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Two Glarner and a Norwegian help skiing achieve a breakthrough

Historic Race - 131 years ago, two personalities from Winterthur fought a battle. between the local snowshoes and the as yet unknown skis from Norway.


Translation of a newspaper article published in the Swiss Tages-Anzeiger on February 8, 2024 and written by Menoa Stauffer: TA News Article in German


Christof Iselin poses on the sand ridge in the Glarus Alps with the long Norwegian skis and only one pole


Two parallel tracks, interrupted by oversized footprints, run through the snow. They are the signs of a race that Switzerland had never seen before 1893: new-fangled Norwegian skis being tested against traditional snow tyres, the forerunners of today's snowshoes.


"We drew a marvellous trail; not even the cleverest hunter would have been able to make sense of it," reported Eduard Näf-Blumer in the "Winterthurer Tagblatt" in 1893. The report by the Winterthur chemistry professor "Winter journey over the Pragel Pass with skis and snow tyres" described the duel between him and three other men. They wanted to test the "practical usability of Norwegian snowshoes" in the Alps. They meant skis.


The thin wooden slats, over two metres long and without sharp edges, were very different from today's skis and are more reminiscent of cross- country skiing or ski touring. The boots were fastened with leather straps only at the tip of the foot. According to historian Daniel Anker, there were no skins to prevent the skis from sliding back when climbing up. From today's perspective, a much too long pole with an iron spike and a small plate helped to move forward.


Snow Tires: The wooden frame with cord tensioning distributes the weight over a larger area and prevents it from sinking into the snow


First skiers become a laughing stock


Näf-Blumer's friendship with skiing pioneer Christof Iselin provided the impetus for the race. The Glarus native was already enthusiastic about the new means of transport in 1891. The race was intended to help establish skiing in Switzerland.


Like many others in Europe, the 22-year-old Iselin was inspired in 1891 by the report of a Norwegian polar explorer who had travelled across Greenland on skis. In the same year, the future lieutenant colonel and merchant built his first skis. In 1891, Iselin only dared to try out his first self-made skis in the dark or in snowstorms. He later wrote that he wanted to avoid the ridicule of people. His contemporaries found the wooden slats ab- surd. Iselin's situation only improved when Näf-Blumer brought him into contact with the Norwegian Olaf Kjelsberg.


Kjelsberg was an engineer and later became director of the Swiss Machine and Locomotive Factory in Winterthur. Näf-Blumer knew him from the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) in Winterthur. The Nordic engineer was the only one who had already mastered skiing. He gave Iselin three pairs of skis from Norway and taught him how to ski. " An art that needs to be practised diligently," wrote Näf-Blumer.


Kjelsberg may have left his home country, but he couldn't stop skiing in Winterthur either: in 1890, he climbed the Bachtel in the Zurich Oberland, at a modest altitude of 1100 metres above sea level. Nevertheless, according to historian Roland Huntford, this is the first known ascent of the Pre-Alps on skis.


In the far north, wooden slats with bindings have long been an everyday means of transportation. In the middle of the 19th century, however, they became a new leisure activity. In Switzerland, on the other hand, skis were largely unknown until 1890. Instead, mountain farmers and the military used oval snowshoes, known as snow tires, to get around in the snow.


Leisure activities such as skiing only became common in the industrial age and remained a privilege of the bourgeoisie for a long time. Accordingly, skiing was also popularised in Switzerland by a middle class that rediscovered the mountains as a place of leisure. The two Winterthur personalities, Kjelsberg and Näf-Blumer, as well as their Glarus friend Iselin, were partly responsible for this.


Race over the Pragel Pass


The young men had a common goal. They wanted to test the Norwegian skis in the Swiss Alps and compare them with the " well-known snow conditions of the mountain farmers" . They were also joined by another middle-class man from the Swiss Alpine Club: Alexander von Steiger, Cantonal Engineer in Glarus. The four of them crossed the Pragel Pass in a race on Sunday, 29 January 1893 - the first known alpine pass crossing on skis.


Näf-Blumer was the only one to put on snow tyres. His three competitors equipped themselves with skis. They set off from their accommodation in the morning. Too late for the limited time available, as Näf- Blumer found. They quickly strapped on their skis and snow tyres and set off. Without any help, getting ahead in the powdery snow would have been difficult. The landlord didn't really trust his skis and was wide-eyed when the skiers glided away across the plain, sinking only two to three centimetres. "Even my snow tyres only let me sink in a little, so I was able to follow quite quickly," wrote Näf- Blumer. Nevertheless, the skiers quickly gained a lead.


The man with the snow tyres only caught up when the incline became so steep that the skiers had to zigzag up the mountain. he, on the other hand, went straight up the slope. Nevertheless, he only reached the top of the pass a few minutes after the team of three.


Then things went downhill. Only now did Näf-Blumer experience the performance of the skis, which filled him "with amazement and admiration". His companions raced down the slopes, leaving only "clouds of swirling snow" in their wake. With snow tires, he needed "infinitely more time" - almost an hour longer. The skiers had clearly won the race. When they arrived in the valley, they were "marvelled at by young and old". The ski pioneers were a sensation. Soon practically the whole of Switzerland would be able to read about the first crossing of the Pragel Pass: Näf- Blumer's report in the " Winterthurer Tagblatt" was picked up by many newspapers. Iselin later said: " What more could we wish for!" The goal had been achieved. Skiing began to establish itself in Switzerland from 1893.


From curiosity to national sport


In the same year, Iselin founded Switzerland's first ski club in Glarus. Shortly afterwards, the carpenter Melchior Jakober, an acquaintance of Näf- Blumer, founded the first ski factory in Switzerland. He adapted Norwegian skis for the Swiss Alps. Kjelsberg designed two models for this purpose: the long, thin Norwegian skis for cross-country skiing and shorter, wider skis to make it easier to make the necessary turns when skiing down the steep mountains. However, the breakthrough from ski touring so skiing was achieved shortly afterwards by an Austrian: he developed a metal binding that gave more grip and made the ski more manoeuvrable by fixing the whole foot.


Traditional skiers were annoyed by this new form: Skiers would abandon themselves to gravity with clumsy movements instead of celebrating the art of cross- country skiing with willpower

and endurance.


However, this criticism could not stop the emerging boom in alpine skiing. Switzerland became known for its winter sports resorts. Many of the visitors first came from abroad, mainly from England. In 1934, the first T-bar lift was put into operation in Davos. Skiing became a popular sport.



The first ski advertisement for Swiss skis was published in Alpina on December 1, 1893



About the people (the biographies were supplemented by further information from the blog author)


Christof Iselin was born on September 22, 1869 in Glarus and died on February 10, 1949 in Kilchberg, Canton Zurich. He was a Swiss ski sports official and a pioneer in the history of Swiss skiing. Iselin attended the cantonal industrial school in Lausanne and took over his father's leather trading business. He then worked in the import and export trade. During the First and Second World Wars, he was involved in supplying the country with petroleum products and raw materials, both privately and as a federal negotiator.


Iselin made his first attempts at skiing in Switzerland in 1891 and 1892. He founded the first ski club in Switzerland in 1893: the Glarus Ski Club. In 1902, he organized the first ski race in Switzerland. In 1904, he initiated the founding of the Swiss Ski Association (now Swiss-Ski) and the introduction of skis in the Swiss army. Iselin was also the designer of the Iselin shovel or ski shovel.


In 1929, Iselin took part in the round-the-world flight with the airship LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin. He was also a lieutenant colonel in the Swiss army.



Olaf Kjelsberg was born on June 21, 1857 in Lødingen, Norway and died on April 29, 1927 in Winterthur. He was a Norwegian engineer and ski pioneer who lived in Switzerland. Kjelsberg was born in Lofoten, the son of a Lensman. After completing his schooling in his homeland, he entered Dresden Technical University in 1878, where he studied engineering for three years. In 1882, Kjelsberg moved to the Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik in Winterthur, Switzerland, where he became head of the technical office under Charles Brown, was promoted to chief engineer in 1897 and became a member of the management in 1907. Among the employees he trained himself was the later Borsig chief engineer and head of the standardization office of the German locomotive factories, August Meister, who was commissioned to develop the standardized steam locomotives for the German Reichsbahn.


The development of the mechanical part of the first electric locomotives was significantly influenced by Kjelsberg, which enabled SLM to supply the Norwegian State Railways due to his background. Together with other experts, he worked on a report on the electrification of the Swedish State Railways and advised English engineers on the electrification of the railroads in South Africa. He also supported the development of cogwheel locomotives and the construction of a steam turbine locomotive with a turbine from Zoelly.


In addition to his work as an engineer, Kjelsberg was also a pioneer of skiing. He climbed the Bachtel on skis in 1891, and the subsequent descent is considered the first documented descent outside of Scandinavia. Kjelsberg discovered that the 3-metre-long skis from Østerdalen that he initially used were unsuitable for the steeper terrain in Switzerland compared to his home country and that shorter telemark skis were more suitable. However, these were still 2.5 meters long. In 1893, a race over the Pragel Pass, in which Olaf Kjelsberg, the Glarus merchant Christoph Iselin, the Glarus-based civil engineer Alexander von Steiger and Eduard Naef-Blumer, Kjelsberg's climbing friend, took part, showed that the skis imported from Norway by the company Blichfeldt & Huitfeldt were far superior to snowshoes on the downhill.



Dr. Eduard Näf-Blumer originally from Meilen, Canton Zurich, was born on 15 September 1866 and died on 29 January 1934 in Schwanden. In 1894 he married Rahel Blumer (1872-1933) from Glarus, daughter of the manufacturer Peter Blumer. Eduard Näf lived and taught in Winterthur as a chemistry professor at the University of Applied Sciences. He was also a member of the Winterthur SAC section, but knew Iselin from Glarus. He published the first edition of the SAC Club Guide series and was therefore made an honorary member.






The author: Menoa Stauffer is an editor for the City section of the Tages-Anzeiger. She studied contemporary history and German literature at the University of Zurich.

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