doing such a thing! No one, that is, except the Branger brothers.”

Being associated with the Brangers was not the best way to advance on the social ladder. These two young men had been teased and heckled so mercilessly, that they had to move their odd, socially-unacceptable behavior to nighttime, so the townspeople wouldn’t see them.

Deviants seem to find each other, however, and Arthur quickly sought out the Branger boys. Yes, they knew exactly what Arthur was looking for, and they would be more than happy to indoctrinate him into the bizarre practices.

We can only speculate and attempt to deduce Arthur’s motivation to engage in this unacceptable behavior. He came from a good family and had a fine education. He was expected to be a pillar of society. Maybe this was his way of rebelling against those expectations. Of his peculiar preoccupation, he said that it would be just the thing for “any man suffering from too much dignity.”

The way he described his experiences, one can’t help but wonder if some illicit substance was clouding his thinking. He spoke of his obsession, saying, “now we had a pleasure” unattainable by other means. He described the sensation of experiencing speed, curves, and falls without any motion in his feet. If that doesn’t sound like the drug-addled sensations of an addict, what does? It won’t surprise you, therefore, to learn that Arthur had more than a passing familiarity with cocaine, although no solid evidence conclusively connected the drug to his antics. Even so, his observation that “Whenever you think yourself absolutely secure, it is all over with you,” certainly sounds like the testimony of any recovering addict.

Arthur and the Branger brothers were not content to keep their activities close to home. Possibly they tired of the constant harassment from their neighbors. Their attempts to shroud their nightly rituals under the cover of darkness only added to the whispering and fingerpointing of the community. That may have been part of the reason they took the long train ride to Arosa to take their pastime to a whole new level.

Even as the three men rode on the long railroad trip to Arosa, Arthur was optimistic that the day would come when he would not have to worry about being mocked for something he loved. He foresaw a day when “hundreds of Englishmen” would come to Switzerland to do the thing he and his friends were forced to do in darkness.

Arthur on skis

It turns out, he was right. The reason Arthur and the Branger brothers were going to Arosa was, as we said, to take their hobby to a whole new level. That level was the 9,000-foot Alpine pass. Arthur wrote about the experience, saying, “But now we had a pleasure which boots can never give. For a third of a mile we shot along over gently dipping curves, skimming down into the valley without a motion of our feet. In that great untrodden waste, with snow-fields bounding our vision on every side and no marks of life save the tracks of chamois and of foxes, it was glorious to whizz along in this easy fashion.”

That’s right. The peculiar activity that caused these men to be mocked, sorned, and shunned by their neighbors in Davos, Switzerland was skiing. It’s hard for us today to imagine a time when skiing was unknown in Switzerland, but there has to be a “first” in everything. Arthur and the Branger brothers happened to be the pioneers for what has become one of Switzerland’s most popular activities.

Although it was the Branger boys who taught Arthur the techniques of skiing, we can thank Arthur for popularizing the sport. During that long railroad trip back from Arosa, Arthur wrote an article about his experience. “An Alpine Pass on ‘Ski’” was published in December 1894 in The Strand Magazine and created an immediate sensation.

You may wonder why a publication as respected as The Strand Magazine would agree to run Arthur’s article. If this had been his first attempt at writing, it may never have seen print. Fortunately, the editors of The Strand already knew Arthur. Seven years earlier the magazine printed his first piece — a work of fiction — about a consulting detective with an eye for detail, unmatched skills of deduction, fascination with the morbid, and a penchant for a seven-percent solution of cocaine.

The countless skiers who have flocked to Switzerland since 1894 probably never think about who opened the doors to this exciting activity. If you told any of them his name — Arthur Conan Doyle — they would almost certainly know all about Arthur’s other contribution to culture: Sherlock Holmes.

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