Mürren’s Inferno: A Devil´s Ride of a Ski Race in a Heavenly Alpine Village

Marie Schulte Bockum was invited to take part in the world famous Inferno race in January 2018 on behalf of Racer Ready. The race is one of the ‘Classic’ races that members of the public can take part in. The event is so popular that there are waiting lists to take part. Details for entries for the 2019 race can be found at the end of the article. Marie gives you a taste of the history, the race and a personal insight into what it is like to race this amazing event!

My favourite childhood Christmas gifts was a delicate, round snow globe. Clutch it with your fingers and shake it, and large snowflakes fall softly over an Alpine village of charming wooden chalets.

Arriving in the Swiss mountain village of Mürren is like stepping into that scenic snow globe. I reached Mürren through a whirlwind travel route that included plane, train, ski lift and snow shoes. The village is 5,374 ft above sea level and cushioned among some of the Swiss Alps’ finest ski slopes.

Skiers walking through the carless village of Mürren.

Skier on the Schilthorn.

The first thing your senses pick up when you step foot in Mürren is the serene quietness due to a complete absence of cars in the village. Instead, my focus was drawn to the soft downfall of snow and the twinkling lights coming from the many wooden chalets.

Omnipresent is a large, black and red logo of a mischievous devil figure towering over red and yellow flames: the logo of the “Inferno.” For Mürren is not just a family-friendly ski resort, but also, and most  famously, the home of the most exciting amateur ski race in the world.

The oldest and longest downhill ski race in the world
In the cold winter of 1928, the tiny Swiss community of Mürren turned into a hotbed of excited gossip. Decades before the first cable car was built (for a James Bond film, no less), a group of crazed Brits on skis had arrived in the village with an impossible mission: to ski-hike all the way to the top of the towering Schilthorn mountain (9,744 ft) and ski all the way down to Lauterbrunnen which sits in the valley below Mürren at an elevation of 2,631 ft.

“The original 17 Inferno racers” Source: Wikipedia

It took the 17 Brits of the Kandahar ski club most of the day to ascend the steep mountain by foot with all their equipment. The group was led by Sir Arnold Lunn, founder of the ski club, and included four women.

The very first Inferno race of 1928 was won by an Englishman sporting a tweed suit and long, wooden hickory skis. He completed the 15 Kilometer long descent (unprepared terrain, of course) in a time of 1 hour and 12 minutes. 90 years and 75 Inferno races later, the record time is 13 minutes and 20 seconds, skied by Swiss racer Kuno Michel in 2013. The original course was nearer 14 km long as the racers took a more direct line through the woods.

Much has changed in Mürren since the Kandahar pioneers founded the longest amateur ski race in the world, but the spirit of the Inferno has remained intact. The atmosphere of the race days is so special, that in mid September when applications close, they pick 1850 names out of the 2500 or more who have applied by then. Those that have had a good result in the past three years take precedence. To take part you need to apply as soon as possible as the deadline to apply closes in September.

Inferno racers´skis lean against the spectacular Alpine panorama

The “Devil’s Parade” marks the start of the Inferno Race Weekend
A highlight of the three-day Inferno event is the annual Devil´s Parade where thousands of locals carrying torches march in costumes through the village. They are led by a full brass band and many spectators follow in tow towards the Sports Center where they crowd around the illuminated ice rink.

Towering over the spectators is a giant straw devil. After an elaborate music and light show and some speeches, the lighting of the devil is not the official beginning of the Inferno as the Cross Country and Giant Slalom races have already taken place on previous days. There is a story that says that the burning of the devil rids the mountain of its demons.

1860 participants compete in the Inferno each year, and loyalty to the town and the Inferno is strong: Franz Sonderegger, a local Swiss skier in his eighties, has skied the race 54 times.  The record for the oldest racer is with Peter Lunn, son of Sir Arnold Lunn, who skied the Inferno at the ripe age of 90.

Left: View of the parade from the Hotel Eiger. Middle: Inferno Devil. Right: Brass Orchestra

The 75th Anniversary Edition of the Inferno: My Ski Race Debut!
When I found out that I would be covering the Inferno for “Racer Ready,” I pictured myself with notepad, smartphone and sunglasses at the finish line in Lauterbrunnen´s valley. But to get the real scoop, the inside view of the legendary Inferno race, my editor Neil McQuoid entered me for the race.
Due to heavy snowfall and stormy winds the 15 kilometer long Inferno race track had to be cut to a much smaller section than usual: the wooden starting gate was fixed at the night before the race at the Almendhubel hill at a height of 6282 feet and the finish line at the nursery slope in Mürren. The full route is top to Lauterbrunnen but it is a rare winter when this is possible. It was not possible to go down this year as there was too much snow at the top and not enough at the bottom!

At around nine in the morning on Saturday, 19th January I stood in the purpose-built wooden hut of the team race´s start line and shivered with anxious expectation. Clad in black snow pants and a big, puffy green jacket, I earned some bemused and sympathetic looks from the other racers who mostly sported skintight and stylish Lycra cat suits.


Left: Racer Ready reporter Marie before the race. Right: Skiers at the start of the Arnold Lunn race

At that moment, as the queue of racers was shrinking before me as racers left the start every ten seconds. With a never-ending chorus of “Go, go, go” echoing through the wooden hut, I thought enviously of Pippa Middleton who skied the Inferno in 2016. How effortless, elegant and confident she had looked!

In a last-ditch effort to calm my nerves, my shaking arms reached up to a leather satchel hanging from the ceiling: the infamous Schnapps concoction offered to all racers before their descent: liquid courage! In the next moment, I came face to face with a kind-faced race official who gave me a nudge on the back, and off I went.

As adrenaline pumped through my veins, the sensation I felt was one of a rollercoaster, except I was in the driving seat. “Don’t fall, keep going, don’t fall!” kept running through my head. The first section of the race proved quite a technical challenge: a steep descent ending in a sharp curve. As I had gathered speed quickly, my body leaned as far as possible inwards to master the angle of the track and stay within the lines.

What came next was very unusual for a downhill ski race: I faced a 50 Meter ascent. A dozen or so skiers were arduously climbing ahead of me, and behind the fence on both sides of the track were spectators clapping them on: “Allez, allez!,” “You got this!”, “Auf geht’s!” were some of the motivational words from kind strangers that pushed me onwards and up the mountain.

When the race track flattened again, I had overtaken two skiers and gained some confidence. The wind rushed against my cheeks and in many quick turns, I made my way down the rest of the course as fast as I could.

As I snaked my way out of one last slalom-esque section, a spectacular vista opened up in front of me: in the distance the wooden chalets of Lauterbrunn valley, closer up the infinite colours and sounds of the race’s finish line.

Racer Ready reporter Marie at the finish line

It was like someone had turned the speakers from mute to full blast, I could hear the commentator excitedly call name after name as people crossed the finish line. Ahead of me was a small jump ramp. I gathered my last bit of grit and sped up in “Schuss” mode towards the ramp. My stomach lurched as I was catapulted two meters into the air and landed 5 meters closer to the finish. One last corner, and there it was! The commentator shouted “Marie Schulte-Bockum 4 minutes 59 seconds!” and my face relaxed into a happy smile.

That evening, as I walked the lively streets of beautiful Mürren and looked into other happy faces at the Hotel Eiger´s Tachi Bar, I realized that I too had been infected with the Inferno bug. A crazy thought crossed my high-spirited mind: If I, a 24-year old amateur ski enthusiast, start my racing series this year, perhaps one day I`ll overtake 84-year old Franz Sonderegger´s record of 54 Inferno starts 🙂

Many thanks to Jane Parritt at Media Contacts for organising the trip for Marie.

 

MÜRREN / INFERNO – FACT BOX

The Inferno races will be held January 23-26 2019 (Giant Slalom, Cross Country, Downhill).  Apply to enter (closing date is September 15 2018) at: www.inferno-muerren.ch.  Prices for 2019 are as follows:

  • Inferno Downhill CHF 70 per person
  • Inferno combination – Cross country, GS and downhill CHF 100 per person

The Inferno Downhill is strictly limited to a maximum of 1850 skiers.  Entries (around 3000 pa) enter a ballot with priority given to racers with a recorded time from the previous year (those within 60% of their category’s winner); members of the Kandahar Ski Racing Club (www.kandahar.org), based in Murren, may also apply through the club.  Details are:

  • Wed Jan 23      : Inferno cross country – starts and ends in the village
  • Thurs Jan 24    : Giant Slalom (location will depend on snow conditions)
  • Fri Jan 25          : Sir Arnold Lunn Cup Team Race (a section of the Inferno Downhill course)

: Inferno procession, ritual burning of the Devil, and Devil dance

  • Sat Jan 26         : Inferno Downhill Ski Race (Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen, snow permitting)

: Inferno presentation and after party

 

To book accommodation visit Mürren Tourism website: www.muerren.swiss where there is a wide choice across all budgets from self-catering apartments to the four-star Hotel Eiger.

To plan your journey from the UK to Mürren (flights/rail transfers), consult: www.myswitzerland.com or call Switzerland Travel Centre Freephone 00800 100 200 30.

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