Female skiing pioneers celebrate 100 years in the snowy sport

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When Mikaela Shiffrin, the world’s top female skier, hurtles down a giant slalom or a downhill slope, she crosses the finish line just a few seconds slower than the world’s top male skiers. In the adrenaline-fuelled world of snow sport, men and women are almost on level pegging. It wasn’t always this way.

A century ago, when skiing was still a very novel pursuit, women had to struggle just to be allowed on the same slopes as the men.

And among the earliest pioneers were three British women who met in the Swiss mountain village of Murren.

Here, in the shadow of the Eiger mountain, in an upstairs room at the very grand Palace Hotel, they established the Ladies’ Ski Club.

They wanted to assemble a hardy band of female adventurers who could raise the profile of women by challenging male domination in the rugged world of ski racing.

What came out of their meeting was an organisation of bold, independent women whose achievements in public life were as remarkable as those on the piste.

One flamboyant society girl went on to captain the British Olympic skiing team, fly RAF Spitfires, and grab headlines with her adventures. Another pioneer had already founded the Women’s Royal Navy Service (the Wrens) and organised medical aid for thousands of wounded First World War soldiers.

But she also knew how to outrun an aggressive bear while on the ski slope.

There was also an eccentric suffragette who amused herself by playing hockey in the ballroom of her mansion and went on to champion the Women’s Institute.

That inaugural gathering of the Ladies’ Ski Club was led by Lady Mabel Lunn, wife of skiing pioneer Sir Arnold Lunn.

With her fellow expats Violet Evans and Dora Fox, she compiled a list of women who could catch up with the men and overtake their foreign rivals.

As the club celebrates its centenary, current members include former British Olympian and BBC Ski Sunday host Chemmy Alcott and current Team GB ace Kirsty Muir.

Honorary members include Sophie, Countess of Wessex, an expert skier who holidays regularly in the Swiss Alps with husband Prince Edward and their children, Louise and James.

A century after that inaugural club meeting on January 22, 1923, modern members honoured their founders with a slalom race, wearing 1920s outfits and using equipment from the original era.

Thirty or so skiers donned the ankle-length skirts and plus fours favoured by their forebears and swapped lightweight ski jackets and protective helmets for woollen jumpers, coats and caps.

They were cheered as they zig-zagged around the markers using wooden skis and poles so basic they’d leave an Olympian wobbling like a novice.

Alcott, who raced in four Olympics and seven world championships, ended up flat on her back when she completed the run in baggy trousers, jacket and beret, for her show.

The 40-year-old said afterwards: “That was incredibly challenging. I had no control at all. I have so much respect for the ladies who started the sport that I love so much.

“These were brave pioneering women who were prepared to hike uphill for hours carrying their skis before skiing down, really unprepared, on pretty dangerous pistes.”

Gayle Parsons, the club’s vice-president, explained how this was an era long before the invention of ski lifts, and that those first female skiers took up to five hours to reach the top of the piste, through rough, snowbound conditions, before racing down. She says: “There must have been some horrific injuries, but we Brits are a hardy breed.”

The club was originally formed by wealthy, well-connected expats who transformed Murren, a secluded hamlet more than 5,000 feet up the mountain, into a fashionable enclave in the early 20th century.

Sir Arnold Lunn’s father, Sir Henry Lunn, discovered and developed Murren’s tourist potential through his embryonic Lunn Poly travel business.

It became a winter sports mecca for everybody who was anybody, with regular visitors including Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, and the King and Queen of Belgium.

Sir Arnold was dubbed the “patron saint of skiing” and, in a lifetime devoted to the sport, is arguably best-known for holding the first slalom race in Murren in 1922.

He encouraged his wife Mabel, a gifted skier in her own right, to launch the ladies’ club because women were barred from joining his other venture, the Alpine Ski Club.

Gayle added: “Women were not encouraged to join men’s clubs. Sport in general was male dominated and for women to be involved in those clubs perhaps didn’t sit very well. But they were allowed to ski with men, and they did that quite regularly and not shabbily by any means.

“They really held their own.”

Mabel Lunn became the club’s vice-president, while the first presidency was offered to the formidable Dame Katharine Furse, already well known thanks to her work in public service. She spent the First World War leading the British Red Cross’s voluntary aid detachment.

She later launched the Women’s Royal Naval Service. During the Second World War, she took charge of the Land Girls. Her skiing wasn’t bad either.

As a girl, she practised with Conan Doyle when he visited the region. She took up serious ski racing after settling in Murren in her late 40s, and wrote a popular ski guide which included tips on how to deal with the bears that still roamed certain mountain ranges.

She told her readers they would be unlucky to encounter one of the carnivores, adding: “It is said that a bear cannot traverse down a slope, so that the skier could easily get away.”

Another president was Lady Gertrude Denman, an early campaigner for the suffragettes and first president of the National Association of Women’s Institutes.

Her husband Lord Thomas Denman had been governor-general of Australia, where she had the honour of naming Canberra the country’s capital in 1913.

She was well known for her eccentricity and enjoyed playing hockey in the ballroom of their Australian mansion.

Audrey Sale-Barker, a tall, slim society girl, who was said to ski like “a gull on the breeze”, added fun and glamour to the band, along with her friend Doreen Elliott.

The pair once turned up to ski for Britain at an international event in Poland to find the organisers, surprised they were not men, were reluctant to let them compete.

After finishing 13th and 14th, they received a standing ovation from the male competitors in the town’s cafe.

Sale-Barker led the British ladies ski team in the 1936 Winter Olympics and became a highly-rated instructor afterwards.

She is perhaps best-known for a 1933 adventure in which, indulging her other passion, aviation, she crashed a de Havilland Gipsy Moth near the Kenyan capital Nairobi as she flew from Cape Town to London.

With her co-pilot injured and unable to move, she decided to write an SOS message in lipstick on a piece of paper, handing it to a Masai tribesman.

The Daily Express was the first newspaper to publish the text of her note, which read: “Please come and fetch us. We have had an air crash AND ARE HURT.”

During the Second World War, Sale-Barker joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, or Spitfire Girls, as they were known, flying warplanes from the factories to RAF bases, ready for raids on Nazi Germany.

In 1947, she married the chief intelligence officer for Fighter Command. The lipstick SOS note was kept framed above her Dorset cottage door.

Although the ski club struggled for new members as the 1930s depression flattened the tourist trade, it recovered with the consumer boom of the 1970s.

Today, they have about 300 members and concentrate on sponsoring British snow-sport athletes and taking schoolgirl teams to a contest in the French resort of Flaine every year.

Gayle says: “They were very encouraging then and we still are. We’re not exclusive with those who want to race. We say, ‘Come and give it a go’.”

Club president Ingrid Christophersen adds: “Our ladies’ ski club embodies the ideals of pioneering intrepid forerunners, initiators and stubborn defenders of freedom, breaking the glass ceiling long before any of that was fashionable. We are celebrating not just 100 years of ladies skiing, having fun and looking beautiful. We are documenting a social revolution.”

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