On a cold crisp morning in January 1928, Sir Arnold Lunn and 16 other members of the British-run Kandahar Ski Club slowly zigzagged their way up the Schilthorn on hickory skis lined with sealskins. They spent the night in a mountain hut before pointing their tips downwards and racing back to the valley town of Lauterbrunnen the next morning.
According to the records, all 17 finished – the winner in a time of one hour and twelve minutes. The Inferno race was born. Those same founding members of the Kandahar Ski Club – including Sir Arnold – had already been campaigning for eight years to get alpine skiing recognized as a FIS discipline. Two years after that inaugural Inferno race, they finally succeeded.The Brits had done it again, adding alpine skiing to a list of sports – including football, tennis and cricket – that would later be practised all over the world. A year later, Murren hosted the first Alpine World Championships.
If you’ve seen the James Bond movie “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, you’ll know all about that. The famous chase from the Schilthorn all the way to the edge of Murren is almost exactly the same course that was raced at the first Championships. Although there was probably a notable lack of bad guys freefalling fatally down to Lauterbrunnen.
Back to the Future
I raced the Inferno almost every year in the 90’s. Every year members of the Kandahar Ski Club line up alongside entrants from 20 other countries, with ages ranging from 18 to 80 years old. Between 8.50am and 3.25pm, a skier leaves the starting gate every 12 seconds. Wooden planks and Harris Tweed have long since been replaced with 220 carbon-kevlar racing skis and skin-tight catsuits, but the same principles remain.
As Andrew Morgan, former President of the Kandahar Ski Club said : “The spirit of the race remains friendly, amateur and sporting, with simply taking part and getting down uninjured still high in the priorities.” This was good to hear, as last week I returned – older, wiser, and with three children at home – to take part in this legendary event once more. I was excited as it was shaping up to be a very special week; only 3 times in the last 30 years have conditions permitted racers to take on the whole course. But in 2013, that is exactly what we would do.
A Few Words on Murren
Arriving in Murren a few days before the race, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there is something truly amazing about this place. Something that makes it so different to the likes of Val d’Isere, The 3 Valleys, St Anton or Verbier. It’s a sense of rawness, encapsulated by views of the most magnificent scenery in the Alps, that does it. The town itself is like a balcony perched on a rock, sleeping quietly in the shadows of The Eiger, The Monch and The Jungfrau.What’s more, it’s car free, friendly, and there’s some great skiing here.
It’s an ideal cocoon for a family or a couple who want to spend some quality time together. As I checked in to the Hotel Jungfrau, which is run by the wonderful Veronique and Alan Ramsay, it struck me how great it was to be back with old Kandahar ski friends all gathered for the big race.
Jungfrau ski map on the train tray tables too!
Arriving in Murren with the fog reminded me of a scene from Sherlock Holmes
The Big Race Begins
As the race loomed nearer, I opted not to do the course inspection on Friday, deciding instead to go to Wengen, which is linked by train, to ski some great powder below the North Face of the Eiger and celebrate a friend’s birthday at the Wengeneralp restaurant. Perhaps not the best preparation, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me – opportunities for memorable powder skiing don’t crop up every day.
Back down to Lauterbrunnen to catch the train up to Wengen
Wengeneralp Hotel and restaurant
Heavenly conditions above the cloudline
The North Face of the Eiger and the fresh snow below it awaits
Still, I made up for it as race day arrived, downing my favourite Swiss breakfast of Bircher Muesli , before donning my race bib and heading to the course. Having not raced for over ten years, the number on that bib was an astronomical 1829.
But my lucky streak wasn’t over just yet, as on arriving at the race I was informed that I would be one of a select few amateurs to be given an early start, setting off before the World Cup racers with the lowest bib numbers.
Gifted an opportunity like that, I was sorely tempted to suit up in the lycra one-piece given to me by racing legend Tommy Moe a few years ago at the City Ski Championships. Wearing a catsuit is worth several minutes over such a long course, particularly down the high-speed straights that punctuate the course. With the temperature sitting at a frosty -20C at 8.30am, I had a change of heart. Even in normal circumstances, walking to the start hut feels a lot like walking to the guillotine. Let alone frozen stiff in a skin-tight catsuit. My normal ski gear would have to do.
The poor time and banter later on that night were necessary evils to avoid death by freezing. At that temperature, with no catsuit or course inspection, getting down to the Lauterbrunnen in one piece was my new objective.I finished the course in 26 minutes with legs burning as intensely as you would expect for a race named The Inferno. World-class race run or not, it was still a huge privilege to ski the course in almost perfect conditions and without huge ruts from hundreds of skiers that would have otherwise gone before me. By the time my friends raced down in their lycra, the course was basked in lovely sunshine, with cowbells and cries of “hup hup” ringing through the air. It was a scene I’ll never forget. And with no cake from Marie Antoinette in sight, I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. To book holidays to Murren, or if you are mad enough to give the Inferno a try, contact email@example.com.
And now for some more photos:
Sun not quite out yet. View from the early morning cable car to the top of the race course
Fellow competitors taking one last look at the course from the cable car
The first part of the course in the freezing shade, visible from the cable car
Some high octane schnapps for the more nervous ones
And the race starts
The Schilthorn, later, in glorious sunshine
No umpah band, no carnival and no hup hup when I arrived in Lauterbrunnen. It was too cold and too early. Just a couple of curious locals looking at my finish time, almost like 1928.
Village of Lauterbrunnen slowly waking up as I make my way back up to Murren
This is not rubbish. Those who ski in their cat suits can have their warm outer layers taken back down to the resort. This is incredibly well organised
My friend Colin Mathews is injured at the cross country race which was held a few days before. Injured at cross country???
Andrew Morgan addressing the K Prize Giving Cerermony with his son Nick , Chairman of the club
No medal for me
The rotating restaurant ( Piz Gloria) and James Bond museum at the Schilthorn
And the Inferno celebrations start with the burning of the devil