[From left]: Bill Tart wearing the Red Birds Ski Club jacket; Sir Arnold Lunn competing; The Quebec Kandahar Cup, c. 1936. CSHFM Collection.

The Quebec Kandahar Cup

The Stories Behind Canada's Greatest Ski Race

Name: Arnold Lunn, Herman ‘Jackrabbit’ Smith-Johanssen, Captain Alan H. d’Egville, Guy Gagnon, George Jost, Patricia Paré, Bill Irwin, Bob Richardson, Scott Henderson, Peter Monod, Peter Duncan, Diane Culver, Betsy Clifford, Geneviève Simard, Mikaela Tommy, Roni Remme ... and many more
Affiliated Discipline(s): Alpine skiing
Hometown: Mont Tremblant, Quebec

The Québec Kandahar Cup has been Canada’s premier alpine ski racing event ever since the world-renowned Kandahar Club in Mürren, Switzerland gifted the silver trophy to the Canadian Amateur Ski Association in 1931. These are the stories that led to its creation and cemented its place in skiing history.

Story by Dave Fonda, for the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame and Museum.

What’s In A Name?

Of all the place-names associated with alpine skiing, perhaps the most puzzling is ‘Kandahar’. What does a city in war-torn Afghanistan have to do with alpine skiing? As it turns out, plenty. On January 11, 1911, a gritty group of British skiers staged the world’s first downhill race in Montana-sur-Sierre, Switzerland. They had two objectives: 1. Entertain the curious onlookers who’d gathered to witness this daring, new sport. 2. Determine who the fastest man on the ski hill was that historic day.

To bestow the occasion with the dignity and decorum it deserved, the organizers approached British Field Marshal Baron Roberts of Kandahar. The famous British adventurer and Second Afghan War hero had earned his title after liberating Kandahar from Ayub Khan’s Afghan army in 1880. Ever the good sport, the Baron lent his distinguished name to the splendid trophy that went to the winning racer. Christened the Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup, he thus ensured that the name ‘Kandahar’ would be forever linked to alpine ski racing. 

A 1906 painting of British Field Marshal Baron Roberts.

Sir Arnold Lunn. CSHFM Collection.

Introducing The Slalom Race

Arnold Lunn was the son of a very successful British travel agent who specialized in promoting Swiss alpine holidays. But unlike his father, Henry, Arnold was a passionate alpine skier. So much so, that he invented an entirely new ski event: the slalom. Instead of speeding straight down the hill, slalom racers had to turn, turn, turn through a series of spaced poles or ‘gates’. To Sir Arnold’s trained eye, few things were as elegant as a skier leaving graceful arcs in the snow.

In 1927, while visiting his dear friend, the Austrian ski legend Hannes Schneider, the two organized the first slalom race ever. The contestants were all local schoolboys. The prize was a trifling cup that Arnold had donated. The race was so successful that Schneider suggested they hold a combined slalom and downhill event for adults the following year. Arnold then approached his old friend Sir Robert of Kandahar and asked him to once again lend his good name to the cause. The Baron honoured them with the Arlberg-Kandahar Cup.

The First Arlberg-Kandahar Race

The first Arlberg-Kandahar race was held in St. Anton, Austria in 1928. A short time later, a second race was staged in Mürren, Switzerland. To win, racers had to complete one downhill and two slalom runs. The racer with the best ‘combined’ time after the three runs won.

The ‘Kandahar’ or ‘combined’ was so popular with racers and spectators alike that it quickly became the most prestigious alpine skiing event on earth. In 1936, it made its Olympic debut at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Games thereby introducing alpine ski racing to the world. Kandahar races subsequently become star attractions in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the U.S., and Scotland.

) Quebec Kandahar Mont Tremblant 2nd place trophy won by Louis Cochand in 1936

The Quebec Kandahar second-place trophy won by Louis Cochand in 1936. CSMHF Collection.

The Birth Of The Quebec Kandahar Cup

Meanwhile, in 1929 Captain Alan H. d’Egville, co-founder and vice president of the Kandahar Club, was named secretary of the magnificent Seigniory Club in Montebello, Québec. Ever eager to promote skiing throughout the Empire, the Captain asked the K Club to “donate a trophy to the Canadian Amateur Ski Association (CASA) for the annual running of a combined downhill-slalom meet.” Two years later, the club met his request, but with one proviso: the cup could only be awarded to a true Kandahar i.e. ‘combined’ champion. In 1931 Canada, this was no small ask.

CASA subsequently turned to Herman ‘Jackrabbit’ Smith-Johanssen who said that the recently formed Red Birds Ski Club (RBSC) were the only CASA ski club interested in staging such an event. Naturally, d’Egville wanted Montebello to host the race. Unfortunately, it lacked anything resembling a proper hill. Jackrabbit and the Red Birds insisted on Mont Tremblant, which had the vertical but neither the roads nor the railroad tracks to access it. Fortunately for everyone, Jackrabbit would get his way.

“It was a splendid test in typical Canadian country.” – Herman ‘Jackrabbit’ Smith-Johanssen

Opening The Kandahar Trail

A firm believer in Tremblant’s potential for downhill skiing, Jackrabbit introduced Red Birds Neil Stewart, Stirling Maxwell and Harry Pangman to the mountain in 1930. Leading the way down, Jackrabbit checked his speed by pole riding and grabbing branches and small trees. The RBs followed, sliding, crashing and rolling before declaring it their most exciting descent. Ever.

The RBSC first raced there in 1931, when Jackrabbit led five members of the club up to the summit. Twenty minutes after Johannsen disappeared “down into the tangled woods… they launched themselves off, each finding his own route down the mountainside. It was, in every sense, early Canadian bushwhack racing at its finest.

To ready the ‘trail’ for the first Quebec Kandahar Cup, the Red Birds brought shovels, axes and picks. Said fellow Red Bird, Guy Gagnon, “calling the terrain over which the race was held a ski trail was a misnomer. The first part had a slope of some thirty degrees covered with spruce and balsam trees, rocks and windfalls.”

Herman ‘Jackrabbit’ Smith-Johanssen. CSHFM Collection.
The complete McGill Ski Team c.1931-32
The McGill ski team, including graduate competitors and team managers, 1931-32. [L to R]: Jack Houghton, Frank Campbell, George Jost, Fred Taylor, Alex Kieller (President of the Ski Club of Great Britain), Stirling Maxwell, Harry Pangman, Bill Ball, Walter Dorken, Peter Renold.

The First Québec Kandahar Race

On March 13, 1932, 21 skiers from the Red Birds, Marabous, McGill Winter Outing, Montreal and Toronto ski clubs gathered at the top of Mont Tremblant’s freshly ‘cleared’ Kandahar trail. They had arrived at Lac Mercier train station and skied to the Manoir Pinoteau the night before. On race day, they first had to trek to the mountain that trembles. They then sidestepped over three kilometres up to starting gate so as to study the course and pack it for their daring downhill descents. 

Once the race started, the course quickly became littered with broken branches, bruised and battered bodies, and “lost or shattered pieces of equipment.” That no one so much as broke a leg that day is a testament to the merits of youth, natural snow, slow skis and superior physical conditioning. The slalom, mercifully, was held on another nearby hill. The winner after three runs, as per strict Kandahar rules, was McGill Red Bird George Jost.

The Early Years

By the mid-1930s, word had spread throughout the skiing world that the Quebec Kandahar was the real deal. In 1937, Switzerland’s Arnold Kaech became the first of many Europeans to cross the pond and take the coveted cup. Two years later, race organizers broke with tradition and invited women to participate. That year, Pat (i.e. Patricia) Paré soundly beat fifteen of the men racers.

The early years also saw Mont Tremblant fall into the capable and moneyed hands of Joe Ryan. Under his vision and guidance, the Kandahar trail was properly cut and cleared. Once finished, it boasted a vertical drop of 670 metres, a length of 3.3 kilometres and a minimum width of 7.62 metres.  

Jackrabbit and members of the Red Birds Ski Club-1930
Jackrabbit and members of the Red Birds Ski Club-1930. CSHFM Collection.

Henri Oreiller, of France, on the cover of LIFE Magazine. Oreiller competed in the Quebec Kandahar Cup.

The Golden Years

Following World War II, the Quebec Kandahar Cup became one of seven ‘Classic Kandahars’ alongside Wengen and Mürren, Switzerland, St. Anton, Austria, Chamonix, France, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany and Sestriere, Italy. 1948 saw Mont Tremblant host the first official women’s Quebec Kandahar race. That year, a young, local girl named Lucile Wheeler (her parents owned the nearby Gray Rocks Inn), placed second after Lucienne Couttet-Schmidt, the reigning French women’s ski champion. 

The QK also began drawing sponsors. In 1949, Molson’s Brewery covered the French National Ski Team’s expenses when they came here to compete. Up until the early Eighties, many of the greatest names in ski racing braved Tremblant’s bitter cold to race in the Quebec Kandahar Cup. There were Henri Oreiller, Emile Alais, Guy Perillat and Leo Lacroix from France; Tom Corcoran, Les Streeter, Marvin Moriarty and Tiger Shaw from the U.S.; and Bill Irwin, Bob Richardson, Scott Henderson and Peter Monod from Canada. And that’s just on the men’s side.

Finally, The Women Earn Their Own Cup

Although women were first invited to compete in the Quebec Kandahar in 1939, there wasn’t an official women’s race until 1948. More shocking still, women weren’t awarded their own cup until 1963. Named after the son of Mont Tremblant founder Joe Bondurant Ryan, the first Peter Ryan Cup was won by Canada’s incomparable Nancy Greene. The Rossland, B.C. ‘Tiger’ would go on to take it again in 1964 and then in 1967. Nancy still holds the record for the most Ryan (i.e. Quebec Kandahar) Cup wins.

Other Canadian, Ryan Cup winners include Diane Culver, Betsy Clifford, Geneviève Simard, Mikaela Tommy and Roni Remmie. One can only wonder how well early QK participants such as the Wurtele twins, Rhona and Rhoda, or Anne Heggtveit would have fared had they been competing against other women for the Ryan Cup instead of an open field for the Quebec Kandahar.

Nancy Greene, seen here at the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France, won the Quebec Kandahar Cup three times prior to 1968. CSHFM Collection.

The Quebec Kandahar Cup’s Impact On Skiing

The list of Quebec Kandahar Cup winners is a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ in the Canadian ski industry. See HERE for a complete listing.

Following in his father’s ski tracks, 1938 winner, Louis Cochand helped pioneer skiing, ski instruction and winter tourism in Québec. In the 1950s, Vallée Cochand was the place to ski in the booming Laurentians. The 1947-cup winner and future Olympian, Bill Irwin was one of seven Irwins on the Canadian National Ski Team and the father of Crazy Canucks, Dave and Danny. Bill also owned and operated Thunder Bay’s Loch Lomond ski area. The 1953-winner, Bob Richardson was the first man to ski what is now called Whistler-Blackcomb. His descent showed then B.C. Premier Bennett that the area had potential.

Other Quebec Kandahar Cup winners, including Ottawa’s Art Tommy of Tommy Sports, the American Les Streeter of Streeter and Quarles, and Banff’s Peter Monod of Monod Sports, established some of the country’s best known and most beloved ski shops. 

By sharing their love and expertise, they and their Quebec Kandahar brethren helped elevate skiing’s status as Canada’s ‘other’ winter sport.

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